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Students Honor Classmate's Life After Fentanyl Overdose

Carolina Cuadros, tbh Producer
Carolina Cuadros
Carolina Cuadros, tbh Producer
"I remember seeing the opportunity for this story to really change the way that we in our community thought about drug use and the dangers of drug use."
Chesney Evert

After witnessing how her school’s journalism program honored the life of a student who passed away from a fentanyl overdose, recent Carlmont High School graduate and UC Berkeley freshman Carolina Cuadros tells how journalism can make a difference in our communities.

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Story Transcript

Carolina: From my perspective, trends are the downfall of our modern society. They fade away just as fast as they emerge. I’ve seen it happen so many times at my school, Carlmont High School.

This pattern can seem harmless when it comes to how we dress or what we eat. But simply moving on from one social or political cause to the next can have consequences. And so can failing to address tragedies in a meaningful way.

I observed an outlier my junior year of high school when my classmates refused to move on.

This was in 2021 after a high school senior named Colin Walker, lost his life after fatally overdosing on a drug laced with fentanyl.

Elizabeth Walker is Colin’s mom…she goes by Liz, and says she and her family is still trying to put one foot in front of the other.

Liz Walker: But we don't want it to be the only thing that we remember about Colin, you know…how he died.

Liz says Colin loved nature, going on adventures and making everyone laugh.

Liz Walker: Colin was just a go, go, go active, sporty, funny kid from the beginning. He was, I mean, he was huge. He was a good kid, seeming to go in the right direction.

But she said something inside him changed during his sophomore year of high school. Colin struggled with anxiety and depression, a battle that worsened during quarantine. To cope, Liz said, he brought drugs sold on Snapchat.

Liz Walker: Colin wasn't taking the drugs because he was just this happy kid who wanted to party. He was really struggling with being alone and COVID didn't make it easy and feeling completely just desperate.

The last time he bought cocaine, it was laced with fentanyl.

Liz says Snapchat has made it possible to order drugs as easily as ordering pizza. COVID, the opioid crisis, and easy access to drugs were all coming together at once…and her son was in the middle of it.

Liz Walker: Early on. I mean, like as if the day he died, I knew that we weren't going to just tell people he died of a mysterious illness or passed away suddenly in his sleep. There was no doubt with me and my husband that, you know, we knew right away fentanyl was involved

One in five deaths in California among young people…ages 15 to 24… were caused by fentanyl in 2021. That’s according to analysis of data from the San Jose Mercury News.

Fentanyl overdose is not limited to those who knowingly consume the drug. College students taking cocaine to study late at night. Teenagers experimenting with weed for the first time with their friends. The reality is that overdose deaths are impacting everyone.

Liz Walker: The kids that are dying right now. Are getting like the equivalent of two grains of salt. And they're dying and that they're not intentionally taking it. They're buying something on Snapchat. It's not what they thought. And it's killing them.

Colin’s death was the first time most of the students at Carlmont high school lost a classmate. My friend, Chesney Evert, was part of the journalism program at the school.

Chesney Evert: I remember sitting in class and our teachers put this like statement on the board about Colin, Colin's passing and. Like there were just such a range of emotions from both me and all of my friends. Anger one that this had happened to a person so young and a person our age who is just about to graduate high school

I was there too. I remember grieving his life with all my classmates, especially with my peers in the school’s journalism program. I also grieved the loss of innocence at our school. The mindset of “ we are untouchable!” disappeared.

Chesney Evert: This issue was becoming so prevalent that even our bubble of the Bay Area couldn't protect us. Grief and sadness on behalf of him and his family, who, you know, lost a really incredible person. And at the same time, I remember seeing the opportunity for this story to really change the way that we in our community thought about drug use and the dangers of drug use.

Every other month, tragic events occur around the world, and Scot Scoop Carlmont High School’s nationally recognized journalism publication covers them.

California wildfires, the Ukraine crisis, the Turkey- Syria earthquakes. These have been the main topics of conversation for the student body – for about a week each time.

Chesney Evert: The way our news cycle functions in the present day, we almost become immune to these tragedies that are so impactful and raw and real.

After that, I’d see the topic disappear from the public’s attention. We would move on, forget, and stop actively caring. This was exactly what Scot Scoop set itself to break with Colin Walker.

Chesney Evert: And I think I wanted to make sure that this issue was not met with that same immunity because it shouldn't be the loss of a young person to something as prevalent and dangerous as fentanyl is something that should be highlighted and remembered.

And she would do just that. But it would take time.

She and her classmates waited to report on this, until Colin’s family was ready.

Chesney Evert: So we at Carmont Journalism had a death policy in place. I believe that we'd never had to use it or we just wrote it following his passing. There was something along those lines, but we wanted to give the family and community enough time to grieve. Right. We weren't. We don't want to jump in on this coverage because obviously, it doesn't serve anybody.

Eventually, Colin’s family did reach out at the beginning of 2022. They wanted the school publication to report on Colin’s story and the broader issue of fentanyl lacing. And so the team got to work on what became a massive multimedia project.

Chesney led a group of six journalists who worked on multiple platforms…podcast production, video production, news features, and data visuals.

Chesney worked closely with the family to make sure the story was delivered accurately, and that the family was comfortable with what they planned to publish. She says writing the story actually pushed her to almost rewrite her own code of journalism ethics.

For example, she allowed Liz to read the story before publication.

Chesney Evert: So what I remember is Colin's mom, Liz, made some she's she's very funny. She has a great sense of humor, and she made some quip about Panda Express or something, and we put it being Colin's favorite food.

In one of the drafts, Liz left a note about wanting to leave out the details about Panda Express.

Chesney Evert: When you think of “professional journalism”, those aren't always the moments that you see highlighted in stories. But we as a team decided that, no, that was the exact, the very human, very real and relatable evidence of a mother son relationship that we really wanted to keep in this piece. 

The package, titled “They Didn’t ask for Fentanyl” was published in March of 2022.

The pieces educated the school community on fentanyl lacing,, described who Colin was and what led to his death. The stories also explained potential solutions…like the widespread use of naloxone.

Anoushka Amekerira, my friend and co managing editor, worked on the audio aspect of the project. It featured an interview with the co-founder of songs for charlie, an organization Liz and her family worked with to raise awareness about fentanyl lacing . Anoushka says this all provided students with an education they weren’t finding anywhere else.

Anoushka Amekerira: like students reaching out to me who I'd never talked to before, and they were like, Hey, I learned a lot from your audio package. Like, I think it was really beneficial that you put that out there.

The student population was eager to learn and hear from other students about an issue that hit so close to home. The students who worked on the journalism project — were invited to participate in a discussion about the fentanyl crisis – during a presentation in the school’s auditorium.

Anoushka Amekerira: We got to hear more stories and like how our project kind of sparked more conversations in the community.

Colin’s mom, Liz Walker, has continued to work with the high school to spread awareness. She spoke to the freshman during an assembly this past year about fentanyl lacing.

She’s planning to do the same this year to keep everyone informed, especially those who did not attend Carlmont during the time of Colin’s death.

Liz Walker: if you're personally going to school and someone dies in your high school from drunk driving or from a drug overdose or suicide, there is going to be more awareness. Is that, you know, is that going to prevent? All future deaths? No, but maybe some.

Looking back, I didn’t even know what the word fentanyl meant before Colin’s death. Thanks to the journalism team and his family, my peers and I learned enough about fentanyl to teach others about it…continue educating ourselves…and hopefully, prevent more deaths.

This story was made to be heard, click the play button at the top of the page to listen