A 13-Year-Old Died of a Fentanyl Overdose. Experts Say the Response Was ‘Theater.’

Students had to walk through an OxiClean solution and the school was shut down for a dayslong cleanup—measures addictions experts say don’t make sense.
The Sport and Medical Sciences Academy was closed for cleaning for days following a student's overdose death.
The Sport and Medical Sciences Academy was closed for cleaning for days following a student's overdose death. Stock photo via Getty Images 

The decision by government officials to sanitize students’ shoes with an OxiClean mixture and shut a school down for a mass cleanup after a seventh-grader overdosed on fentanyl is not based in reality, addiction experts say. 

Last Thursday, a 13-year-old student from the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy in Hartford, Connecticut, overdosed on fentanyl at the school and died two days later. According to Hartford police, two other seventh-grade students came into contact with the drug and felt “dizzy” but were released from the hospital after being evaluated. 

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Police searched the school Thursday and found 40 bags of powder fentanyl stashed in the gym and two classrooms, believed to have been brought into the school by the student who overdosed, Hartford police spokesman Lt. Aaron Boisvert told VICE News. 

Students and staff at the college-preparatory middle and high school were made to walk through a solution of OxiClean and water before they could leave on Thursday, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection told VICE News. The school remained closed as part of a mass sanitization effort, but it reopened Wednesday.

But experts say aspects of the school’s response, and media reports about the tragedy, don’t make sense given the way fentanyl works. 

For example, many of the initial reports said the boy died following fentanyl “exposure,” an ambiguous term that could be interpreted to mean that he didn’t actually ingest the drug.

“That kind of passive language in reporting news is a disservice to everyone. Certainly, if the facts are not known… then just speaking to it as an overdose would have made more sense,” said Dr. Ryan Marino, medical director of toxicology and addiction medicine at University Hospitals in Cleveland. 

Marino said teens overdose “not infrequently,” and avoiding talking about it directly means “parents might get some sort of false security that if this is just an exposure, it's not something they need to worry about.” 

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He said you cannot overdose from simply being near fentanyl, or even if it comes into contact with your skin. 

“You can only overdose on fentanyl by injecting it and snorting it or otherwise ingesting it somehow intentionally,” he said. 

Often when these types of tragedies occur, the narrative is spun around fentanyl being a bioweapon or an act of terror, said Claire Zagorski, program coordinator at the Pharmacy Addictions Research and Medicine Program at the University of Texas at Austin. 

That also applies to the cleanup in this case, Zagorski said. Students were made to shelter in place all day while cleaners contracted by the state began “a decontamination process.” The kids weren’t given lunch due to fears over fentanyl exposure. The cleaners used an OxiClean solution to clean surfaces in the school and made kids and teachers walk through it in case their shoes had picked up trace amounts of the drug. The cleaners also replaced air filters in spaces where fentanyl was discovered. 

But Zagorski said these measures amount to “security theater” that are in contradiction to the way fentanyl overdoses happen.

“Sure, you could walk through it and then track it around on your shoes. For it to be a danger at that point, someone would need to get down on their hands and feet and be licking it up off the floor and letting it sit on their tongue,” she said, adding that because fentanyl doesn’t float around in the air, air filters wouldn’t have had any effect on fentanyl exposure. 

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Marino said using OxiClean to neutralize fentanyl is “completely bizarre” and “not based in any sort of science or reason.” (Hartford Police Chief Jason Thody was quoted in multiple articles saying students had to walk through a mixture of bleach and OxiClean. That doesn’t appear to have been the case, but both Marino and Zagorski said combining those two chemicals can be dangerous.) 

John Fergus, director of communications for Hartford Public Schools, told VICE News the decision to make students and faculty walk through OxiClean came from the state-contracted cleaners, not the school. 

Will Healey, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the OxiClean solution was used as a precaution to prevent “further spread” of fentanyl around the school.

“A gross decontamination is a well-accepted practice, and the DEA agreed it was a wise measure to take before releasing students,” Healey said.  

In an email sent Monday, Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said a wipe taken from one room in the school tested positive for fentanyl and that the room was cleaned again and re-tested. The school was then cleared by state and city officials for reopening Wednesday.

In November, a hazmat team entered a high school in Madisonville, Tennessee, to clean fentanyl residue after it was reported that two school resource officers and a nurse were exposed to the drug via a vape pen. It was later revealed the vape didn’t contain any fentanyl. The school, which was closed for days for cleanup, said it would regularly conduct searches with drug-sniffing dogs going forward. 

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Zagorski said these types of cleanup efforts are unnecessary. She said she wishes people would consider the fact that fentanyl is used on a daily basis in hospitals—and no one wears a hazmat suit to handle it. 

“Fentanyl does not need some aggressive, multi-day [decontamination] shenanigan,” Zagorski said. “It’s a further disruption to the kids’ learning. It’s an unnecessary tax bill. And it just really reinforces the idea of fentanyl being some kind of terrifying bioweapon and not just a misapplied medicine.” 

Both Zagorski and Marino said schools should carry naloxone—an antidote to opioid overdoses. 

Fergus told VICE News that is being explored by the school district, as well as ways to expand awareness about opioids. 

In an email sent to parents Tuesday, Torres-Rodriguez said students would have the opportunity to mourn their classmate who died and that social workers, counselors, and therapy dogs would be on site Wednesday. She also said going forward, an additional safety officer will be on site, and random bag searches and “no touch wanding” will take place. 

Zagorski said conversations about the root causes of teen drug use are prescient in these situations, but also more difficult to address. 

“It's a lot easier to talk about fentanyl as some kind of almost mystical, nefarious chemical that has a behavior of its own… versus stopping and asking ourselves, ‘What's going on in this poor kid’s life that they’re using drugs and overdosing?’”

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.