Those who knew Charlie Ternan described him as “a regular guy” who liked to play video games and hang out with his fraternity brothers. He was a movie buff and had great taste in music. They said, “Everyone loved his laugh — loud and contagious.”
Charlie was found by his friends, unresponsive in his room, on a Thursday night. The Song for Charlie website tells his story: “They tried their best to revive him, but it was too late. He was 22 years old and three weeks away from his college graduation.”
Charlie’s father, Ed Ternan, is now the co-founder of Song for Charlie, a national nonprofit that works to teach kids and families about the deadly risks of fake pills. He’s supporting a congressional effort to make this kind of education available in schools nationwide.
If passed, the Fentanyl Awareness for Children and Teens in Schools (FACTS) Act would replicate local education programs — including one in Beaverton — that have successfully curbed student deaths from synthetic opioid overdoses.
Among other things, the bill would establish a pilot program aimed at building public health awareness. It would also provide professional development for teachers and allow the lifesaving medication Naloxone to be purchased by school-based health centers.
“We are here for this,” Ternan said on a video call with reporters Thursday, his voice breaking. “This is what we need more of.”
A call to action
Fentanyl is odorless, colorless and fatal in extremely small doses. And it’s sweeping the nation.
“The scale of the fentanyl crisis in this country is hard to fathom,” Rep. Kevin Kiley, R-CA, said at a press conference with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-OR, Thursday. He added that more than 73,000 Americans died from fentanyl in the past year — about 200 deaths daily or one every seven minutes.
Death rates have increased significantly for people of color, especially older individuals within those communities, in recent years. But prevention advocates said the potent synthetic opioid drug is affecting young people of every race, gender and economic status, and has become a leading cause of death in the U.S.
In 2021, fentanyl was involved in 84% of all teen overdose deaths. From 2019 to 2021, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found fentanyl-related adolescent overdose deaths nearly tripled, and nearly a quarter of those deaths were from counterfeit pills that were not prescribed by a doctor.
“Story after story of promising young lives cut short must be a call to action for all of us,” Kiley said.
Oregon is already doing a lot of this work as drug-related deaths among Oregon teens are increasing faster than anywhere else in the country.
State lawmakers this spring passed House Bill 2395, which, in part, expands schools’ ability to administer Naloxone, the medicine capable of rapidly reversing an opioid overdose, on school grounds. Senate Bill 238, also passed this year, directs state officials to create a curriculum about the danger of fentanyl and other opioids.
Beaverton School District’s Fake and Fatal campaign has become a leading national example of something that works. Bonamici said the district has not lost a single student to fentanyl poisoning since its program started in April 2021.
Beaverton’s Drug & Alcohol Intervention Program Educator Kristen Gustafson said the district worked with health experts to develop lessons that are now used throughout the year in advisory classes for grades 6-12. They’re working on further updating their overall health curriculum, which will soon include lessons for high schoolers on how to recognize an overdose and how to react. They want kids to practice how to administer Naloxone just like they would CPR.
Gustafson said the district’s approach is a “theoretical framework.” In other words, teaching the important information in real-life scenarios so students more easily see how it could affect them. She said they also help the students build resilience and specific skills, like knowing how to advocate for themselves for mental health needs, rather than turning to a drug not meant for them.
“The landscape of illegal drugs has changed significantly in the last 10 to 15 years,” Gustafson said, speaking especially to how frequently prescription drug ads appear on TV and social media today. “We need to catch up with that.”
School districts in other states across the country, such as Maryland, Texas, and Ohio, are also required or permitted to incorporate educational materials regarding the dangers of synthetic opioids and other substances in K-12 schools. But other than this bill, proponents said there is currently no coordinated federal plan.
“I wouldn’t say it absolutely has to be done by an act of Congress. But… if we weren’t doing this, it would take a heck of a lot longer,” Bonamici said. “If you go district to district, or even state by state, it’s going to take longer, and in the meantime, lives could be lost.”
‘We need a national strategy’
Reps. Kiley and Bonamici are working on the proposed legislation along with co-sponsors Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Colorado, and Lori Chavez DeRemer, a Republican from Oregon.
“This is something affecting every community in this country,” Kiley said. “It is a national crisis. That’s why we need a national strategy.”
If passed, the bill would support partnerships to replicate and distribute existing educational materials that have had success, providing students, educators and families with the information, support and data they need. Bonamici clarified they would be providing flexible best practices and recommendations, not mandates.
The bill would allow Naloxone to be purchased by school-based health centers, and it would develop an interagency task force at the federal level to fight the crisis through education and prevention. Bonamici said this is in addition to ongoing work aimed at stopping the trafficking of these drugs, most notably in the Pacific Northwest on the I-5 corridor.
Finally, the bill would amend federal education law to increase opportunities for school employees to receive professional development for this work, and require school districts and states to inform the U.S. Department of Education about how they will advance these efforts.
Bonamici said, “This legislation will save lives.”
Laura Didier strongly believes in the power of this education after losing her son Zach when he was 17.
It was 2020, and Didier said there was no awareness of the risks of fentanyl at that time. Zach was a student at Whitney High School in Rocklin, California. She said the family found out too late that the pill her son thought was a Percocet painkiller was something else. Didier received acceptance letters from several colleges after he died.
“This crisis was new to our community,” she said. “I was blindsided by the tragic and sudden and unexpected death of my son.”
Didier is now involved with Song for Charlie, working with the Ternan family and many other parents and caregivers to stop more deaths from happening.
“If I’d had this knowledge, if I knew about this crisis and the counterfeit pill situation, if my son had known, he would still be here,” she said. “He would be at UCLA, or whatever school he ultimately decided on, but instead, he’s buried in a cemetery. And tragically, there are too many parents like myself.”
The bill is in the early phases, having just been introduced, but it has bipartisan support. Bonamici said the timeline is uncertain.
“The big unknown is whether the government’s going to shut down,” she said. “We don’t know when (or) if that’s going to happen. I hope it doesn’t. And I hope we can focus on doing what we’re here to do.”
Information and resources for teachers and families are available at dea.gov/onepill.