Medical examiner: 11-year-old died from fentanyl in her system, not fight at school

The Pierce County Medical Examiner determined that an 11-year-old who died last year passed away as a result from fentanyl in her system, not due to an altercation at school.

In May 2022, Lenyia Swansey-Faafiti was taken to Mary Bridge Children's Hospital, where she died several days later. 

"Back in November, our detectives were notified by the medical examiner’s office of fentanyl being found in this girl’s system," said Sgt. Darren Moss, Pierce County Sheriff's Department, Public Information Officer. "We don’t know how, why, when or where she was exposed to or ingested fentanyl."  

Moss says it's clear that fentanyl is the reason she died, but more information is needed before a manner of death can be determined. 

"The medical examiner is office is not able to make a determination in the manner of death.  Normally if it’s an overdose, it’s an accidental death," he said.   

Following the girl's death, protesters gathered outside the middle school to demand district-wide changes, since many believed she had been bullied and that her injuries were a result of an altercation.

Deputies said in May that they didn't believe her death was related to the fight.  

"We had detectives called out, and understand, in this situation, it was a medical emergency. There was no sign of foul play whatsoever.  There was no mention of narcotics. There was no sign of narcotics anywhere at the scene," said Moss told FOX 13 today. "They had talked to family members, they had talked to friends, and everyone was concerned about the fight that had occurred earlier in the week.  We had ruled that out right away."

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department said in Jan. of 2023 they have conducted a full investigation and found no evidence of fentanyl in her home, where she lived, or at school. It's unclear how she came into contact with the fentanyl.

"For us, it’s a mystery where this could have come from," said Moss. 

Lenyia's grandfather, PJ Fa'afiti says the family is requesting privacy at this time.  He says while time has passed, the newly released results have taken the family back. 

"Ninety-nine percent of her beautiful life growing up, she was never troubled.  She loved life and her family so very much, as we love her so very much," he said. "She is a sweet and caring person we dearly miss."   

The Franklin Pierce School District is helping students at Ford Middle School, where Lenyia went to shool, and also, district-wide.   

"It’s something that all schools are paying attention to. We are tending to students right now. They are obviously learning about this for the first time as well.  Students have dedicated time each week and in which part of the curriculum is on social and emotional learning. They develop tools to share with one another so they feel supported during those times," said Franklin Pierce Schools Public Information Officer Joel Zylstra. 

The medical examiner's report stated that her official cause of death is "anoxic encephalopathy due to acute fentanyl intoxication," and the manner of death is unknown.

According to the National Institutes of Health, anoxic encephalopathy is described as a "process that begins with the cessation of cerebral blood flow to brain tissue, which most commonly results from poisoning, as is the case, for example with carbon monoxide poisoning or drug overdose, vascular injury, or insult, or cardiac arrest. Many patients who suffer anoxic brain injury expire without regaining full consciousness, and many have very poor neurologic outcomes."