Girl dies from fentanyl-laced painkiller, latest in wave of Texas teen deaths

A Drug Enforcement Administration chemist checks confiscated powder containing fentanyl at the DEA Northeast Regional Laboratory on Oct. 8, 2019, in New York. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
A Drug Enforcement Administration chemist checks confiscated powder containing fentanyl at the DEA Northeast Regional Laboratory on Oct. 8, 2019, in New York. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

A 16-year-old Texas girl died of fentanyl poisoning after taking just one pill laced with the opioid, her parents and the teen's school district announced Wednesday - the latest in a wave of teen overdoses in the state sparking lawmakers to call for schools to increase education surrounding the drug.

Sienna Vaughn, a junior at Plano High School in Plano, Tex., took a pill Feb. 19 that she got from a friend that she thought was Percocet, a prescription painkiller she believed could help her relax, the girl's family wrote on a memorial website for her. But when Stephanie Vaughn, her mother, went to go check on Sienna and her friend, she found her daughter pale and the friend gurgling on the bed, she told KDFW.

Medics rushed the two to a hospital. The friend survived, but Sienna was pronounced dead of what was confirmed to be fentanyl poisoning.

"They didn't know what they had," Sienna's mother told the TV station. "They didn't know it was fentanyl."

In a letter sent to parents Wednesday evening, Plano Independent School District Superintendent Theresa Williams confirmed that an unidentified student had recently died of a fentanyl overdose.

"We recently experienced the tragic loss of one of our beloved Plano ISD students to a deadly fentanyl poisoning," Williams said in the letter, according to WFAA. "I cannot express the sadness and grief that we are all feeling."

The Vaughn family told The Washington Post that they have been "crushed by the sudden loss of our wonderful daughter and sister."

"She meant everything to us and we'll never fully recover," the family said in a statement. "Our goal in going public with her story is to honor her memory by trying to save the lives of other children."

Sienna's death is the latest fatal teen fentanyl overdose to rock Texas in recent months, as parents, lawmakers and authorities respond via interviews, proposed bills and even billboards featuring the faces of young people who have died.

In North Texas, there have been nearly a dozen cases of students in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District overdosing on fentanyl between September and early March, NBC News reported. The cases, which include three deaths, brought about charges against three people for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, according to a federal complaint last month.

Billboards went up this week near Austin showing Cameron Stewart, a 19-year-old from Cedar Park, Tex., who died after taking a laced Valium in 2021. The billboard, which features a photo of a smiling Stewart, reads, "Fentanyl kills ... just ask my mom!"

Texas Republicans have responded to the fentanyl deaths by calling for more education in schools and harsher punishments for those convicted of selling the opioid. State Rep. Terry Wilson (R) proposed a bill this month that calls for school districts to give at least 10 hours of instruction related to "fentanyl prevention and drug poisoning awareness" for students in grades six through 12. The bill is called "Tucker's Law" for Tucker Roe, a 19-year-old from Leander, Tex., who, like Vaughn, died after he bought and took what he thought was a Percocet in 2021.

The Texas Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that would allow prosecutors to charge fentanyl distributors with murder. The bill sponsored by state Sen. Joan Huffman (R), which would classify fentanyl overdoses as "poisonings," has found support from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and is expected to be signed into law. The state GOP's approach of increasing criminal penalties has been criticized by experts, who accuse the lawmakers of not doing enough to help with addiction.

What's unfolding in Texas reflects the nationwide uptick in fentanyl overdoses among young people. Depending on a person's body size, tolerance and past usage, a fentanyl dose of as little as 2 milligrams can be lethal, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

A December report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the median monthly overdose deaths related to fentanyl for people ages 10 to 19 increased by 182 percent from July to December 2019 compared with the same period in 2021. Between July 2019 and December 2021, more than 2,200 teens fatally overdosed in the United States, according to the report - and fentanyl was involved in 84 percent of those deaths.

Sienna's family said their daughter was involved in cheerleading and Girl Scouts, and she loved thrift shopping, going to concerts and playing with the family's cats.

"She was just living her 16-year-old life," mother Stephanie Vaughn said to KDFW.

On Feb. 19, Sienna was eating snacks and goofing off with her friend on what appeared to be a regular Sunday, her mom told local media. But the mother realized something was wrong when her daughter didn't respond after she knocked on the door. Vaughn opened the door and understood there was danger, she said.

"Her friend was making this weird gurgling noise and I saw Sienna and she was just so pale," the mother recalled to the station, saying she started performing CPR. "I immediately said, 'Call 911, call 911.' "

The family wrote on their memorial page that even though they found her only about an hour after she had taken the fentanyl, it was too late.

"Taking a prescription pill that someone gave her was a mistake, but this should NOT have been a fatal error," they wrote. "With Fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills in circulation, people are not getting a second chance."

In the Wednesday letter to Plano ISD parents, Williams urged families to talk to their kids about the threats of drug use, specifically fentanyl.

"It is crucial that students and those of us who care for them understand the risks involved and the devastating consequences that can come from experimenting with this and other drugs, which come in various forms - from pills to vape solutions," Williams wrote.

Since Sienna's death, her family has raised more than $31,000 on GoFundMe to help raise awareness around getting the overdose-reversal drug Narcan into schools and work with organizations focused on the fentanyl crisis. The Vaughn family stressed to The Post that Sienna's story, along with so many of the other examples of young people dying of fentanyl overdoses, is important to share - no matter how painful it is for them.

"No family should go through this pain and no child should lose their future due to the trap that is fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl," the family said. "Please talk to your kids and spread the world about this poison."

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