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For Mesa superintendent, protecting families from opioid overdoses and addiction is personal

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Posted at 8:47 PM, Feb 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-25 00:14:13-05

MESA, AZ — As of February 7, 2019, there were 2,384 suspected opioid deaths in Arizona over 20 months. That is one person dying in our state every six hours. Now, schools are feeling the impact. ABC15 sat down with the superintendent of Arizona's largest school district to see how she is working to protect students and staff, and why this effort is so personal.

It's been a little more than two years since the incident that changed the course of Dr. Ember Conley's life.

"It makes you question, are we really doing everything we can do to help our children?" she said.

Children like Grant and Ryan. Best friends from Dr. Conley's previous district in Utah who overdosed on a synthetic opioid and died.

"When you have a child pass away on your watch it's extremely emotional, especially then being a parent and thinking it could be my own child," Dr. Conley said.

For the superintendent of Mesa Public Schools, protecting families from the dangers of overdose and addiction is something she is dedicated to at work and inside her home. Dr. Conley adopted her now 10-year-old son, Dellinger, after he was born addicted to meth.

"So incredibly thankful that he's with me and with our family because he could be a statistic," Dr. Conley said.

As the sobering stats continue to rise, Dr. Conley says the stakes are only getting higher. Opioid addiction is now creating new challenges inside the classroom.

"We have children that are now born, that have had some type of influence in the womb," she said. "Their brains are rewired and structured that we don't necessarily have the systems to be able to deal with. What we've seen is just a massive uptick in the number of behavior referrals."

Meantime, technology is now giving teens unprecedented access to dangerous substances.

"I can get on my computer right now, and within three clicks I can order synthetic opioids," Dr. Conley said.

That is one of many reasons the superintendent is taking action, saying awareness and mental health support are key.

"We're trying to be able to help our parents and our students and our staff to deal with the trauma that's occurred in our society," she said.

Next year the district plans to hire 35 elementary counselors. It is sharing resources with other East Valley schools to address the growing number of teen suicides, and school health offices now carry Naloxone, a drug used to reverse an opioid overdose.

"This isn't a school issue, this isn't the city's issue, this is a community issue," said Dr. Conley. "This is a state issue; this is a national issue."

Still, as far-reaching as this issue goes, Dr. Conley knows it will always be personal.

"If I'm able to save one life, I've done my job," she said.

There are resources out there to help families navigate through opioid use and addiction. Click here for more information.