A 15-year-old Montgomery County Public Schools student is the latest young person to die of an overdose, county officials said this week, prompting warnings to students and families about the dangers of opioid use, particularly fentanyl.
In 2021, there were 27 reported youth overdoses; five were fatal.
The overdose numbers among young people are similar to those in other local jurisdictions, including Prince George’s and Prince William counties, where police and school officials have also warned about the use of illicit drugs by this age group. Prince George’s County Public Schools started a countywide education campaign earlier this school year, after three students died of suspected overdoses.
“Every time a parent in our community loses a child, I feel it twice — once as superintendent, and second as a parent,” Monifa B. McKnight, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, said during a news conference Thursday.
Officials from Montgomery County’s police department, school district, county council and state’s attorney’s office announced the rollout of a campaign to teach students and parents the pitfalls of using illegal drugs and how to find help for young people battling addiction.
McKnight advised community members to create safe environments for young people to share what pressures they may be experiencing and why they may be seeking out substances. “We actually have to solve the problem all the way back there,” she said.
Getting that help for troubled youths is critical, said parent Elena Suarez, who shared her daughter Collette Russ’s story. Russ — who graduated from Montgomery’s Winston Churchill High School in 2019 — died of an accidental overdose when she was 19, Suarez said.
Russ was introduced to illegal drugs during a vulnerable time after experiencing sexual trauma during a spring break trip, Suarez said.
Less than two years later, on Aug. 26, 2020, Russ died after ingesting a fentanyl-laced substance.
“She was very funny; she was hysterical,” Suarez said. “I miss her laughter, her silliness, our dancing together.”
There’s a horrible stigma attached to addiction and substance users, she said. “What we need is more compassion and compassionate care and to get help for our loved ones.”
Within the county, typically, young people have mistakenly ingested fentanyl by taking counterfeit pills they believed to be Xanax, Percocet or another drug, Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones said. But a more recent trend suggests youths are intentionally buying and using straight fentanyl.
A majority of the overdose incidents that police have responded to have been at residences, Jones said, but there have been some at schools. The school system’s community engagement officers will conduct more checks in schools to prevent these incidents from occurring, Jones said. The police department is also joining with school staff in presentations to each school principal on fentanyl and opioid overdoses.
Patricia Kapunan, MCPS’s medical officer, said parents should learn how to recognize signs of substance abuse, trauma and mental health problems. All residents, she said, should learn about naloxone — a lifesaving overdose antidote — and how to administer it.
Montgomery County’s state’s attorney, John McCarthy (D), encouraged youths to call 911 if someone is overdosing, even if there are drugs in the room. He pledged to follow the good Samaritan law, which protects people assisting in an emergency overdose situation from arrest and prosecution.
“Make the call; save your friend,” he said.