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Editorial: Scary situation in Riverhead schools

The urgent yet ambiguous message delivered to Riverhead High School parents on the night of Feb. 10 led to great concern throughout the district. After all, it had only been six months earlier when a spate of fatal overdoses occurred in the Greenport area from what police described as a batch of cocaine that had been laced with fentanyl. Residents, all adults, were unknowingly ingesting a synthetic opioid that’s 50-100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As that tragedy began to unfold last summer, urgency was critical to warn the public and prevent any additional overdoses.

The thought of something similar occurring in the hallways of a high school during weekday mornings was startling. The message that night of Feb. 10 warned that a “potentially harmful, ingestible substance may be circulating throughout our school community and accessible to students.”

What the message failed to include was that Narcan had been used on two students in less than a week. As word quickly spread around the school community, there were more questions than answers of just how serious of a situation was unfolding.

The district could have worded its original statement better to provide more clarity, but officials were understandably trying to parse through details of the situation themselves and were getting Riverhead Town police involved to assist.

An investigation by police brought a welcome sigh of relief as detectives determined that fentanyl or illegal narcotics had not been involved in each instance. Any drugs in school are serious concern, but to at least rule out that deadly fentanyl had not been the cause of potential overdoses was enough to allow everyone to take a deep breath.

Police have described the incidents — three at the high school and one at the middle school this month — as separate. While that’s good news in the sense that a “bad batch” of drugs is not circulating, it raises questions as to how readily available drugs like THC candy are for students and how the district can best prevent future incidents.

Preventing drug and alcohol abuse among youth has always been a priority and will remain so for every district, no matter where they are located. Drugs will never go away entirely.

The challenge now is the growing accessibility of drugs that can be taken via a vape or candy, as the Riverhead district saw this month. It’s one thing to spot a student smoking a joint, and an entirely different thing to catch them eating a piece of THC-infused candy.

To the district’s credit, it has outlined several steps it plans to take, starting with a Narcan training session for the community and staff members on March 2 in the high school auditorium.

Edibles present a unique threat, particularly for teenagers. Their effects can take 30 minutes to two hours, leading some to eat too much, which could lead to poisoning or serious injury, according to the CDC. The effects can also be unpredictable as the amount of THC can be difficult to measure and is often unknown in edibles, the CDC says. And there’s always the risk that someone ingests the edible without even knowing it’s a drug.

With recreational marijuana legalized in New York, it’s vital for parents to be more aware of keeping any marijuana products in childproof containers and out of reach of children.

“Since marijuana use has been legalized in some states, accidental marijuana poisonings in children have increased, sometimes requiring visits to the emergency room or hospitalization,” the CDC says.

The district and police have encouraged parents to use the many resources available for assistance, including the Riverhead Community Awareness Program. The district also has psychologists, social workers and counselors available who are trained to deal with drug abuse.

The recent suspected overdoses thankfully did not result in serious injury, but they serve as a critical reminder of the dangers lurking, from seemingly innocent edible candy to deadly fentanyl.