Louie's Law: Illinois legislation sets new standard for drug education in schools

For years, the primary approach to teaching kids about drugs was to "just say no." Now, a new Illinois law signed this summer is expanding that method.

When Felicia Miceli shares her story online, she is not only talking about losing her son to a drug overdose in 2012, but also a new law that’s named after him.

"I know it will change a lot of people's lives," Miceli said. "It really encompasses everything I've felt and wanted people to know. And it can reach so many more people instead of just going from school to school to school."

Louie's Law is a mandate for the Illinois Board of Education to create and recommend a comprehensive drug education curriculum because currently there isn’t one.

"There's no mandated curriculums or standards. There's the school code. The school code is enshrined into law about what public schools have to teach regarding health, regarding art, you know, whatever the subject is. So this was an amendment to the school code," said Chelsea Laliberte-Barnes, co-chair of the Illinois Harm Reduction and Recovery Coalition.

Laliberte Barnes, a licensed social worker, co-wrote the bill with 18-year-old Kyra Jagodzinski, the coalition's coordinator.

"It's really just trying to keep kids safe, keeping people my age safe and happy and healthy," Jagodzinski said. "Louie’s Law is a comprehensive evidence-based update to the guidelines that state board provides to public and private schools in the state to teach kids or to teach K through 12 students more about what drugs are."

It will also give high school students the chance to learn how to recognize an overdose. They will also learn how to use fentanyl test strips, administer naloxone and other harm reduction steps.

"So harm reduction is pretty much everywhere once you think about it," said researcher and psychologist Geoff Bathjie. "Requiring auto manufacturers to put seat belts and airbags in cars. Carrying an EpiPen if they know they have an allergic reaction to bee stings."

Bathje has studied harm reduction for more than a decade. He knows it’s not something all parents are comfortable with their kids learning about.

"I think we can still send messages that we would prefer young people not to use drugs. And also for those that are already using drugs because they will also be in the room. Here are the ways you can stay safe," he said.

Louie's Law is a departure from previous programs that only taught students to "just say no" to drugs. That’s something Laliberte-Barnes says is a good thing.

"Of course, we don't want young people to use. Of course we don't. But if they're going to, we have to keep them safe. And that's where we're at now," Laliberte-Barnes said.

"So while more teens we actually know might be using less, the ones who are using are dying, and we need to be focusing on how to keep them safe, period," she added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting overdose deaths among teens 14 to 18 went up 94% from 2019 to 2020 and another 20% from 2020 to 2021.

A FOX 32 data analysis of the Chicago area found there have been just over 140 overdose deaths in the last four years involving teens and pre-teens. And while the majority of those deaths have been older teens, there were at least two cases where a 12-year-old overdosed and died.

"You can’t reverse your own overdose. So if we train somebody to use naloxone, we’re training them to save the life of somebody essentially in their social network who they might be around when they’re using drugs," Bathje said.

"And so that’s one piece I think that parents might miss is that your kid might be around people who are using drugs. And the trauma that occurs if somebody overdoses versus if they could have easily and safely reduced that overdose and saved that person’s life," he added.

Bathje also says research doesn’t show an increase in drug use when people learn about harm reduction.

"If anything sometimes the opposite might happen. It makes them more aware of what the realistic risks are," Bathje said.

"The essence of harm reduction is not encouraging drug use. It's encouraging life, it's encouraging saving and keeping people alive long enough to get them into recovery and to get them the help that they do need," Jagodzinski said.

Something Louie's mom hoped would have happened for her son.

"Having something like Louie's Law in place when Louie was going through those things. Could have definitely interceded at some very important points in his life," Miceli said.

Under Louie's Law, the state board of education has until July 2024 to make its comprehensive drug education curriculum available to all school districts. It’s important to note that participation is optional.