Berkeley High students roam the halls between classes during the first day of school, Aug 15, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

A student group is spearheading an effort to educate their Berkeley High peers about drug use, focusing on overdose prevention and fentanyl.

Called the Harm Education and Reduction Organization, or HERO, the club gives presentations in ninth-grade classrooms with the mission of making sure that if students are doing drugs, they have the resources to do so safely. 

“The ‘don’t do drugs’ talk doesn’t work,” said 11th grader Madeleine Regan during a Friday club lunch meeting. “It doesn’t protect kids, because kids will do drugs, and there won’t be safety nets for them to do it in ways that don’t put them in the hospital.” 

At meetings, students critique the lack of sufficient drug education at Berkeley High and strategize about how to get more information into students’ hands. The club’s philosophy, rooted in harm reduction, prioritizes preventing overdose and increasing access to treatment for people using drugs. It assumes that abstinence education is less effective than giving people resources.

Nina Thompson, the club’s leader, said they focus on information that can help students make safer choices, like teaching students about dosage and how different drugs can interact. When the message comes from peers, Thompson said, she has found students more open, willing to listen and curious.

With the number of overdose deaths from drugs laced with fentanyl growing across California, students in HERO chose to focus on overdose prevention this fall. 

The group is part of a swell of student organizations in California focusing on education around fentanyl, like Project 1 Life, a nonprofit started by a high school senior in Marin County whose cousin died in an accidental fentanyl overdose. This fall, Los Angeles Unified equipped schools with Narcan, the life-saving nasal spray that reverses the effects of the drug, after nine students overdosed on fentanyl within the first week of school and one died.

Zach Meredith, who oversees the mental health counselors at Berkeley High, says no one has experienced a fentanyl overdose at the health center, at least in the two years since he’s been there.

But, especially at weekend parties, fentanyl may still make its way into students’ hands. Thompson said she knows teenagers who have taken drugs laced with fentanyl or have had to use Narcan on their peers because of an unintentional overdose.

Counselors at the health center are trained to administer Narcan, owing to training from an organization called Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution. And a donation from HERO has stocked the health center with FentCheck strips, which allow people to test drugs for fentanyl.  

Nina Thompson, a junior at Berkeley High, is the leader of the harm education and reduction organization. Thompson said she knows students who have inadvertently taken drugs laced with fentanyl. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
At Berkeley High School, a group of students is teaching others the dangers of fentanyl and how to prevent a fatal overdose through a club called the Harm Education and Reduction Organization, or HERO. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

With the help of Monique Buffler, a parent of a senior in the group who has supported a family member struggling with drug dependency, the group purchased the FentCheck strips in the fall. They’re planning to publicize the strips, and Meredith says they would consider finding funding to permanently keep the FentCheck strips in stock if students end up using them. 

Students in HERO have also tailored their classroom presentations to focus on how to help people in cases of overdose, detailing signs of overdose for different drugs. They also teach students, who are often hesitant to call for help for fear of getting in trouble, about how the Good Samaritan Law can protect them from legal repercussions.

In the future, the group has dreams of expanding harm reduction education at the high school and making more resources available, such as training teachers and students to use Narcan and making it possible for students to take Narcan home as needed.

Drug use is down, but overdose deaths have risen

Monique Buffler, whose youngest daughter joined HERO last year, volunteers her time to help the students with the organization, photographed in the Elmwood neighborhood. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

In line with national trends, the share of students using drugs in Berkeley has fallen in the last few years.

In 2018, 38% of Berkeley Unified 11th graders were using marijuana, compared with 25% of 11th graders in 2021, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey. In 2021, 16% of 9th graders reported using marijuana, according to the same survey. Fewer students binge drink and vape now, too, compared to 2018-19. 

(Students say it still feels like vaping and other drugs are common on campus. “It’s very common to enter a bathroom full of people vaping,” BHS student Serenna Redwood wrote in an opinion article in The Jacket, Berkeley High’s student newspaper.)

But during that same time frame, the number of overdose deaths among teens in the East Bay has risen, including overdose deaths related to fentanyl. 

There were no overdose deaths related to fentanyl until 2017. However, by 2020, seven teenagers in Alameda County had died from fentanyl-related overdoses. That number fell slightly in 2021, and data for 2022 are not yet available. (Alameda County obscures data when numbers are less than six for privacy reasons.) 

Data from the California Healthy Kids Survey shows a spike in the number of teenagers who have died from fentanyl-related overdose deaths beginning in 2018.

These are the steps Berkeley High and Berkeley Technology Academy, the district’s alternative school, take to educate and help students around substance abuse: 

  • Students learn about drug use and its impacts on the brain in ninth grade. 
  • Students with MediCal insurance can go to the Health Center for mental health care, which is staffed by three full-time counselors and three graduate student interns. 
  • Students with private insurance can see a counselor for up to six sessions before counselors help refer students to outside providers. Crisis services are also available to all students. 
  • While there is currently no substance abuse counselor, students can talk through issues with substance abuse or addiction with the counselors on staff.
Monique Buffler shows an instruction card for the use FentChek’s. One of the long-term plans is to make FentCheck strips available for students to encourage safe practices. Photographed near her home in the Elmwood neighborhood. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Next year, the health center plans to hire a full-time counselor dedicated to treating substance use. 

The health center doesn’t have a harm reduction program, but says it incorporates the principles of harm reduction in its approach to care.

“With these kinds of pressing issues, anything that we are doing is to raise awareness, so the teenagers can make more informed decisions about their health and well-being,” Meredith said. Counselors are trained to be warm and non-judgmental if students talk about using substances, with the goal of making students “as informed as possible about potential risks and harms associated with use.” 

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...