WHEATON, Md. - More and more parents are voicing frustration with the lack of information being shared about the growing opioid crisis the Montgomery County Public Schools system is now warning about.
Just last week, in a joint news conference with school officials, county lawmakers, and county law enforcement leaders, data was released showing the number of youth deaths from drug overdoses jumped 120% last year compared to the year before. Many of the victims are MCPS students.
However, the school system already told FOX 5 it is prohibited from reporting specific overdose cases due to FERPA and HIPAA student privacy and health privacy laws, respectively.
The statistics were released on the heels of County Executive Marc Elrich informing reporters, during a regular Wednesday media briefing, that the school district saw another overdose just the day before. Sources tell FOX 5 that overdose took place at John F. Kenned High School. First responders rushed to help an unresponsive student in a female bathroom.
A school note sent to Kennedy High School families referred to the situation as a "medical emergency." The note did not identify the situation as a drug overdose.
Community members claim there’s been a number of other incidents not reported. Kennedy is the same high school that lost a 15-year-old student to a fatal drug overdose about two weeks ago. That student’s name is Ashleigh Edwards.
FOX 5 has learned that as of January 24, MCPS has administered Narcan a total of 11 times since the first day of school back on August 29, 2022. Seven of those instances have come in the last six weeks. School officials say Narcan is administered when an overdose is suspected.
Leaders within the Montgomery County community told FOX 5 that even teachers are frustrated with the lack of information being shared on just how serious these Fentanyl issues — and security concerns around them — are at local high schools.
"The one thing I would say is, it shouldn’t matter a whole lot," said Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Dr. Earl Stoddard.
The response came as FOX 5 asked the county executive whether he’s heard concerns from MCPS parents frustrated over the lack of information the school system can share when it comes to school drug overdoses and whether there is anything his office can do about it.
"I think every parent of a high schooler, and I have a 13-year-old, so I’ve had this … I quite literally had the Fentanyl conversation with her last week given what we’ve seen in MCPS," Dr. Stoddard said. "It seemed ludicrous to me at the time to talk to a 13-year-old, but it’s not. We are seeing younger people experimenting with narcotics and or what they perceived to be prescription drugs that are often laced with other things."
"And so frankly, from the perspective of a parent, you should assume that if your child is in a high school at this point – it’s not the exclusive issue of Silver Spring, or Germantown or, or even Montgomery County – that’ they’re going to be exposed to opportunities to potentially pick up prescription drugs and overdose."
The county executive responded in part, that he was confounded by the question because the numbers are out there. He was referring to the fatal youth overdose data shared by county leaders just this past week.
"It’s not that the numbers don’t go out there," Elrich said. "I don’t know. Nobody from the school system’s talked to me and nobody’s spoken to me about what the school system may be saying about HIPAA. I do know that they can’t tell you who overdosed. It may be a different case if it’s a fatality, but you cannot report somebody’s health condition any more than they can tell you if you test positive for a COVID test.
Dr. Stoddard also mentioned FERPA privacy laws go beyond HIPAA when it comes to student privacy.
"I think it’s a two-fold issue, right? One as parents, we have an obligation and a responsibility to teach – building awareness among our children related to drugs," said John F. Kennedy High School PTSA President Kristen Walker Painemilla. "Secondly, we have a crisis. It was highlighted by MCPS. We have a 120% increase in opioids in schools. There has to be a better responsibility in responding to the issues and communicating to parents while respecting the privacy and laws."
"It is the community effort," Painemilla added. "Due to students and social media, information tends to come out and get to parents before the school system has had the ability to respond. So, that creates panic, it creates misinformation – and it also creates trauma."
She says teachers are just as frustrated.
Drugs in schools are not a new concern and Kennedy High School is not the only high school dealing with these issues. Fentanyl warnings are both county and countrywide. Still, whether it’s a drug-related incident or another emergency, MCPS parents are frustrated with communication.
Earlier this week, two female students were found unconscious in a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School bathroom. School leaders said this was an alcohol-related incident. Frustrated parents credited the student paper, "The Tattler," with informing parents before MCPS did.
"As a parent, it’s not satisfying that the school’s addressing this well and I know it’s not their number one priority – that they’re there to educate the students, but students can’t be educated if they don’t feel safe in the schools," said B-CC PTSA Member Kerry Green, who also raised the issue of students vaping in school. "If they’re encountering situations in the bathrooms. the bathrooms are huge issues from what we hear that some students do not feel safe going into the bathrooms during the day because of drug use, and we’re just not getting enough information about what’s being done to address it – and we’re in January. This is an issue brought up by the PTSA back in the Fall."
"We need more information, we need detailed information, and that will enable us to be proactive instead of reactive," Green added.
MCPS did not answer a question on bathroom security and how that’s being addressed.
A spokesperson did answer some other questions, noting since July 1, 2022, 463 letters in reference to "medical emergencies" have been sent. Medical emergencies can range from an allergic reaction or broken ankle to a suspected drug overdose.
MCPS also says it had to administer Narcan, the overdose reversal drug, 11 times from the first day of school on Aug. 29, 2022, to Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.
"This isn’t about one incident," an MCPS spokesperson told FOX 5. "This is about a dangerous trend happening across our county and nation. Overdoses are not just happening in schools, in fact, they more frequently happen in the community. This is why we continue to draw attention to raise awareness to parents and students about the dangers in access to Fentanyl and what they can do as community members to help."
MCPS is hosting a forum on Fentanyl on Saturday, starting at 9:30 a.m. at Clarksburg High School
In the media briefing, "Alcohol & Other Drug Abuse Advisory Council" Chair Laura Mitchell directed parents to the Montgomery Goes Purple page. She said how you talk with your kids about drug use is also incredibly important.
"If we don’t use the right language, we are telling our kids they’re bad people, making bad choices with bad parents and all these things," Mitchell explained. "So, when they are faced with this, who are they going to go to? They don’t want to make their parent a bad parent? They don’t want to be a bad person. It’s really important that we use the right language when we’re talking about this."
The American Pediatrics Association, Mitchell added, recommends that doctors begin screening for substance use at age nine.
County Executive Elrich also mentioned 38 more deaths since December were prevented thanks to Narcan.
Dr. Stoddard says a conversation he recently had includes adding Narcan to school AED locations.
FOX 5 also reached out to Maryland State Senator Brian Feldman, who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
This is a developing story. Check back with FOX 5 for updates.