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One overdose turned Durango teens into activists

Durango High School and Animas High School Students rally before the 9-R School Board meeting on February 28, 2023.
Clark Adomaitis
Durango High School and Animas High School Students rally before the 9-R School Board meeting on February 28, 2023.

This story is part of a series, Narcan and Durango schools, produced by KSUT and KSJD.

Editor’s Note: This story is an account of an opioid overdose involving two high school students. We’re withholding their names to respect their privacy.

When students demonstrated at a Durango 9R school board meeting on January 24, the burst of activism surprised some community members. Why were high school students suddenly concerned about the risks of opioids? Why were they pushing for permission to carry Narcan in school?

Colorado’s statistics on opioid-related overdose deaths didn’t provide any answers. Overdose deaths in La Plata County are rare; among teens, overdose deaths appeared to be non-existent, at least when reviewing statewide data. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, La Plata County didn’t have a single opioid overdose death of a teen in 2020 and 2021.

Chalk it up to the inaccuracy of statistical record-keeping. In Colorado’s age-bracketed data that tracks opioid-related deaths for every county, a “zero” actually means “less than 3.” One or two deaths in any age bracket count as zero.

But what the state counts as zero is “one” to Durango High School students.

One fatal opioid overdose in La Plata County in 2021 deeply affected teens.

“It was a reckoning moment for a lot of people in our community,” Durango High School Senior Ilias Stritkus said. “A lot of us, students included, were kind of unaware of how these events happen. It’s difficult for a community to go through that.”

The events of December 10, 2021

December 10, 2021, was a Friday. A teen birthday party was underway in Edgemont Highlands near Durango.

According to the teens we spoke with, no adults were present at this party. The attendees were texting other friends who weren’t present. As the text conversations progressed, one of the partygoers announced, on a text chain, that they had found some pills.

“They found the pills in an abandoned car, I believe,” said Zoe Ramsey, a junior at Animas High School. “And they were laced with fentanyl. And they thought they didn’t know what it was.”

Zoe Ramsey was friendly with the teens at the party. While she wasn’t at the party, she’s seen all the texts about the pills.

“They texted all of our friends, like, ‘Hey, do you want to buy pills? You want to buy pills?’ And everyone’s like, ‘no,’” she said.

Not everyone declined the invitation to buy pills. Across the street from the house where the party was underway, two teenage boys were hanging together in a parent’s basement. They were also on the text chain.

Animas High School junior Niko Peterson was close to the boys in the basement. He passed up an opportunity to join them that evening.

“I decided that I didn’t want to go over there because I just didn’t have a good feeling in my stomach about it,” Peterson said. “I was supposed to be there. I actually ditched them for someone else. I was hanging out with someone else.”

The boys in the basement crossed the street to buy the pills. According to Ramsey, the person selling them was a longtime friend of the boys who bought them.

“So they thought it was safe because they knew this person for their entire lives,” she said. “They thought it would be safe to get (the pills) from him.”

Then the two boys returned to the basement.

“They took the pills. They were starting to feel the effects,” Peterson said. “They started to overdose. And (name withheld) went to the bathroom, passed out and stopped breathing, and then choked on his own vomit.”

According to Niko Peterson’s account of events, one boy was in the bathroom, and the other was in a bedroom. He told us that the mother and brother of one of the boys discovered them and tried to resuscitate them. Soon Emergency Medical Technicians were there as well and were able to reverse the overdose effects on one of the boys. They could not revive the other boy.

“I would have been there, and I am CPR trained and lifeguard certified,” Peterson said. “So I would have had to try to save their lives, which is scary to me. But it also feels like I could have done something.”

Overwhelming grief

The following day, Peterson was puzzled why his two friends weren’t responding to his text messages. They were usually quick to reply.

“So I’m calling around, and then (some other friends) come and pick me up. They’re like, ‘(name withheld) overdosed!’ Like (name withheld) died last night!’” Peterson said. “I was in shock. We got in the car, and everyone went over to our friend’s house.”

About two dozen Animas High School students gathered at one friend’s house to grieve. Counselors and administrators from Animas high school joined them.

Their grief was overwhelming. One friend was having suicidal thoughts and checked himself into a hospital.

“We had our teachers with us the whole time,” Peterson said. “It was actually beautiful to see how much they really care about us. They were coming to check on us like at our house at our friend’s house and sit with us and make sure we were okay.”

In the days that followed, Durango teenagers mourned their friend’s loss. Some attended his funeral. 

The impersonal statistics of the opioid epidemic had become real.

“I knew a couple of friends who were using (drugs) before (name withheld) died,” Ramsey said. “Then he passed away. I think it woke everybody up and made everyone realize that we truly have no idea what drugs we’re taking in this area.”

“It hit me really hard because I was also supposed to be there,” Peterson said. “Something would have happened to me, which is scary. No one expects for that to happen overnight, and no one expects to for that to happen so close to them. So when it does, it really opens your eyes.

One friend was dead; the other was resuscitated by a nasal spray called Narcan. For many teens, including Ramsey, the lesson was clear.

“(Name withheld) got very, very close (to dying),” she said. But he’s “...alive because of Narcan, and that’s why I think it’s such a big solution because it literally saved our friend’s life.”

Mark Duggan provided web production and editing for this story.

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