Lane Tech students analyze Chicago’s fentanyl crisis

Fentanyl was involved in 86% of opioid-related overdoses in Chicago in 2020, according to city data. Fentanyl overdoses started skyrocketing in 2018, said Luis Agostini, a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Chicago field division.

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An exterior shot of Lane Technical College Prep High School, a public selective-enrollment magnet high school in Roscoe Village.

A class of Lane Tech computer science students will learn about the fentanyl epidemic in their upcoming capstone project.

Catherine Odom/Sun-Times

Peter Jeske died of fentanyl poisoning just weeks before he would have graduated from Indiana University.

The 22-year-old from Glen Ellyn was excited to move to Denver to start a new job after graduation. But on April 5, 2021, he unknowingly took a counterfeit pill containing a lethal dose of fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid. His roommate found him dead the next day.

Peter’s father, Dean Jeske, now speaks at Chicago-area schools and retreats about the deadly consequences of “fentapills.”

Last week, he spoke to the senior class at Lane Technical College Prep High School, and brought a visual aid — two packets of Sweet’N Low.

“If these two packets contained fentanyl,” Jeske said, “there would be enough fentanyl ... to kill everybody in this auditorium.”

The nearly 1,100 students in the auditorium were silent.

Lane Tech senior Ellen Ariathurai called the presentation “really powerful.” Ariathurai is one of about 30 students who will research the fentanyl epidemic in Lane Tech’s Civic Action Through Computer Science Class.

Dan Stone teaches that class, and arranged for Jeske’s presentation.

In his class, students use computer and data science to better understand social issues. For their capstone project, the students will analyze fentanyl overdose data, focusing on Illinois, Cook County and Chicago.

Dan Stone (at screen) teaches students how to apply computer science to social issues in his class Civic Action Through Computer Science at Lane Tech.

Dan Stone (at screen) teaches students how to apply computer science to social issues in his class Civic Action Through Computer Science at Lane Tech. DEA officials spoke with students on Thursday as the students prepare for their capstone project about the fentanyl crisis.

Catherine Odom/Sun-Times

Fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin, is often the active ingredient in counterfeit pills. Dealers claim these pills are legitimate pharmaceuticals like Xanax and OxyContin, but they are often nothing more than fentanyl and filler powder, Jeske said.

In 2020, 86% of opioid overdoses in Chicago involved fentanyl, according to city data. Luis Agostini, a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago field division, said fentanyl overdoses started skyrocketing in 2018.

DEA officials spoke with Stone’s students Thursday as they prepared to begin their capstone project.

Patrick O’Dea, field intelligence manager for the Chicago field division of the DEA, told students the rise in counterfeit fentanyl pills is the result of high demand for pain pills caused by the opioid crisis.

Six out of 10 counterfeit pills the DEA seizes contain potentially lethal doses of fentanyl, Agostini said.

“You need to assume that any pill you come into contact with that wasn’t prescribed for you by a doctor is fake and made of fentanyl,” Jeske told students. “And there’s a really good chance it can kill you.”

Stone said he decided to research the fentanyl crisis in his class after seeing an organization called Song for Charlie, a non-profit that raises awareness about counterfeit pills, on social media.

Lane Tech computer science teacher Dan Stone stands in his classroom.

Dan Stone said he hopes his class Civic Action Through Computer Science helps students feel empowered. This is the third year Lane Tech has offered the class.

Catherine Odom/Sun-Times

When Stone reached out to Song for Charlie, the organization connected him with Jeske, who lives in the Chicago area. Jeske does not work for Song for Charlie, but he knows the founder and uses the organization’s materials in his presentations. Stone invited Jeske to speak to his class.

“I said, ‘I’m happy to talk to your class, but this is a bigger opportunity than that,’” Jeske told the Sun-Times after the presentation. “(Stone) then set out to see if we could get a bigger audience and amazingly pulled together the entire senior class.”

The presentation helped Ariathurai and her classmate Eliza McHale understand the fentanyl crisis beyond just the numbers, the two students said.

Both McHale and Ariathurai said they have been indirectly impacted by the fentanyl crisis. Ariathurai said two of her cousin’s friends at Ohio State University died of fentanyl poisoning, and McHale said when she mentioned the class project to a friend, the friend told her she knew someone who died from a fentanyl overdose.

Two female Lane Tech seniors smile for a photo in a classroom. At left is Ellen Ariathurai, and at right is Eliza McHale. They are students in Dan Stone’s Civic Action through Computer Science class. Catherine Odom/Sun-Times

Ellen Ariathurai (left) and Eliza McHale are Lane Tech seniors taking Civic Action Through Computer Science. Both students said they are interested in continuing to study data science in college.

Catherine Odom/Sun-Times

Stone proposed Civic Action Through Computer Science to CPS in 2019, and he has taught the class all three years it has been offered at Lane Tech. This is the first year students have done a capstone project, Stone said. The project will include both data analysis and communication components.

“It’s not just, ‘Are you getting your data analysis product?’ but, ‘Are you making it meaningful?’” Stone said. “How are you getting them to think through the whole picture?”

McHale, a senior, took Stone’s class last year and returned this year as a teaching assistant. She now helps supervise the class and its projects, and she said she plans to pursue a career in data science.

“The idea that what we learned throughout the year can actually save lives and influence people is something that’s very exciting to me,” said McHale.

Stone said he wants this project and his class as a whole to empower his students.

“I hope ... they’re learning that they do have new means of expressing themselves in ways that can positively effect change,” he said.

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