In the public schools of Akron, Ohio, there are defibrillators for heart attacks, fire extinguishers for flames and Ibuprofen bottles in the nurses’ offices for aches and pains.
And now, in a grim and eye-opening turn, the city’s six high schools and nine middle schools will carry the medication naloxone for opioid overdoses.
This week, the Akron Board of Education voted 5-1 to equip all the Akron school district’s resource officers with the medication, known by the brand name Narcan, as the Akron Beacon Journal reported.
The city of 200,000 in northeast Ohio, an area devastated by the opioid epidemic, joins a growing list of municipalities around the country that have decided to keep Narcan supplies in public schools. In a yet another sign of just how widespread opioid abuse has become, some 40,000 doses of the antidote will also soon be available to U.S. colleges under a plan by the Clinton Foundation and Adapt Pharma, as The Washington Post has reported.
More than 4,000 Ohio residents died of drug overdoses last year, a record-breaking 36 percent increase from the previous year, according to figures compiled by the Columbus Dispatch. In 2015, 3,050 people died of drug overdoses.
Starting in September, resource officers in Akron’s middle and high schools will carry two doses of Narcan in the form of nasal spray, according to the Beacon Journal. The officers have been trained to administer the treatment and will check the medication in and out when they start and end their shifts. Narcan revives overdose victims by blocking the effects of opioids.
Members of the Akron Board of Education said the measure was not passed in response to any fatal overdose in the school system but as a precaution.
“I just hope that, if it’s necessary, it’ll be available to save somebody,” board member John Otterman told the Beacon Journal.
The lone dissenting vote came from board member Debbie Walsh, who said she believed equipping schools with Narcan would end up encouraging heroin abuse.
“I think there’s often too much of an attitude of, ‘As long as there’s Narcan, we’re safe,'” Walsh told the Beacon Journal this week. “That’s just a message that I don’t want out there.”
Following her vote, Walsh, a Republican, said she was expecting backlash. But she told NBC News on Wednesday she has spoken with people who agree with her position.
“They too are worried that having it on hand might be creating an even bigger problem by sending the message to kids, ‘Don’t worry, take drugs. We’ve got Narcan to save you,'” she said.
“I am for protecting our students, and I agree that Narcan is a lifesaver,” Walsh added. “But I think it can also become a crutch and stop some people from taking personal responsibility.”
Naloxone was approved as an overdose treatment by the Food and Drug Administration in 1971 and has been widely used by emergency workers over the years.
There is virtually no evidence suggesting that having the antidote on hand facilitates drug abuse, but Walsh’s view — essentially that naloxone can become an enabler for addicts — is shared by some Ohio officials.
In June, a city council member in Middletown, Ohio, floated a plan to deny emergency medical services to people who repeatedly overdose. Council member Dan Picard said it costs Middletown more than $1,100 to dispatch paramedics to administer a dose of Narcan to an overdose victim. He told the Journal-News last month that the high volumes of overdose calls threatened to sap resources in the city, which is reportedly on track to spend $100,000 on Narcan this year after budgeting just $10,000.
“I want to send a message to the world that you don’t want to come to Middletown to overdose because someone might not come with Narcan to save your life,” Picard said. “We need to put a fear about overdosing in Middletown.”
In nearby Butler County, Ohio, Sheriff Richard K. Jones said his deputies will never carry Narcan. He told The Post last week it was not his department’s responsibility to administer the treatment. “I’m not the one that decides if people live or die. They decide that when they stick that needle in their arm,” he said.
Jones also claimed that addicts become combative when Narcan puts them into withdrawal, endangering his deputies. The assertion has been disputed by others in medicine and law enforcement, including a Cincinnati police union president, who told the Cincinnati Enquirer that officers seldom get injured while administering Narcan.
By and large, law enforcement agencies have embraced Narcan as a lifesaving tool in areas ravaged by opioid addiction, and medical professionals generally dispute the notion that its increased availability enables drug abuse or makes addicts more likely to harm themselves.
A 2010 report in the National Center for Biotechnology Information found no evidence to support such claims, and cited some studies that showed having Narcan on hand may actually help reduce drug use. One addiction specialist at Boston Medical Center told the New York Times last year that arguing Narcan promotes riskier drug use was like saying seat belts cause more dangerous driving.
Matthew Davis, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told NBC News on Wednesday that he supported the Akron school board’s decision to stock Narcan. He said it was no different than having a defibrillator on the gym wall.
“We would not expect teens to abuse opioids because naloxone is available in their schools,” Davis said. “Making naloxone available in junior high and high schools is smart public health policy, given what is known about teens’ misuse of prescription opioid medicines and teens’ use of heroin in the U.S. today.”
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