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“He overdosed just down the hall from me,” said Kyle Santoro, a Los Gatos High School senior. He was recalling the tragedy of a fellow classmate that overdosed on fentanyl during Santoro’s sophomore year. The student was revived and ultimately lived, but was expelled from school and, according to Santoro, “was never heard from again.”

Now, Santoro is working to ensure that those voices are heard, and he’s doing it on a large scale. 

Santoro is the director of “Fentanyl High,” a documentary about drugs, mental health and helping teens to break out of a cycle of self-impairment. Santa Cruz Community Health (SCCH), Santa Cruz County Office of Education (COE) and local school districts will co-host a free community viewing of “Fentanyl High,” on Thursday, May 2, at 6:30pm at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz.

“This powerful documentary directly speaks to the new reality and tragic statistic that drug overdoses and fentanyl poisoning are now the third leading cause of pediatric deaths in the United States,” said Kristen O’Connor, RN, Addiction Program Director at SCCH. “The goal of this screening is to educate and empower teens to prevent deaths in Santa Cruz County and to give families hope if their teenager struggles with substance use, including resources for evidence-based treatment.”

“Fentanyl High” is filmed from the perspective and experiences of high school students, providing an intimate look into why teens are succumbing to fentanyl poisoning and what actions teens and their families can take to combat it. Through candid interviews and first-hand accounts, the film sheds light on the complexities of the opioid crisis gripping youth.  

“Families will leave the event with concrete steps for both prevention and support around this issue,” said Dr. Heather Thomsen, a school-based health manager at Santa Cruz County Office of Education. “We will be providing parents and caregivers ‘Let’s Talk’ booklets and tip sheets identifying the signs of an overdose. School nurses will be passing out free Narcan, a lifesaving medication, at the end of the event.”

Stories like the one Santoro shares are more common than most would like to believe. In California, there were 12,142 fentanyl-related deaths in 2022; 2023 saw an increase to 12,799, and 2024 has already seen its share of overdoses.

In fact, states in the western part of the country dramatically increased their numbers between 2022 and 2023: Oregon had a 38.56% increase in fentanyl deaths; Washington State had a 36.93% increase, and Alaska registered a 45.89% increase.

The impact of fentanyl in the illicit drug scene can’t be overstated—in 2022, fentanyl killed more young adults than Covid, and was labeled as part of an addiction epidemic that was ripping across the country (USA Today, Feb. 6, 2022).

According to UCLA Health, about 22 high school age adolescents (14-18) died each week from overdoses in 2022 due to fentanyl-laced prescription pills; that number was more than double the 2019-20 reported deaths. 

But how can prescription pills be laced with the deadly additive? Fentanyl is found in counterfeit drugs like oxycodone, benzodiazepines and other pills that teenagers may be tempted to take.

“Because of what happened to my classmate, I really wanted to learn more about what drives adolescents and teens to use drugs, and to discover the ‘why’ behind their reasoning,” Santoro said. “Why are they self-medicating, and what are we as a society doing to provide the support and help they need? I started this project over 14 months ago, and I’m still looking to find the answers.”

The documentary film includes commentary from students, including those who have struggled with addiction, and parents, including some who recently lost a child to an overdose. In trying to market the film, Santoro has met with county and regional supervisors who are eager to share his work and contribute to combatting this epidemic of addiction.

O’Connor and Nadia Al-Lami, Adolescent Health Director at Santa Cruz Community Health, work in a low-income clinic focused on youth, and the two collaborated on their common goal to address adolescent drug use.

“We are dedicated to building capacity across the tri-county area for youth access to treatment for opioid use disorder. Through collaborative efforts and evidence-based interventions, we are striving to be part of the solution to the opioid crisis affecting our youth,” Al-Lami said. 

One of the film’s actors, Joseph Lonergan, a senior at Los Gatos High School, said, “The fentanyl epidemic is devastating the lives and well being of teens across America. Fentanyl is tearing apart families and destroying communities, leaving an emotional toll on everyone.”

Ashton Ross, another actor in the film and a junior at Los Gatos High School, added, “We need to be aware about the current fentanyl crisis in high schools and among the youth. Fentanyl is contentiously ending lives as they begin. Awareness can change this.”

Katy Hawk, an actress in the film and a recent graduate of Los Gatos High School, agrees.

“The fentanyl epidemic across the globe is simply happening due to lack of knowledge,” Hawk said. “The majority of teens being exposed to fentanyl aren’t even aware that it is in the drug they are taking. Education is powerful. It is better to be educated and safe than uncertain and at risk.”

Teens have the power to control this fentanyl epidemic, but they tend to trust their peers more than educators or adults, which can be good or bad. This film seeks to hear about the fentanyl problem straight from the high school students.

“I am making this film to inspire teens to save their own lives and those of their friends, their sisters, brothers or family members,” said Santoro, adding, “I hope teens will ask themselves, ‘How can I be a better friend? How can I save a friend’s life?’”

To that end, Santoro is developing a study guide and other written collateral to distribute at screenings of his film. 

“My hope is that people who see the film will feel empowered to help others,” he said. “We have the ability to support our peers, and anyone who sees ‘Fentanyl High’ will leave with the knowledge and tools needed to provide that help.”

Tickets for the May 2 screening of “Fentanyl High” at 6:30pm at the Rio Theater are free, but they’re going fast. Visit to reserve your seat.

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Christina Wise covers politics, education, art & culture, and housing issues. She has a degree in Communication from San Diego State University, and has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley since 1996. She's a community advocate and a mother of two.


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