School Board Addresses Threat of Fentanyl and Substance Abuse, Considers Recovery High School

Karl Frisch
3 min readMay 11, 2023


FAIRFAX COUNTY, VA — Tonight, the Fairfax County School Board approved a proposal to conduct a comprehensive review of Fairfax County Public Schools regulations, policies, practices, and curriculum to ensure the school division is adequately addressing the threat of illicit drug use and fentanyl, and meeting the academic, social, and emotional needs of students in recovery from substance use disorder. The proposal was co-sponsored by School Board members Karl Frisch (Providence District) and Laura Jane Cohen (Springfield District).

As part of this review, the Board is asking the Superintendent to consider the merits of various initiatives, including creating a recovery high school, providing students and staff with access to fentanyl testing strips, placing naloxone in all classrooms with appropriately trained classroom-based staff, offering naloxone training to high school students, partnering with local hospitals and health agencies to increase local residential and outpatient treatment options for minors, and helping families learn how to live with and support their students in recovery.

Our schools must provide students and families with the knowledge and resources to make healthy, informed decisions. Education and intervention are the best weapons for combating substance abuse and the threat of fentanyl,” said Frisch. “Every student in recovery has the potential to create a future of hope and possibility. The right support can make all the difference.”

We cannot afford to lose one more child to substance use disorder,” said Cohen. “Our family was shattered when we lost my sister five years ago. I’m proud that our school system is stepping up to educate and support our students, staff, and families. If we save even one family from what mine went through, it will have been well worth the work.”

Nearly 100 recovery high schools have opened since they first appeared in the late 1980s. When Chesterfield County Public Schools opened Virginia’s first recovery high school in 2022, media reports indicated the model increases the odds that teens will stay in recovery by making sure they are surrounded by like-minded students in a supportive environment. By integrating counseling and other support into the school day, the programs aim to prevent relapse, keeping kids on track to earn their diplomas.

While current figures are not yet available, data from Fairfax County’s Opioid Dashboard indicates four local young people 17 years of age and under suffered fatal overdoses in 2022. Additionally, between January 1 and March 31 of this year, there were 17 non-fatal overdoses among the same age group — a startling trend for the first three months of the current year compared to the 27 non-fatal overdoses of young people during the entire previous year.

A 2022 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found fentanyl-involved fatalities among adolescents on the rise. In addition, beginning in 2020, adolescents experienced a more significant relative increase in overdose mortality than the overall population, mainly attributable to fatalities involving fentanyl. In the context of decreasing adolescent drug use rates nationally, these shifts suggest heightened risk from fentanyl, which have variable and high potency. In Fairfax County, fatal overdoses by young people are driven almost entirely by fentanyl.

Last year, an analysis from the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicated 11 percent of eighth graders, 21.5 percent of tenth graders, and 32.6 percent of twelfth graders reported using an illicit drug in the past year. Among teens, past-year use of cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, and nonmedical use of prescription drugs, is steady year-over-year, including 4.9 percent of eighth graders, 5.7 percent of tenth graders, and 8 percent of twelfth graders.