Bonamici introduces bill to advance fentanyl awareness curriculum to schools 

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici’s proposal encourages school districts across the nation to pursue a curriculum similar to Beaverton School District

By: - September 21, 2023 2:51 pm
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici gave a news conference on Sept. 21, 2023 on a bill that would encourage schools to adopt fentanyl awareness curriculum.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, gave a news conference on Sept. 21, 2023 on a bill that would encourage schools to adopt fentanyl awareness curriculum. (Screenshot from Zoom)

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici wants to see school districts across the country have a fentanyl awareness curriculum that will help children and youth avoid the lethal, addictive drug that is cheap and easy to find.

Bonamici, a Democrat who represents Oregon’s 1st Congressional District, introduced a bill on Thursday that would provide $50 million in federal funding for school districts to create their own curriculum or use what’s in place in Beaverton School District, the first district in Oregon to create its own fentanyl awareness curriculum, called Fake and Fatal, in 2021. 

Lives are on the line: Hundreds of Oregonians of all ages die annually from fentanyl overdoses, alarming public officials and devastating families.

Bonamici said the goal is to get a life-saving information about fentanyl out to students sooner with an act of Congress so local school districts have the support they need. 

“If you go district to district or even state by state, it’s going to take longer and in the meantime, lives could be lost,” said Bonamici, who is sponsoring the bill with U.S. Rep. Kevin Kiley, a California Republican lawmaker. 

The bill would start a pilot program with $50 million for the next three years so school districts and their public health departments could collaborate on curriculum. The bill does not cap how many school districts could participate. The money also would go towards public awareness campaigns, workshops and training for staff. 

The awareness is about more than avoiding drug dealers on the streets – fentanyl is also disguised in what appears to be legitimate medication.

“We know that many young people are learning to buy fake pills often through social media, that dealers sometimes even deliver them straight to the victim’s home,” Kiley said. “But many teens and families don’t know these things, and don’t know the extent of the danger or how quickly it can arrive at their doorstep.”

2020 death

In Bonamici’s district, the Beaverton program began after a former student in that district, Cal Epstein, died of fentanyl poisoning in 2020 when he mistakenly took a fake blue pill while on a break home from college. He believed it was OxyContin, but it was fentanyl, which is more than 100 times more powerful than morphine. His parents, Jon and Jennifer Epstein, advocated for the curriculum to become a reality in their community.

In a statement, the parents said the bill would save lives and help families avoid the tragedy they faced.

“There are no magic wands in this crisis and this is far from the only thing needed, but this will certainly make a significant difference,” the parents said.

The Beaverton district has not had any fentanyl-related deaths since, but Portland schools have. Two McDaniel High School students died in 2022, and earlier this year a teen at Franklin High died from a suspected fentanyl overdose.

Oregon faces an opioid crisis that killed 280 people in 2019, 472 in 2020 and 745 in 2021, according to the Oregon Health Authority. Many of the deaths are attributed to fentanyl, which is so potent that the equivalent of two grains of sand can kill. It is often laced in illicit pills that resemble prescription oxycodone or tranquilizers such as Xanax.

In Oregon, the curriculum work has expanded beyond Beaverton. This session, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 238, which requires the Oregon Health Authority, Board of Education and Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission to develop education materials to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of opioids.

Bonamici said the goal of her proposal is for districts to have the flexibility to design their own curriculum or use what’s already available and tailor it to their needs. At the federal level, officials don’t like to dictate a specific curriculum, she said.

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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.

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