A Scottsdale teenager’s near-overdose death from a counterfeit pill laced with a powerful narcotic is the latest manifestation of a drug problem in local schools that apparently is increasing because of widespread vaping among teens.
The teen’s overdose Feb. 6 involved a pill laced with fentanyl – a drug linked to a surge in overdose deaths nationwide in recent years – and led to the arrest of a 16-year-old Notre Dame student.
Though the Feb. 6 overdose and subsequent arrest involved students outside the district, Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent John Kriekard also addressed the issue during his governing board Feb. 12.
“Opioids are major problem in our society and right here in Scottsdale, I am sorry to say,” Kriekard said. “Parents of middle school and high school students, I strongly encourage you to speak again to your children about the dangers of taking illegal drugs and prescription drugs not prescribed for them.”
Several Scottdale area high schools, including those in SUSD, have seen drug violations on campus rise in recent years, according to data reviewed by The Progress.
Scottsdale Police spokesman Officer Kevin Watts said the spike in violations is related to the increasing use of e-cigarettes to vape nicotine and other substances, most commonly THC – the active ingredient in marijuana.
“Most of these violations are initiated by school staff and then turned over to our” school resource officers, Watts said.
“Unfortunately, we will most likely see this activity continuing due to the availability of the electronic cigarettes. Our officers and school partners will continue to provide education on the dangers (of) vaping as well as continue to take enforcement action when applicable,” Watts added.
On Feb. 6, police found a 17-year-old boy at a Scottsdale home showing signs of opioid overdose. Police later confirmed the teen took a pill that was part of a cache of counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl.
The teen survived after being administered the drug naloxone by officers and members of Scottsdale Fire Department before being transferred to an area hospital.
According to Scottsdale PD, the teen is a student at Notre Dame Prep, a private high school in northern Scottsdale, and got the pill from a classmate.
On Feb. 7, Scottsdale Police contacted the suspected 16-year-old supplier, and school officials found seven pills and additional drug paraphernalia in his car.
The student was arrested for possession of narcotic drugs. After obtaining a search warrant, police searched his home and found two more pills. The teen’s identity was withheld because of his age.
Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than heroin and has caused thousands of deaths in recent years.
The Centers for Disease Control reported that more than 70,200 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses in 2017 and a third of them involved fentanyl.
“We would like to take the opportunity to remind families to discuss with their kids the dangers of taking illegal drugs as well as prescription medications not prescribed to them,” Scottsdale Police said in a release last week. “This incident could have been much more tragic and taken the life of a young man far too soon.”
Fentanyl has become increasingly prevalent in the U.S. over the last two years, especially in Arizona.
“The overwhelming majority of fentanyl exhibits analyzed in the United States have been fentanyl in powder form, but fentanyl in counterfeit pill form still represents a significant public health risk and law enforcement challenge in the near term,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
In 2017, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized 172 pounds of fentanyl and 54,984 pills. Those numbers jumped to 445 pounds and 379,557 pills, according to information provided by the DEA Phoenix Division.
So far this year, the DEA has seized 33 pounds of fentanyl and 123,530 counterfeit pills.
“The Mexican cartels have begun to import the precursor chemicals required to mass produce fentanyl. Along with this, they have acquired the equipment to manufacture the pills which look like legitimate pharmaceutical drugs,” DEA spokesperson Erica Curry said.
Curry said the most common fentanyl pills encountered by the DEA in Arizona resemble oxycodone, but the DEA and law enforcement partners have also seized counterfeit Percocet and Xanax containing fentanyl.
Curry said the DEA works closely with Scottsdale PD as part of a task force.
The issue appears to cut across geographic and socio-economic lines as Desert Mountain High School, Coronado High School and Bella Vista Prep have all seen a significant rise in violations over the past two years.
Notre Dame Prep had no drug violations reported on campus in recent years until the arrest of the student on Feb. 7.
Desert Mountain, an SUSD school in northern Scottsdale, had 16 drug-related violations on campus in 2018, up from five violations in 2017, according to crime statistics available through a public database.
Bella Vista Prep, a private school in northern Scottsdale, also had five drug-related violations on campus in 2017. The number of violations was 17 in 2018, according to the database.
The issue is not just a northern Scottsdale problem.
Coronado High School, located in southern Scottsdale, saw its drug-related violations rise from eight in 2017 to 17 in 2018.
That upward trajectory has continued into 2019.
Desert Mountain has already had five drug violations on campus through Feb. 12 of this year, up from two violations during the same timeframe in 2018.
Bella Vista has had six violations this year versus three during the same time last year.
Coronado has had a staggering nine violations this year versus two during the same time period last year.
It is unclear how many of those violations, if any, were related to opioid or fentanyl use. The community crime database only includes that drug or drug paraphernalia were involved.
Copies of the police reports on those incidents were not readily available.
At the recent SUSD board meeting, the superintendent implored parents to make sure their children know what to do if someone attempts to give or sell them illicit drugs.
“We are grateful to our police partners and the community organizations we work with to increase awareness about substance abuse,” Kriekard said. “Our support services office is available too to help with additional resources, counseling and support for students and families for whatever they need.”