Meet The Miami Teens Behind A Bill Aimed At Preventing Opioid Overdose Deaths In Schools

Feb 24, 2020

Asher Lieberman has been obsessed with diseases since he was little.

He was inspired by a character on a TV show who was a doctor with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He was intrigued by a book on the “top 10 worst diseases” that he picked up at a mobile library in his neighborhood.

When his mother drove him around town, often she’d hear his voice pop up from the backseat: “What is smallpox? What is gangrene? Tell me about the black plague.”

And then there were the bedtime stories.

“They were data-driven, very detail-oriented — the gorier, the better — bedtime stories to a 4 or 5-year-old,” Andrea Lieberman said. “If I tried to pivot and tell him a story that I think a typical little kid would be interested in, he'd bring me right back to infectious disease.”

Asher’s obsession has lasted into young adulthood. He’s now 18 and a senior at Ransom Everglades, a private school in Coconut Grove. His unusual interest has transformed from bedtime story fodder to career inspiration.  Now, it's led to an advocacy campaign aimed at preventing opioid overdose deaths in schools.

During one recent summer, Asher wanted to shadow an infectious disease doctor. He ended up doing an internship at a needle exchange program pioneered by Dr. Hansel Tookes of the University of Miami. As part of the program, drug users exchange used needles for clean ones, a simple transaction that helps reduce the spread of HIV and other bloodborne illnesses.

There, Asher saw the power of Narcan, a brand-name nasal spray of the drug naloxone, which can save the lives of people who are overdosing on opioids like heroin and fentanyl.

One day, “everything changed,” Asher said. Someone who came in looking for a clean needle was wearing a Ransom Everglades hat. Asher said the man told him he had attended the school years earlier.

“It really just hit me: the opioid epidemic can hit anyone at any time,” Asher said. “So I went home, and I did some research and, unlike 10 other states at the time, Florida did not have a Narcan in schools policy. And I thought, that's ridiculous!”

So he enlisted two friends to help him try to change that.

One of them, Jolie Dreiling, is a fellow senior at Ransom Everglades. Asher and Jolie decided they wanted to do something bigger than try to change the policy at just their own private school.

That’s where Genna Grodin comes in. Asher and Genna know each other from their temple and also went to the same elementary school. Now she’s a senior at Miami Beach Senior High, a Miami-Dade County public school.

The group started advocating at the school district level, presenting at school board meetings about the need for naloxone in schools. Quickly, they set their sights higher.

Last year, Genna wrote an email to state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat from North Miami Beach, asking for a meeting to discuss the group’s proposal. He filed a bill based on their idea the next day. Senate Bill 120 would allow schools to store naloxone, train employees to administer it on students who appear to be overdosing and protect the employees against liability.

When Pizzo wrote back saying he’d filed a bill, “I forwarded it to my mom immediately, and I was like, ‘Mom! Check your email!’” Genna said. “We were basically celebrating in our living room, like, ‘whoa!’ It was insane.”

The bill didn’t pass last year. It’s back during this year’s legislative session, and so far, it has been unanimously approved by two Senate committees. It still has another to go. The bill’s companion in the House of Representatives, though, has not yet moved.

The students are still hoping the bill could advance before the end of the legislative session, which is scheduled for mid-March.

If the bill passes, their next step would be to lobby school districts to implement it.

Then, they say, they would go national.