Families should not ‘hide or be ashamed’: Community unites following Sammamish teen deaths

Three King County teens have recently died from fentanyl overdoses.

When first responders with Eastside Fire and Rescue (EFR) began carrying Narcan at the end of 2016, they rarely had to administer the anti-overdose drug.

“Now we’re constantly using this and constantly having to restock our kits,” said Capt. Ryan Anderson with EFR.

It’s not administered on a daily basis, but the use is more prevalent in EFR’s district than it ever was before, he added.

Anderson said among the opioid overdose calls they receive, the most alarming calls are from family members who return home to find their young loved ones unconscious.

“They’re very hysterical when they call into 911 [and are] trying to describe the situation,” Anderson said. “They don’t understand why this young, vibrant individual isn’t responding to them.”

Sometimes there are obvious signs an overdose has occurred. The young person may have vomited, or they’re pale and blue. They’re not responding, despite how hard the loved one tries to wake them. The caller is directed to perform CPR until responders arrive.

“We walk in the door and they’re doing the best they can, but struggling because it’s their loved one,” Anderson said. “We peel those loved ones off to do our job. They don’t want to leave their side.”

King County recently lost three teenagers to opioid overdoses.

Specifically, two Skyline High School juniors — Tom Beatty and Lucas Beirer, both 16 — died because of fentanyl overdoses. And Ballard High School student Gabriel Lilienthal, 17, died of the same cause. His death was the most recent and happened on Sept. 29 in Seattle.

Officials believe the teens most likely ingested what they thought were legitimate opioid tablets when, in fact, they were counterfeit drugs — laced with other toxic drugs, like fentanyl, which is 50-100 times more potent than morphine.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever, approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to Public Health of Seattle-King County data, fentanyl-related deaths are on the rise in the county. The majority of the deaths are young and non-homeless men. There have been 141 suspected and confirmed drug overdose deaths in the county between June and September of this year.

Fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths are typically caused by drugs made and sold through illegal drug markets.

School and family response

While the abuse of prescription opioid drugs isn’t new, the quiet Sammamish community was rocked to its core upon the deaths of two Skyline students.

“Losing any member of our Skyline family is extremely difficult,” said Keith Hennig, Skyline High School principal, in an email to the community on Oct. 1. “Words can’t express the shock, pain and sadness I felt upon learning of our loss, and I can only imagine the impact for those more closely connected with these young people.”

The families of the two Skyline students shared details about the deaths with the hope of preventing another fentanyl overdose.

Lucas and Shannon Beatty, parents of Tom Beatty, pleaded with parents to speak with their children about drug use. They touched on the dangers of taking any pill, unless prescribed by a doctor.

“We also recognize that friends often hold a powerful influence on their peers,” they said in a statement shared with the Skyline community. “Please also strongly encourage your children to speak with other teens about these very real dangers. It is their peers who know the who, what, where, when, and how of this epidemic…We hope and pray by taking action, [that] no other family will need to face such a heartbreaking situation as the one that is now ours.”

Isaac Beirer, Olga Davidov and Nicola Beirer, parents and brother of Lucas Beirer, issued their own message to the Skyline community. They said they hoped it would motivate young adults and their families to get the help they need and encourage an open dialogue on the crisis.

“This is not something families should hide or be ashamed of…We need to come together as a community, not be afraid to be honest and open about our struggles, let go of judgment and help each other and our children find help,” they wrote.

The Beirer family has organized a GoFundMe campaign with a goal to expand and amplify progressive drug-prevention efforts that have the power to eradicate illegal opioid substance abuse.

While the exact structure of how the funds will be used have not been determined, Davidov said her family’s main goals are to “honor Lucas’s name by work being done to save youth from drugs; actively participate in drug prevention efforts and unite local communities [in a] war against drugs.”

‘The Pharmacy’

While the greater Sammamish community was shocked by the recent fentanyl overdoses, students weren’t.

Skyline ASB secretary Alex Singereanu addressed the recent deaths at the Oct. 10 school board meeting. She said Skyline has a problem.

“Our everyday norm now is going into a bathroom and seeing kids knocked out on the floor or puffs of who knows what above the stalls and that’s a scary reality to face every day,” Singereanu said.

And according to her, Skyline often goes by another name: “The Pharmacy.”

“Let’s not forget that at least at my school, Skyline is called ‘The Pharmacy’ and that’s an issue that we’ve been dealing with as of late and that irritates a lot of people,” Singereanu said. “No school should be called a pharmacy.”

The students who use illegal drugs, she said, “are not bad kids.” Students feel academically pressured to perform well. Students turn to these substances because they don’t feel they have the support they need at school, Singereanu said.

“It’s the students that are alone that are tempted by temporary problem solvers — i.e. opioids,” she said.

Skyline students acknowledge the school and the district does well in offering support, however, peer-to-peer support and programs are needed, Singereanu said. And students understand they are the only ones who can make a change at the school they attend every day.

“This is a student-to-student problem,” she said. “We can give out as many messages as we want but at the end of the day, what will really help is a face-to-face, heart-to-heart [communication.]”

School district response

As a direct result of the recent fentanyl overdoses of the two Skyline students, the city of Sammamish, King County Sheriff’s Office, Issaquah School District (ISD) and Public Health of Seattle-King County came together to address the deaths on Oct. 2.

The news conference served as a public service announcement on the dangers of illegal substance abuse, and as a continued promise for the city and school district to work together to address the issue among local youth.

“Our hearts ache for our students and school communities that have been and continue to be impacted by the devastating effects of opiates…We have invested in additional counselors and Swedish Hospital mental health specialists in every secondary school,” an ISD statement reads. “More than two weeks ago we reached out to the city of Sammamish to discuss the impact of opiates and the role of law enforcement in our schools and community. We intend to engage similarly with all our city partners…We know that talking about it is not enough.”

ISD has organized an event for the Skyline parent community focusing on the steps the school takes to educate and prevent students from drug and alcohol use.

The event will introduce partner organizations — Sammamish Police Department, EFR and Influence the Choice — and they’ll discuss the resources available for students and families.

The event, Drug & Alcohol Use in Our Community, will be held from 7-8:30 p.m. on Oct. 16 at Skyline, 1122 228th Ave. SE in Sammamish. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/yxtspqcd.

“It will be the start of the healing process,” ISD school board member, Harlan Gallinger, said at the Oct. 2 news conference. “It’s brought to the forefront all the things we need to do as a district to partner with our city and the other school districts in our city and with our nonprofits to really work on prevention.”

While it may be the start of the healing process, ISD has been working to address substance abuse in its schools for years ISD Superintendent Ron Thiele said at the Oct. 10 school board meeting.

“We did not talk about this issue because of this tragedy. We’ve been talking about this issue for years,” he said. “Before it was fentanyl, it was other drugs…There always seems to be something new…Let’s not turn this tragedy into another tragedy of not taking advantage of an opportunity…I appreciate that folks are listening to us and we’re going to do everything we can to take advantage of it.”

In addition to the Drug & Alcohol Use in Our Community event, ISD said it will continue to hold parent and community information meetings around substance use. ISD executive director of communications L. Michelle said the district has worked with community resources, such as Influence the Choice, Youth Eastside Services (YES) and ParentWiser, to name a few, for years.

“We hope to weave this topic into more of our events,” Michelle said. “The commitment is there.”

Michelle said in response to the recent fentanyl deaths, the district changed its anonymous reporting process. Before, on each school website, people had the option to file an anonymous tip without providing much supplemental information.

Now, people can file a more detailed, and still anonymous, report through each school website. The change happened Oct. 5, Michelle said.

People can now report unsafe behavior and disclose what happened, who was involved, where, when and how it happened. The updated tip form encourages the reporter to direct the district to the people who have first-hand knowledge of the situation, activity or behavior.

“It teaches them how to file a good tip,” Michelle said.

To learn more about the online tip form, visit www.issaquah.wednet.edu/tip.

Michelle also said the district is considering changing when students receive substance-abuse education. The curriculum is currently introduced to all ISD fifth-graders.

“Should we begin the education earlier?” Michelle said. However, no change could be made right away as the district would have to find and implement curriculum for younger students, if it is approved.

In terms of overdose reversal, all ISD schools are equipped with Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan. All ISD school resource officers carry Narcan, Michelle said. The district is currently pursuing a grant for nurses to administer Narcan. The grant would fund education and training to administer Narcan.

Addressing the cause

Influence the Choice, among ISD’s several resource partners, is a nonprofit prevention alliance that works to create a healthy, thriving community. It’s comprised of 12 community sectors — parents, youth, schools, business owners, medical professionals, civic or volunteer organizations and law enforcement — all working together to build a drug-free community.

Executive director Jerry Blackburn said the nonprofit’s focus is prevention and support. Influence the Choice partners with school districts in circumstances of a community need.

Blackburn hasn’t seen a significant increase in youth substance abuse.

“There’s been no big spike in use,” he said in reference to current data from the Healthy Youth Survey. “It’s stayed pretty level.”

However, it doesn’t mean it’s not an issue. Blackburn said substance abuse is a preventable behavior and it’s something the entire community needs to address — not just the school district.

“Substance abuse is a community reality,” he said. “Schools are only one area of a community.”

There needs to be an understanding of behavioral health struggles kids face — such as anxiety and depression — Blackburn said. He added that parents have more influence than they think.

“Parents need to be invested again in supporting kids in their social-emotional learning,” he said. “We need to help them walk through adversity rather than fighting it…We need to reach kids where they’re at.”

Kristie Neklason is the director of school-based behavioral health services for YES. The organization provides behavioral health support services in schools on the Eastside and partners with health classes to educate students on substance abuse.

In Bellevue on Oct. 22 and Oct. 30, YES will join the Bellevue School District and Bellevue Police Department for information sessions in response to the student deaths.

Neklason said while opioids make up a small percentage of teen substance abuse in the communities, it’s still deadly.

“We’ve been making it a point for a couple of years to educate as broadly as we possibly can on the dangers of getting involved with opioids,” she said. The risk of accidental overdose is high, Neklason said, because students don’t know what they’re getting.

“The more we talk about it, the more we reduce stigma about it…and the more likely we are to have these things surface and not be hidden,” Neklason said.

Communities have responded to the opioid epidemic by not keeping narcotics in the home and having safe places to dispose of unused medications, as well as a push by doctors to prescribe lower prescription amounts.

But the Internet exists and online, people are able to buy the counterfeit drugs or the ingredients to make their own.

Neklason said while teens tend to abuse marijuana and alcohol more, that use is more visible. Parents sometimes have no idea their child is using opioids. What they should look for is a change in behavior.

Sometimes a young person tries out a substance out of curiosity. In these instances, education is needed on what they could encounter and encouragement to explore healthy ways to satisfy that curiosity, Neklason said.

Other times, someone may feel off-kilter and use opioids to try and numb anxiety, depression and traumas.

“It’s important to look at what’s leading young people to use any substances,” she said.

Already, EFR partners with schools in its district (cities of Sammamish, Issaquah and North Bend) and offers programs to target drinking and driving, and drug use. Anderson teaches these classes and works to arm students with the realities of opioid use.

“Until we arm (youth) with the facts and what they look like, they’re going to say, ‘I’ve seen others use it firsthand and it doesn’t hurt anyone else,’” he said.

Following the deaths of the two Skyline students, Anderson said he’s going to be pressing on the topic of opioid use even more. He’ll draw from statistics he’s gathering from King County Emergency Medical Services. He preached that awareness is one of the biggest solutions to the problem.

“Everyone has to be aware of what’s happening out there,” Anderson said. “We hear that some people feel ashamed that this has come into their home and community. In the past, maybe we tried to cover it up…and not allow people to hear this is happening. But if we do that, this isn’t going to stop.”