Widening the battle against Massachusetts’ opioid epidemic, the town of Easton will arm school nurses with a drug that can save lives by quickly reversing overdoses.
The vote by Easton’s School Committee last week to allow naloxone — widely known by its commercial name, Narcan — in two secondary schools starting this fall is the latest measure of the rising concern across the state about the abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers, which claimed an estimated 1,000 lives last year.
In authorizing the antidote in schools, Easton is in the vanguard among the state’s cities and towns, and the state Department of Public Health said the move reflected a growing interest in helping young people avoid the scourge.
Officials in Easton, a town of 23,000 south of Boston, said its drug problem is no worse than other towns, but they want to be proactive in case of an overdose on school grounds. The drug is now available to first responders statewide.
“Narcan isn’t the answer,’’ school nurse Sue Male said at the committee meeting Thursday. “We’re not saying having Narcan in the schools is going to make no kid abuse a substance. . . . But we really feel remiss if we wouldn’t have an emergency drug.”
The push to expand the use of the drug to schools appears to be growing.
In April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced funding to provide Narcan kits across the state. Rhode Island lawmakers recently passed a bill that requires public schools to stock the antidote.
Although nurses in Boston public schools do not have Narcan and there is no plan to purchase it, senior staff in the school district’s Heath Services Department are trained to administer Narcan, and the district plans to begin training all school nurses to use the drug for the upcoming school year, said Richard Weir, the School Department spokesman.
Last year saw what appeared to be the highest number of opioid deaths in the state’s history. Six were reported in Easton, and there were 19 in neighboring Brockton.
Superintendent Andrew W. Keough stressed that Easton’s drug problem is no more severe than that in other areas.
“We’re like everyone else,” Keough said. “We care about the kids, and we’re going to do everything we can to protect them.”
Some parents questioned the decision, but did not dismiss it outright.
“Is it really necessary?” asked Somying Monroe, who has two kids in the district. “Are we going to have more forms to sign as a parent? How much is it going to cost a year?’’
Keough said nurses will use their judgment to determine when administering the drug is necessary. As for the cost, Keough said he does not think the drug is expensive enough to pose a significant budgetary problem.
Laura Fogel, another parent in the district, said she worries that the schools will not be equipped, medically or legally, to handle administering Narcan. “Every parent in Easton and everywhere is worried about drugs,’’ Fogel said. “I know that Narcan is a lifesaver. I’m just not sure that schools are the right place for it.”
But many community members contacted Wednesday said they were on board with the School Committee’s decision.
The Fire Department is working with the school district so both entities in Easton can find the cheapest Narcan, said Fire Chief Kevin Partridge.
Town Administrator David Colton called it a “great policy” and “a step in the right direction.”
At last week’s School Committee meeting, Male and two other school nurses presented a compelling case for stocking Narcan, said Jacqueline Weisman, a member of the committee. Weisman said that she left convinced that the drug, which is administered as a nasal spray, is responsible and safe, much like an EpiPen, a common medical device to treat severe allergic reactions.
“I think it’s safer than an EpiPen,” said Dr. Alexander Walley, the medical director for the opiate overdose prevention pilot program at the state Department of Public Health.
Walley supports placing Narcan in schools. This recommendation, he said, does not necessarily coincide with more school overdoses. The opportunity to save lives justifies its expansion, Walley said, who also is a physician at Boston Medical Center specializing in addiction.
For Joanne Peterson, founder and director of a nonprofit that supports families dealing with drug addiction and recovery and also the parent of a son dealing with addiction, providing Narcan is a no-brainer.
“This is happening. This is real. It’s getting worse by the day,” Peterson said. “So it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”
Monica Disare can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.