As heroin deaths pile up, one Bucks school district weighs unusual step

Luke Johnson's family started a foundation, Luke's HEROin ME Foundation, after the 22-year-old Pennsbury graduate was found dead over an overdose in Florida on May 17. From left: his mother, Maureen Johnson; his cousin, Nicole McDonald; and his sister, Alex Johnson.

In June, a woman approached the podium at the Pennsbury School Board meeting to tell a story rarely heard at such gatherings.

Maureen Johnson revealed that her son, Luke, a 2013 graduate of the Lower Bucks County school district, was dead. He had battled pills since his student days, graduated to heroin, and overdosed in his Florida apartment.

Johnson said she’d been shocked to watch an untold number of  Pennsbury graduates die from drug addiction or suicide. Within two weeks of Luke’s death, five others succumbed to drugs. The next generation of Pennsbury students faced a similar fate, she warned, if the schools didn’t launch a massive intervention.

Some wept as Johnson spoke that night. No one seemed more moved than board member Jacqueline Redner. What few knew at the time was that Redner and her husband were in their own hellish struggle with a son hooked on heroin.

On Tuesday, Pennsbury’s board is poised to approve plans for an ambitious school-based drug-intervention program. Beyond increasing training, school programs and adding full-time staffers from a drug treatment facility, the district hopes to offer after-school individual and family therapy, a possibly unprecedented step for an area public school.

“We’re willing to accept whatever responsibility we have for trying to make a difference,” said William J. Gretzula,  superintendent of the 10,200-student district. “This is a national epidemic … and if we link together, we can form a wall and make a difference.”

Last week, two more Pennsbury alumni died of heroin overdoses. One was Josh Redner, 28, the son of the school board president.

He had a fight with his girlfriend. “Instead of turning to family,” his mother said two days after his death, “he turned to the needle.”

There are no solid numbers on drug-related deaths in Pennsbury, although fatal opioid overdoses in all of Bucks County spiked by 50 percent in 2016, to 185. Family members say those numbers would be higher if it included Bucks natives who died in Philadelphia or in Florida, where many seek treatment.

Pennsbury has historically wrestled with the “Route 1 divide,” which refers to the busy thoroughfare that separates working-class towns like Levittown to the south and the upscale communities of Lower Makefield Township and Yardley to the north. But the opioid crisis knows no boundaries.  Josh Redner hailed from the southern side of the district, while Luke Johnson came from the northern half.

In Pennsbury, the crisis is exploding among young adults in their late teens, 20s or early 30s. It reflects the rising angst of a suburban community, where residents increasingly log onto Facebook not to post vacation photos but to learn who among their neighbors has overdosed — and to express grief and condolences.

“Drug addiction doesn’t discriminate,” Jacqueline Redner said. “It doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, black or white; it doesn’t matter. It’s here, and it’s not going anywhere. And it’s getting worse.”

‘A regular kid’

About 18 months ago, Maureen Johnson read about a Pennsbury grad who died from an overdose. She asked her son, “Don’t you know her?” Luke said he remembered her well: She was the girl who’d handed him an oxycodone pill on his first day at Pennsbury High.

Luke’s mom told the story last Friday as she sat with other family members — including her husband, John, and her 25-year-old daughter, Alex — on a covered patio around a pool in the back of their two-story colonial in Lower Makefield. She showed off posters splayed with pictures of her son, many of him playing football.

“I want people to know he was a regular kid from a good family,” she said. “He was an athlete, popular; he had a great sense of humor.”

Only later, as Luke struggled with addiction, did he tell his parents that painkillers like oxycodone and Percocet had been popular with kids at Pennsbury, claiming that one mom even handed out pills to football players as a reward.

Still, the Johnsons struggle to explain how a kid from a comfortable suburban home got hooked on drugs.

“People ask me, What would you do differently as a mother?” Maureen Johnson said in exasperation. “They think that I have all the answers because I have a dead son.” His family believes Luke, who struggled academically and did not attend college, was genetically pre-disposed to addiction. His parents sold a car to cover his first stay at a Bucks County treatment facility, only to watch him relapse immediately. He got clean a few times in Florida but sunk back into addiction.

This year, Luke flew home on May 11, the day before his birthday. He looked tanned and healthy, but by the time he left three days later, family members fretted that something seemed off. “I feel like this was his coming home to say goodbye,” his mother said.

Her bad feeling continued after talking to him the next day. Her husband called and pleaded with him to stay off drugs. Two days later, Luke was dead.

Family members have since created a foundation for education and support called Luke’s HEROin ME that has raised more than $7,000 on its GoFundMe site.

“If we can save one person’s life, then all this is worth it,” said Maureen.

Sign of the times

There’s a sign out front of the Levittown-Fairless Hills Rescue Squad, listing a tally of drug overdoses and deaths in their coverage area this year. As of Monday, it showed 241 overdoses, 18 deaths.

“It’s shocking,” said Cindy Herr, deputy chief. “Our hope is someone sees that sign and knows they’re not alone and seeks help.”

Gretzula said district officials were well aware of the opioid problem in the community before the Johnsons came forward. Like all public schools, they were required to offer addiction and mental health help under the state’s Student Assistance Program.

In July, Pennsbury launched an Addiction and Mental Health Task Force to take more aggressive action, not just on the opioid crisis but also teen suicide. Sherri Morett, the special education director spearheading the task force, said at least 10 percent of last year’s high school students were in crisis over drugs, alcohol, suicidal thoughts or other mental health problems.

“We feel the teaching has to start in our elementary schools and work its way up,” she said.

Such a comprehensive plan is costly. The new $149,000 partnership with the Caron Foundation, a drug rehabilitation and treatment network, will put three full-time staffers in schools to perform assessments and referrals, train school counselors at detecting signs of addiction or mental health problems, and provide support groups.

The district is also looking for funding and partners to provide the on-site therapy.

No school board member had been more supportive than Redner, who said she’d been pushing publicly for such interventions since she was elected six years ago, while dealing privately with her son’s addiction battle.

Redner said she couldn’t believe it when she first learned Josh was using heroin. As a child, he had been terrified of needs for drawing blood.

Camera icon Jacqueline Redner
Josh and Georgie Redner, sons of Pennsbury school board president Jacqueline Redner. Josh died from an overdose last week, and Georgie committed suicide two years ago. (Jacqueline Redner)

Now, she believes that spotting the warning signs of addiction — for kids and their parents — is a mission for the schools.

“I’m pretty sure my son started out smoking pot, and then all of a sudden, someone said, ‘Here, take this pill,’” she said. “One progressed to another, and he was always chasing what could get you high.”

Oxycodone is expensive on the street. But, she learned, “you can buy a $5 bag of heroin, and it gives you the same high.”

For Redner, her personal struggle around young people and mental health goes beyond Josh’s drug addiction. Two years ago, another of her five sons, Georgie, killed himself at 27. “I woke up one Saturday, and they tell me he jumped in front of a train,” she said.

By then, she was deep into Josh’s addiction battle, a roller coaster of sobriety and relapse. After he died, she continued to speak forcefully in favor of stepped-up drug and mental health education and in-school treatment. Of Josh’s Pennsbury graduating class of 890 kids, she said, her unofficial tally suggests as many as 100 have died — a few from car accidents, but most from overdoses.

Whatever it costs to stem the tide will be worth it, Redner said. “These kids are our future, and we’re losing them left and right. This has got to stop somehow.”