The Horrifying Epidemic of Teen-Age Fentanyl Deaths in a Texas County

Rachel Monroe:

Last February, when a teen-age boy died of a fentanyl overdose in Kyle, Texas, south of Austin, local law enforcement hoped that it was an isolated incident. “By all accounts, he did most of his association with the Austin crowd,” Kyle’s police chief, Jeff Barnett, recalls thinking. “He goes to school in Austin, associates with people from Austin, this is not particularly a Kyle drug problem.” Then, in May, a fifteen-year-old named Noah Rodriguez was found unresponsive after taking drugs; he spent four days in a coma before recovering. In June, another local high-school student suffered a fatal overdose. Weeks later and a few blocks away, a teen-age girl was found dead in her room with slivers of a blue pill on the windowsill by her bed. “At that point I knew—there’s something coming,” Barnett said. “This is a tidal wave.” The wave was still cresting. In August, two other local parents went to wake up their teen-age son for dinner and couldn’t rouse him. Days later, Rodriguez overdosed again, this time fatally. Teen-agers in the Hays County region overdosed, but did not die, in an elementary-school parking lot, during class, and in school bathrooms. Grieving parents paid for a billboard with pictures of some of the kids who’d died that year, grinning boys in T-shirts and hoodies, next to the words “Fentanyl Steals Your Friends.”

Two decades ago, Kyle was a town of some six thousand people. It has since octupled in size, and many of the fields where teen-agers used to chug beer at pasture parties have been paved over and replaced by town-house developments. On some farm-to-market roads, you can still spot a cow or two, but much of the county, one of the fastest-growing in the nation, has been overtaken by Austin’s growth. In the Hays Consolidated Independent School District, which includes four high schools, fourteen elementary schools, and six middle schools, test scores and median incomes are above state averages, though not dramatically so. The district adds around fifteen hundred new students a year. “We have a lot of people coming in for the technology industry in Austin,” Hays C.I.S.D. Superintendent Eric Wright told me. “We have a lot of first-time Texans that come from Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras.” The county’s infrastructure hasn’t caught up with its expansion: the Hays C.I.S.D. administration is run out of a former tractor-supply store and a suite of temporary buildings, and the county has retained some of the camaraderie of a smaller town.