Berkmar H.S. student overdoses raise concerns with drugs in community

Staff used Narcan to help student in each instance
Berkmar High School Principal Durrant Williams shows Narcan nasal spray available in his school to block the effects of a drug overdose. (Josh Reyes / Joshua.Reyes@ajc.com)

Credit: Josh Reyes

Credit: Josh Reyes

Berkmar High School Principal Durrant Williams shows Narcan nasal spray available in his school to block the effects of a drug overdose. (Josh Reyes / Joshua.Reyes@ajc.com)

Staff at Berkmar High School in Lilburn have administered the opioid-blocking medicine Narcan to three different students over the past two months. Those students survived, but the series of overdoses — all believed to be caused by fentanyl — has prompted heightened concern within the school district.

Berkmar administrators, Gwinnett County Public Schools staff and the director of the local health department described efforts Thursday to keep students safe but emphasized that a community effort is essential to preventing kids from getting to drugs.

“This is a community issue,” Berkmar Principal Durrant Williams said. “And so to believe that it could happen all around us and not seep onto our campus is unrealistic.”

Officials said they are working to get more Narcan into schools and training staff to use it. All Gwinnett high schools have designated locations with Narcan available, and some staff, including school resource officers, keep the nasal spray with them at all times.

Part of prevention efforts is also working with authorities to track how drugs get into schools.

While each was a separate incident, Williams said the three students who overdosed at school all know each other and that authorities believe they all got drugs from the same person off campus from the school. The district did not know Thursday if anyone had been charged with providing students with drugs.

Williams added that he believes the students may have ingested fentanyl by mistake.

“I don’t believe that kids are intentionally walking in and saying, ‘I want fentanyl, and I want to take this risk,’” he said. “I think they are experimenting, but they’re experimenting with things they should not be experimenting with.”

One student overdosed after using a vape, and the other two overdosed after taking pills, Williams said, noting the new Centegix CrisisAlert system was used in one instance to notify staff of a medical emergency. The system provides employees wearable devices that enable them to call for medical help, assistance with student behavior or even trigger a lockdown in extreme circumstances.

Youth drug use is not a new issue, but Dr. Audrey Arona, director of the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Departments, said more young people may be seeking drugs as they deal with pandemic-related mental health problems. She also said getting drugs over social media or other avenues online has become increasingly easy.

“What we’re trying to educate our students and families about is that this fentanyl crisis is here. It is in our backyards. It’s a community problem that has infiltrated into our schools,” she said.

District employees said when dealing with addiction, their focus is on helping first before worrying about disciplinary consequences.

“We talk to them about consequences and how we accept responsibility for our roles in things, but we also talk about how we know it can be challenging if you are inundated and surrounded by people that are making choices that aren’t healthy,” Tinisha Parker, the district’s director of student services, said.

Williams said students have been quick to speak up since the overdoses in the school, with some students helping track down possible sources of drugs. “Their mindset is, let’s get this off of our campus,” Williams said.

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