Students pushed 9R district administrators for months before a public Narcan campaign
This story is part of a series, Narcan and Durango schools, produced by the KSUT News Department.
Editor's Note: When this story was published, the 9R School District declined requests for an interview with Superintendent Karen Cheser. We reported the story through interviews with student leaders and a review of email correspondence between students and Cheser. The superintendent has since agreed to an interview, and portions of it will be included in part three of the series.
In the weeks and months that followed the fatal overdose of an Animas High School student on December 10, 2021, it weighed heavily on the minds of many high school students in Durango.
According to Ilias Stritikus, then a junior at Durango High School, conversations about the overdose and the risks of opioids were everywhere.
"They were in the hall, in class, outside of school at lacrosse practice, wherever we were," he said.
In early March, Durango High School held Student Council elections.
"I'd never thought about running for student council. It's never been something I was interested in," Stritikus said. But as the elections drew closer, he realized that getting elected was an opportunity to push for change. "This is a position I can use to make an impact in my school and in my community."
He focused his campaign message on minimizing negative consequences to drug users, a strategy known as "harm reduction."
"I knew there was a want and a need within the community, but I didn't know how popular harm reduction was with the student body," he said. "And I remember the moment I brought it up. It was just applause and cheers."
Backed by student votes, Stritikus was determined to give students more at school to minimize the likelihood of overdoses. But he began by trying to work with the Durango High School administration.
Within days of his election, he emailed Principal Jonathan Hoerl about making fentanyl test strips available to students at school–something which would allow teens to verify whether fentanyl was present in other drugs they might be taking.
Stritikus says he saw the principal frequently in the halls and after school. They had many casual and inconclusive conversations about the policy changes Stritikus sought.
"I'd say, 'hey, any update on fentanyl test strips?' and usually it would be, 'oh, we're working on it. And we're looking into it.'" Strikus recalled. "I came to their conclusion that this wasn't necessarily their decision to make."
During the period Stritkus was pushing for fentanyl test strips, another Durango High School student, Maddy LeSage, started a club in the Spring of 2022 to educate students about Narcan–an opioid-reversal drug.
"We created a PowerPoint, and we (did) a Narcan training. We've done a fentanyl education," LeSage said. "We have this little (fake bottle of) Narcan because we can't have it on school grounds."
Stritikus and LeSage eventually met and joined forces.
"Leo actually came in after one of my trainings," LeSage said. "And he was like, 'I see that you're trying to do the same thing as me. Let's work together.'"
A push to change 9R drug policy
By September 2022, Stritikus and LeSage were frustrated by their lack of progress with administrators. They wanted Narcan to be available in school and for students to have the right to carry it. They'd also concluded that the faculty they'd been talking with had no power to make the changes they sought.
After communicating with a school board member, they emailed 9R District Superintendent Karen Cheser.
"We heard back from her on November 16," said Stritikus. "She said, 'Sorry, we've been discussing this with our attorney.' And she said they believe the risks of students carrying Narcan did not outweigh the benefits. So she gave us a no. A pretty explicit no."
Students emailed the Superintendent again, asking for a face-to-face meeting. On December 9, 2022, at the Durango High School Library, Cheser, Durango High School Principal Jonathan Hoerl, and other school district administrators sat down with three students.
LeSage remembered the meeting as respectful.
"I think that they listened to us," she said. "Dr. Cheser…asked us, what are you guys trying to do? (Ilias) named the policy that explains that we can't carry anything from Advil to Tylenol to Narcan on campus and how we want that policy to be changed. She told us that she would look into this."
Stritikus had a different reaction to the meeting.
"It got quite testy at points. They were quite dismissive. It was really disappointing," he said. "It was also obvious that they, unfortunately, had fallen victim to some Narcan misinformation or hadn't done sufficient research. I remember sitting there and thinking, gosh, we're a bunch of high schoolers, and this really shouldn't be our job."
Stritikus was surprised by some of the concerns the Superintendent expressed at the meeting.
"Cheser (said) she was really worried that some students might give it to students who don't need it, and that can have bad effects," he said. "She kept returning to that point, and we kept having to say, 'hey, we've got 20 studies on our side that show that Narcan has zero effect on you if you don't have opiates in your body.'"
After months of research, Ilias Stritikus found some of the Superintendent's hypothetical questions frustrating.
"'Wouldn't this just stop kids from getting the help they need?'" he recalled the Superintendent asking. "We were sitting there, trying to hammer home the point that Narcan saves lives and is proven to be effective."
Stritikus repeatedly characterized the Superintendent's concerns as "misinformed."
"'Oh, well, you could throw up,' or 'Oh, you could get disorientation,'" he remembers the Superintendent saying. "And we kept having to counter with, 'but the alternative is (an overdosing student) dying of respiratory failure.'"
According to the students, two other district directors were present at the meeting – Vanessa Giddings, Director of Student Support Services, and Cathy Morris, Director of Safety and Security. LeSage said the two directors were encouraging.
"They were really open to it and wanted us to work on this," Le Sage said. "One of them told us to go to the state, you know, go through the legislators, which, with me and (Ilias) being seniors, there's just not enough time for that. We graduate in a couple of months."
Taking the fight public
Following the meeting with administrators, the students waited again for action. But the last weeks of December 2022 were unlikely for administrators to make policy changes. It seemed like more unnecessary delay to students who had been pushing for policy changes since the previous Spring. By mid-January, they hadn't received any communication from school district administrators.
"(Ilias) and I decided we needed to take things a little bit further," LeSage said.
"A month later, we're sitting there, and we're seeing this lack of movement," Stritikus said. "And so we decided to go to the board because there was nothing else we could do."
On January 19, students received an email from Superintendent Karen Cheser outlining why the district was still reluctant to permit students to carry Narcan in school.
On January 24, students demonstrated and gave public testimony at the 9R School District Board meeting. On February 28, students rallied again at another board meeting.
"I think we're going to continue going to the school board meetings until we get an answer and get what we want," said Maddy LeSage
In January 2022, they were teenagers mourning the loss of a high school teen in Durango. One year later, they became activists and found their voices.
Mark Duggan provided web production and editing for this story.