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Opioid overdoses soar in Montgomery County as teens’ behaviors prove fatal

The plague of substance abuse has taken the lives of the county's youth and changed their public school system forever.

By Jah'I Selassie with SGJC Student News Network

Wesley Kuhar was a curious and observant child, born and raised in Montgomery County, Md. He enjoyed spending his summers in Greece, loved to swim, and was part of his school’s talented and gifted program. Known to joke around, he was a happy child.

Kuhar’s teen years would involve the usual angst and rebellion that encompasses the lives of most teenagers. Wanting desperately to impress his friends and not be seen as the “small, shy kid,” he’d begin underage drinking. Later, he’d begin smoking marijuana. After that, he moved on to pills, sneaking Oxycodone from his father and Percocet from his friends.

“This was a kid who tested very high [on his] SATs. He was a person who really appreciated and loved everyone. It was as if [he’d] been taken over and possessed by this drug,” said Mary “Beth” Abrams-Kuhar, Wesley’s mother.

Pills eventually led to Kuhar’s use of crack cocaine, which he used regularly. After multiple rehab stints, Kuhar relapsed and was introduced to fentanyl in August 2022.

He died 2 months later. He was 25 years old.

“After 10 days [in rehab], he decided ‘nope,’ he didn't need to be there, so he walked out. Within 24 hours of walking out of there, he passed away. He started using again. And that fentanyl dosage took him from us,” said Abrams-Kuhar.

Kuhar’s story is one of hundreds of thousands of addicted teenagers, who eventually succumbed to their addiction. In 2022, 11 school-aged teens died from drug overdoses in Montgomery County showing a 120% increase in teen overdose fatalities from 2021 to 2022, according to data released by Montgomery County police. The problem is steadily growing, with fentanyl-laced drugs being a contributing factor.

“The school system needs to be doing more,” said Abrams-Kuhar. She’s worked in Montgomery County Public Schools for 22 years and says the school system is much different from when she first started. Recently, one of the 8-year-old children she works with told her that his older brother, who is an 8th grader at a neighboring middle school, was suspended for doing drugs in the school’s bathroom.

“[The boy] went on to tell me he was at a park recently and he saw there was a girl sitting on a bench. He saw someone come up to the girl and give her something. And then soon after, she passed out. Then he said the rescue squad came. He said she died. He's eight,” Abrams-Kuhar said, emotional.

Abrams-Kuhar is a member of SOUL, which stands for ‘Surviving Our Ultimate Loss,’ a support group in Montgomery County for mothers whose children died from substance abuse. The group acts as a sort of sisterhood for the mothers who feel that they often cannot find others that relate to their harrowing grief experience.

SOUL, which stands for ‘Surviving Our Ultimate Loss,’ a support group in Montgomery County for mothers whose children died from substance abuse.
SOUL, which stands for ‘Surviving Our Ultimate Loss,’ a support group in Montgomery County for mothers whose children died from substance abuse.

“A death of a child with substance use disorder comes with a lot of stigma. In this group, that stigma sort of disappears. It's so much easier to talk to people that have the same experience than it is to your friends who have a hard time understanding,” said one of the mothers, whose son passed away from a Xanax overdose at just 25.

While these mothers share experiences and work through their grief, more join their ranks as overdose deaths among youth continue to rise, leading to a search for answers and solutions to stem the crisis.

What Makes an ‘Addict?’

An in-depth study using CDC data from Ty Schepis, a psychology professor at Texas State University, shows that adolescent males between the ages of 10 to 19 are more likely to die from drug overdoses than girls, with 69% of the total adolescent overdoses between 2019 and 2021 being male.

According to Schepis, the most common way that adolescents are gaining access to opioids is from improperly stored medication around the house – or misused prescriptions that were originally for pain and other ailments. Access coupled with the often-risky behaviors exhibited from teens, these young adults are particularly vulnerable to addiction.

“Some of it has to do with the networks of peers that people are in. If those networks have access to prescription drugs for misuse. If you've got involved family members, a good peer group around you, activities that you're involved in, extracurricular [activities], maybe you play a sport. All of that stuff is really powerful and protects you against most substance use,” said Schepis.

Today, many teens run the risk of acquiring pressed pills that have been ‘laced’ with fentanyl, a highly addictive narcotic. The opioid is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, contributing to steadily high rates of fatal overdoses.

In 2022, the U.S. saw 71,269 fatal overdoses from fentanyl, across all age groups.

“Because fentanyl is so potent, it attaches to opioid receptors in the brain. And it's very good at attaching and sticking. A really small dose will attach in places that regulate breathing. And what sends people into overdose is that their breathing slows down so much, they basically stop breathing, they suffocate,” Schepis said.

The Impact

The Freedom Center, an out-patient addiction treatment center in Gaithersburg, Md.
The Freedom Center, an out-patient addiction treatment center in Gaithersburg, Md.

The throes of addiction don’t necessarily have to permanently derail the lives of impressionable youths. Melissa Cafarelli, an addictions counselor and therapist at The Freedom Center, an out-patient addiction treatment center in Montgomery County, says she reached complete rock bottom between high school and college while addicted to drugs before she sought help.

Cafarelli says she finds her work rewarding because she works with people who are in the same position she was in. She grew up as a teen in Rockville and described her upbringing as well-off, though she picked up an opioid addiction when she injured herself playing soccer and was prescribed the medication.

“[I] really liked them. I was like 17 [or] 18 when I started doing more drugs [like] LSD, Ecstasy, I tried heroin for the first time when I was a senior in high school. I portrayed myself as this A-plus grade student. And it was all kind of hush hush,” she said.

Cafarelli was able to enroll in a 12-step program in her early twenties and has been sober ever since, but she says today opioid use is much more deadly with the distribution of fentanyl to teens. She’s even lost a few friends to the deadly drug.

“Fentanyl is so cheap,” she emphasized. “And some people think they're getting like a Xanax or an Oxy, and it's pressed with fentanyl, so kids these days don't even know what they're taking and just like when I was like in high school, I was ready to experiment. If [fentanyl] was available during that time, who knows if I would still be alive.”

A Friend’s Cry for Help

While opioid misuse is plaguing young teens in Montgomery County, teens in surrounding school systems are being affected too. 16-year-old Quadir Cottoms attends Anacostia High School, a small school in Southeast Washington, D.C., less than an hour away from Montgomery County.

When Cottoms was just 13 years old, he lost his best friend to an opioid overdose.

“We grew up together, he ended up overdosing on his on his 13th birthday,” Cottoms said. Though he’s able to speak about it now, he says he was greatly affected by the incident when it happened.

His friend began using drugs early in his pre-teen years after his brother had been killed in a car accident, buying the pills from dealers on D.C. streets. Cottoms saw the makings of a bad habit and tried to counsel his friend into dealing with his emotional issues in a different way but was sadly too late. His friend had been lost to addiction.

“[One day] he just ended up blocking out everybody, he wouldn’t speak to nobody. He locked himself in his room and wouldn't come out and speak. And then I’d say a couple hours later, I got a phone call. He ended up overdosing. He had a whole life to look to and more to appreciate in life, and now he can't even do it,” Cottoms said, overwhelmed while remembering the fateful day.

Cafarelli, who regularly works with people that are trying to beat their addictions for good, pinpointed childhood trauma as one of the leading causes for substance abuse. Unfortunately, in Cottom’s friends’ case, his trauma overcame him in an immense way.

What Are Schools Doing To Help?

While the opioid crisis continues to worsen among the county’s teens, public health officials in the school district are implementing preventative measures to ensure the safety of students on and outside of school campuses.

Educational forums on the effects of opioid misuse and fentanyl are routinely offered through Montgomery County Public Schools, with the most recent one being held on March 4. The forums usually offer training for the use of Narcan, a nasal spray for overdose reversal.

Administrative officials from MCPS told Fox News last February that they’d used Narcan 11 times during that academic year.

Patricia Kapunan, Montgomery County Public School’s chief medical officer and pediatrician, says that while the opioid crisis is dire, the school system cannot do much if the students’ overdose occurs off school grounds and they don’t inform school officials.

“If a student has an overdose in the community, we might never even know about it. You've got to tell the schools what's going on. And that's especially difficult when you're talking about things with a lot of associated stigma, like substance use and mental health,” she said.

Kapunan says all MCPS principals are trained in Narcan use, while teachers may opt to be trained or not; and while the school may not be able to necessarily prevent students from overdosing, there are mental health clinicians and social workers on campuses.

“Drugs today are not what you remember, the risk is much, much greater,” said Kapunan. “It's hard to engage around risk behavior and influence how kids make decisions and equip them with the skills that they need to save lives -- their own or others.”