MONTPELIER — Capital City schools have all been supplied with naloxone, the opioid reversal drug, as a defense against death due to a drug overdose.
School and police officials said the decision to do so was designed to allow school staff to respond quickly with a “miracle medicine” for an opioid overdose, whether it was a student or a member of the public visiting or even just passing by one of the city’s schools.
More commonly known by its brand name, Narcan, naloxone has become a lifesaver for thousands of overdose victims nationwide during the rapidly growing opioid crisis that claimed more than 70,000 lives in the U.S. in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Vermont there were 124 opioid deaths in 2017, the CDC said.
What began as the misuse of prescription opioid painkillers has exploded into a national epidemic as drug users who were unable to get prescription pills turned to heroin and fentanyl instead. Naloxone is a nasal spray that blocks the opioid receptors in the brain which cause overdose victims to stop breathing.
The decision to provide naloxone in the Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools District was as much a public service as a “proactive” preventative measure to ensure the health and safety of students and members of the public, school officials said.
“We now have Narcan in each of our school nurses’ offices,” said Superintendent Libby Bonesteel. “Our schools are truly community centers and as such we are continuously working to make them places of safety and wellness.”
Andrew LaRosa, director of buildings and grounds at city schools, echoed Bonesteel’s rationale for acting in the best interests of everyone who enters the city’s schools and for people in the community as well.
“We put it in all our buildings, knowing that we are the most public buildings in town,” LaRosa said. “We treated it much like our defibrillators and EpiPens — it’s a precaution for the safety of folks who may be visiting our buildings.”
LaRosa said the naloxone was supplied by Central Vermont Substance Abuse Services with instruction sheets on how to use it.
Main Street Middle School Principal Pam Arnold said the addition of naloxone to the school’s nurse station was a prudent precaution.
“For me, it falls in the spectrum of trying to protect everyone all the time,” Arnold said. “We have kids that have medical issues and we want to be prepared for those.”
“But we’re also located in the community, so we’re being a community resource, as well. So, if something were to happen — whether it be kids or someone walking by our school or something like that — it’s a proactive defense as far as I’m concerned. If you’ve got what you need in a situation when you need it, you’re much more likely to be able to be helpful,” she added.
Integral to the implementation of placing naloxone in the community were discussions with the Montpelier Police Department and Cpl. Matt Knisley, the school resource officer.
“We at the department all carry it on our person at all times,” Knisley said. “As the heroin and fentanyl becomes stronger and stronger, it’s an important thing to have readily available. Just a small amount of these opiates can affect someone quite badly, quite quickly.”
Knisley acknowledged that it’s impossible to thoroughly vet everyone going into city schools and having naloxone available was a sensible decision.
“It is a precautionary measure for us to have it in each of our school buildings because we have a lot of people going in and out of the buildings, whether it be parents or visitors, and everybody coming through the doors is not searched,” Knisley said. “So, it’s one of those things where we could have an accidental exposure with something and having Narcan to use quickly as an opiate blocker to reverse those negative effects is important.”
Both LaRosa and Knisley said it was fortunate there had not been an incidence of opiate overdose in the school district but also said it was important to err on the side of caution and have naloxone available.
In the broader community, Knisley said there had been instances when police officers and other emergency services personnel had used naloxone to reverse and opioid overdose.
Kinsley also noted that drug users could never be certain of what they were getting from the black market and that the risk of an overdose was always a possibility.
“The worry is that we could have someone get something they think is one thing and is actually something that contains fentanyl,” Knisley said. “Then we’re dealing with something that’s quickly stopping your heart.
“We need to have some way to help you get breathing and have a heart beat again. Narcan is an amazing drug and it has almost no negative side-effects and it doesn’t treat anything else and it doesn’t do anything other than block those opiate receptors. As time goes on, it’s silly not to have it available,” he added.
Knisley said the wider availability of naloxone was part of a broader policy in the city that included the police department’s Project Safe Catch program to offer drug users assistance in getting help and treatment.
“For us, with Project Safe Catch and getting people into treatment and the ability for the clinics to give Narcan to people who are users or friends of users has definitely saved a lot of lives,” Knisley added.