Washington teens advocate for Narcan in every school

The life-saving opioid reversal medication is currently available only at high schools in districts with 2,000 or more students.

Left: Lake Washington High School senior Sophia Lymberis, Right: Narcan

Left: Lake Washington High School senior Sophia Lymberis stands on the steps of the Capitol in Olympia during a recent visit to testify on behalf of Senate Bill 5804, a bill that she and her classmates helped develop that would put opioid overdose medications in every school. (Courtesy of Sophia Lymberis) Right: The overdose-reversal drug Narcan. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A group of Lake Washington High School seniors say it’s time to put opioid overdose medications like Narcan in every school to protect students amid the growing opioid epidemic.

Their efforts began in September 2023, when their AP government class was tasked with creating a bill. The Capitol Classroom project, designed to give students a hands-on experience with Washington’s legislative process, has brought many new ideas to Olympia, including last year’s effort to eliminate the “pink tax.”

What started as a class assignment became much more.

“One of the first meetings we had as a group, we sat down and we were like, ‘We’re taking this to the governor’s desk and we’re gonna get this signed,’” student Sophia Lymberis said. “That was our goal from the beginning.”

Senate Bill 5804 would put the life-saving opioid reversal medication naloxone in all Washington K-12 public schools, charter schools, and state-tribal education compact schools. The medication is currently available only in high schools in districts with 2,000 or more students. The bill passed the Senate on a unanimous vote on Thursday.

The legislation is timely as Washington experiences a public health crisis, with a startling rise in opioid overdoses largely driven by fentanyl, a drug 100 times more potent than morphine. From 2019 to 2021, the annual number of opioid drug overdoses in Washington doubled, according to the Washington State Department of Health. Fentanyl was involved in 70% of all confirmed overdose deaths in 2022, an increase from less than 10% prior to 2018. 

“I think as we’ve been researching we’ve kind of come to the conclusion that it’s not if an opioid overdose happens, but when, which is an unfortunate reality that we live in,” Lymberis said.

The students, who shared an interest in Narcan, said they noticed a gap in current law that puts the life-saving medication in only some schools. Although Lake Washington HS, in a district with more than 2,000 students, already has the medication stocked in three locations, it didn’t sit right with them that not all schools do.

“We felt that it was a bit unfair that only certain schools had Narcan while every school can be affected by the opioid epidemic,” group member Olivia Milstein said. 

A group of Lake Washington High School seniors recently testified before the Washington state legislature on behalf of a bill they originated that would put opioid overdose medications, like Narcan, in every school. The group also met with bill sponsor Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue. (Courtesy of Sen. Patty Kuderer’s office)

Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, is an FDA-approved opioid reversal medication that blocks opioids’ effect on the brain. The drug works in minutes and has an efficacy rate of 75%-100%. Narcan is also harmless if administered to someone who is not overdosing on opioids.

“To us, these opioid overdose reversal drugs are just as essential … as having defibrillators or having a requirement that school staff have current first aid and CPR training,” said Scott Waller, who testified on behalf of the Washington Association for Substance Misuse and Violence Prevention at the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee on Jan. 11.

One student, Theodore Meek, said in his testimony at the Jan. 11 hearing that 188 out of 295 Washington school districts have fewer than 2,000 students. This means the legislation would make Narcan available to an additional 35,000 high school students.

Sophia Lymberis testifies before the Legislature on behalf of SB 5804.

Although the original bill expanded Narcan only to high schools in districts, it was amended to include all K-12 public schools. If passed, the legislation would make Narcan available to more than a million public school students and 5,000 charter school students, as well as students in seven state-tribal education compact schools.

Some have questioned why Narcan would be needed in elementary and middle schools, but prime sponsor Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said all schools should have Narcan in the event of an accidental overdose and to protect staff and visitors of these buildings.

In recent years, instances of accidental fentanyl exposure in young kids have become increasingly common as the drug has become more prevalent. In 2021, fentanyl was responsible for 93 deaths nationally in children aged 1 to 4, and 40 infant deaths.

“The point is to have this life-saving medicine on hand in the event somebody has an overdose, rather than not having it on hand and somebody loses their life,” Kuderer said.

She said the students’ presentation, which occurred in late November, compelled her to move forward with the idea, as did the group’s deep research. 

“They covered all the bases that I as a legislator would look at,” said Kuderer, whose legislative district includes Kirkland, where Lake Washington HS is located. “In fact, I said to them at one point ‘Would you say that again? You're giving me points for my floor speech.’”

The proposal’s low cost struck Sen. Kuderer, especially since this year’s legislative session is a short one, meaning the Legislature will not be able to adopt major budget adjustments.

According to Kuderer, a pack containing two doses of Narcan would cost school districts only $50 annually – low enough that it won’t affect schools’ annual budget. However, the bill notes that if a school engages in a good-faith effort to obtain the medication by donation but cannot, it is exempt from the requirement.

Kuderer said she has heard massive support for this bill in her conversations with parents who have expressed concern about the opioid epidemic.

“We all wish that we weren’t in this situation where we have to use something like Narcan … no parent wants to think about their kid using drugs,” Kuderer said. “What I’m hearing from parents is that they’re grateful that this bill is there, and they look at it as a potential life-saving measure.”

No one testified against the proposal during the Jan. 11 hearing. Critics of expanding access to Narcan worry that making the drug more widely accessible will promote drug use. However, research has debunked that criticism. One study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy that drew on data from 44 states found no correlation between naloxone access and increased heroin use among adolescents.

Although proponents say the bill is necessary to prevent opioid overdose deaths, Kuderer says Washington still needs to engage with the root causes of drug use and prevent opioid overdoses from occurring in the first place. She hopes that expanding Narcan access in schools will serve as a conversation-starter around the dangers of opioids.

As the opioid epidemic grows, more and more states are putting Narcan in schools. As of 2022, according to the Legislative Analysis and Public Policy Association, 10 states require school districts to have a policy for Narcan use, while 20 states allow but don’t require schools to have Narcan on hand,. If passed, Senate Bill 5804 would address this growing demand for Narcan in schools by scaling up Washington’s existing legislation.

Senate Bill 5804 is moving on to the House for consideration.

“We’re doing this for the families and the people who have suffered and who have thought ‘What if my school had just had Narcan?’,” Lymberis said. 

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Scarlet Hansen

Scarlet Hansen is a student journalist at the University of Washington and Crosscut's 2024 legislative intern.