Bipartisan legislation led by U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici could spread nationwide the work by the Beaverton School District and others to warn students about the dangers of fentanyl, a powerful drug that often masquerades in fake prescription pills.
For Beaverton, the impetus was the December 2020 death of Cal Epstein, a recent Sunset High School graduate at home from college when he took what he thought was the painkiller oxycodone.
For Laura Didier, outreach coordinator at Song for Charlie — a national charity aimed at raising awareness of fentanyl — it was the 2020 death of her 17-year-old son, Zach, who took what he thought was Percocet, a brand name for oxycodone.
Bonamici, a Democrat from Beaverton and the 1st District seat of northwest Oregon, has teamed up with another Democrat and two Republicans to introduce the Fentanyl Awareness for Children and Teens in Schools (FACTS) Act.
She was the moderator of a virtual panel — held on Sept. 21, National Opioid Awareness Day — to offer details about the legislation.
Kristen Gustafson, health educator for Beaverton schools, said a fentanyl awareness effort began after meetings with students, parents and others to develop lesson plans for those in grades 6 through 12. Included in the instruction were how to spot signs of an overdose and what to do when it happens. She herself is the mother of teenagers.
Gustafson said that unlike previous efforts against illegal drugs, current education must focus more on awareness of legal medications and their potential for abuse. Many pills actually consist of fentanyl, an opioid that is far more powerful than illegal heroin — though they appear to be something else, particularly when marketed via the internet.
“We live in a prescription-drug society now. We are inundated with prescription-drug commercials all over the media,” she said.
“Our students perceive these fake pills as being safe, even if not specifically prescribed for them. For some of the preventative measures that worked in the past, we need to up our game.”
Jon and Jennifer Epstein did not take part in the Sept. 21 event, but a statement from them included in Bonamici’s press release said in part:
“The FACTS Act is sure to reduce the number of families from suffering the devastation ours did by giving youth the latest facts and information about today’s drug landscape, delivered by trustworthy sources.
“We’re incredibly grateful to Rep. Bonamici and the other members for bringing forward and supporting this valuable legislation; closing the knowledge gap will undoubtably save young lives and lessen the future burden of harmful substance use.”
What the bill does
The legislation would set up a pilot program within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to promote partnerships among state and local education and public health agencies, and nonprofit organizations, to spread awareness about fentanyl and synthetic opioids.
The bill would also develop a federal interagency task force to fight the synthetic opioid crisis through education and prevention and improve federal education and health data collection efforts to understand and highlight the effects of synthetic opioids on youth.
Bonamici said the bill does not require those partnerships to adopt a single approach dictated by the federal agency. But she said the problem requires national attention.
“This is something we can do together that will save lives. It’s such a hard thing to talk about,” she said.
“If you go district by district, or even state by state, it’s going to take longer,” she added, noting that Oregon alone has 197 school districts. “In the meantime, lives will be lost. When we highlight this at the federal level … we have an opportunity to bring this lifesaving information” across the country.
Bonamici's district includes most of Washington County, all of Columbia County and part of Portland.
She was joined by U.S. Rep. Kevin Kiley, a Republican from California. Both sit on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and its subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary education — where Bonamici is the top Democrat.
“This is a national crisis and we need a national strategy,” Kiley, himself a former high school teacher and state legislator, said at the event.
“The tragedy befalling family after family, in communities all across America — story after story of young lives cut short — must be a call to action for all of us,” he added. “We need to put politics aside and act with every tool at our disposal, finding common ground across party lines, to stop every fentanyl tragedy and end this crisis.”
Other co-sponsors are Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, a Republican from Happy Valley and Oregon’s 5th District, and Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Colorado.
What others said
Didier, who is from Rockland, Calif., was Kiley’s invitee to the 2023 State of the Union address on Feb. 7 at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
“I was blindsided by the sudden death of my son,” she said at the Sept. 21 event.
“The mission of educating kids (in Song for Charlie) really resonated with me. I felt that if I had this knowledge, if I knew about this crisis and the counterfeit pill situation — and my son had known — he would still be here and at whatever school he ultimately decided on.
“For me, it has been therapeutic to share my story and keep my son’s memory alive through that. There is a lot of support for families like us.”
Ed Ternan, the president of Song for Charlie, also spoke.
“This is what we need more of,” he said.
“Many kids around this country are at high risk of overdosing and many die of fentanyl poisoning, essentially from a lack of information… Awareness has gone up significantly in the past few years. We are at a point where we need to convert that awareness into knowledge. That is a big part of what this bill does.”