PARK CITY — After two 13-year-old Treasure Mountain Junior High students died last fall after overdosing on a synthetic opioid known as pink, Park City School District Superintendent Ember Conley has become "a public voice on an issue I never wanted to address."
Conley wrote those words in the August cover story of School Administrator, a monthly magazine delivered to public school superintendents nationwide.
The article largely describes the school district’s response to the tragedy, which included activating crisis plans to hosting community events where students, staff and community members came together to grieve, learn and move forward together.
But the article also reveals a behind-the-scenes look how the school district, in concert with the larger community, addressed the tragic loss of two young boys and its overarching hope "to make a difference for more children by coming together as a community," Conley wrote.
In the 11 months since the boys' deaths, Conley has been invited speak before state, regional and national audiences of educators, substance abuse prevention and treatment professionals, and university departments of psychiatry.
"The ability to share this story, while being mindful of our grieving family, friends and community, has taken on a life of its own. As educators, we are taught from our first education course to share best practices. This has become my mission — if I can save one young person’s life, I have fulfilled my purpose,” she writes.
The ordeal began on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016.
That afternoon, Conley received a text message from a parent "that possibly a student had passed away that morning at his home."
Conley confirmed the information with the Park City Police Department, and through a series of emails and telephone calls she activated the school district’s crisis plan.
“By the time school opened on Monday morning, we had counselors on site from other schools, teachers had been informed through the emergency calling tree, and we had a list of students whom we were watching closely because of their friendship with the deceased child.
“As we used our knowledge of being a trauma-informed district, we also knew that situations such as this can trigger students who have had trauma in their early lives. We worked with our school counselors to be extra attentive to our fragile students. By the end of the day Monday, we had debriefed and continued to check in with the close friends of the victim and their families,” Conley wrote.
After a stressful and heart-wrenching day at work, Conley went home to her own elementary school-age son. She also has a daughter who is starting her sophomore year of college.
"I look at those parents, and we're all those parents and it can happen to any of us," Conley said in an interview Friday. "Being in these jobs like this, there's not a day that goes by that every single night I hug and kiss my kids. I've seen too many of these situations, and they're so close."
Early the following morning, while en route to Heber City for a conference, Conley's cellphone rang.
"I received the call that I now know has changed my life forever. It was the Park City fire chief telling me that emergency responders were at the home of another student found unconscious and the prognosis was grim. I immediately contacted my assistant superintendent, followed by my crisis counselor and the principal. I knew we had only limited time to enact a safety and crisis plan. In the world of social media, it would be a matter of minutes before students were talking,” she wrote.
Conley turned around her car and headed back to Park City. She quickly arranged a meeting with the school district’s public relations specialist and representatives of law enforcement.
“With confirmation that a second 13-year-old boy had died that morning, we recognized we had a much bigger situation," she wrote.
Conley called the boy's father to extend her condolences but also to find out whether the boys' siblings were aware his death. They had not yet been informed so it bought time for district administrators and other professionals to set in motion a more extensive plan.
"While we could not point then to suicide or drug overdose for the deaths of the two eighth-graders, we knew we were facing a crisis of magnitude. Not only were we suffering from the loss of two students who had been in our school system since elementary school, we had teachers, staff members and siblings feeling tremendous pain. We called our state suicide expert, and she and her team began consulting with us by phone as they traveled to our community. She said we had to treat the tragedies delicately to prevent a contagion effect and that we must create a web of all students who could be affected,” she wrote.
On Sept. 12, the day after Grant Seaver's death and the day before Ryan Ainsworth passed away, the Park City Police Department released a public service announcement about a new substance that had hit the drug market in Utah, which was pink or U-47700 as identified by the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Pink had been linked to two deaths in other parts of the state. It was known to be highly toxic and available for purchase over the internet from labs in China.
It appeared to be a factor in the junior high students’ deaths, but that would not be confirmed until later.
While the school district heavily relied on its crisis plan and procedures, officials were dealing with a circumstances no one could have anticipated.
"As you much as you train for these, you really have to go with some of those basic instincts: Stay calm, getting your team together, communication and being really thoughtful of, 'Who are we not thinking about that we need to communicate to? How are we going to do that strategically?'" Conley said Friday.
In short order, counselors, administrators and law enforcement had gathered in a conference room sharing names of students they believed could be at heightened risk. Another team was put to work planning for the moment the students would learn of the second student’s death.
Yet another team worked to communicate to staff the best approach for sharing the news with the junior high. Still others worked with law enforcement on the growing investigation, which included searches of lockers and cars. Parents were advised to review the contents of their children’s backpacks.
Community leaders planned and conducted press briefings. Meanwhile, offers of assistance poured in from the across the state. The superintendent of every school district statewide reached out to Conley either by phone or email offering his or her help.
There were countless offers of assistance from the community, too, some from people who had no connection to the school community but whose lives in some way had been touched by the loss of a loved one, substance abuse or suicide.
“All this was unfolding while we prepared for the worst — the loss of another beloved child. How can we keep our students safe? Those minutes of planning — the struggle to beat the social media clock — were intense. Those hours of crisis training were being put to the test in a few short minutes,” Conley wrote.
Students’ social media posts helped educators and law enforcement connect the dots.
“Most shocking was the depth of information the students were now providing, information they had not previously shared with a trusted adult," Conley wrote.
"As a former high school principal, I always could count on one thing: Young adolescents talk nonstop, and nothing remains a secret. But this situation was different. Students knew things, yet hadn’t divulged. … We also had a few courageous and brave students coming forward, and for that we are forever in debt.”
What community leaders learned next was “mind-boggling,” Conley wrote.
The synthetic opioid had been ordered over the internet and mailed from overseas to the homes of the boys’ friends.
“The highly toxic synthetic drug could be purchased legally by anyone with a credit card or debit card, delivered directly in unmarked boxes to the confines of a private home,” she wrote.
For demonstration purposes, Conley agreed to show the Deseret News how readily the drug can be accessed. With a few clicks of a mouse, she arrived at a website that was selling a substance slightly different in compound to pink but just as potent. It contained a disclaimer that the drug was not to be used by humans but was for research purposes.
The search readily bypassed the school's web filters, "which I had considered to be the iron walls of internet safety," Conley wrote in the School Administrator article.
For the remainder of the school year and ramping up to the next, the school district has taken intentional steps to better meet the emotional needs of students and to offer resources to assist families, some of whom have resisted the help.
While school personnel powered through the difficult events and immediate aftermath, three or four months later, the emotions they had suppressed began to surface. The district brought in substitutes to give teachers the opportunity to just take off a class period to take a walk or a couple of days to rejuvenate.
There was a need for counselors to support school counselors who were supporting students, educators and staff.
In addition to grief, many people in the community felt overwhelming guilt for missing signs that something was amiss that afterward seemed obvious.
Moving forward, the school district is focused on five tenets to support students: health, safety, challenge, engagement and support.
"Every student in every classroom in every activity needs to have those five tenets," Conley said.
As the school district prepares for the start of the new school year, Conley said she's feeling the same excitement she feels at the beginning of each year.
"I remember being here last year and excited for the school year, and you never know what's coming," she said.
But this year is different because the school community "has grown together as a team. We've had to rely on each other a lot. There were lots of late-night phone calls, texts, lots of checking in, lots of friendships that were made," Conley said.
"I think that's been a really powerful part of this, that we've had to cross some of those professional areas. We're not just professionals with each other. We're friends. We're family. When you're feeling down and you're feeling blue, or when you're feeling overwhelmed and you're feeling you can't come into work one more day, (it's) 'How can we help?'"
As an administrator, Conley has shared stories from her own life experiences with students about resiliency.
One girl asked simply, "How do you do it?"
"When you're going through a really tough time, you get up every morning, you drink your coffee and you go to work.
"You get up in the morning. You take your shower, you get dressed and you go to school. That's how you get through it. I think that's what we did," she said.