Just six days after her 28-year-old son died from a heroin overdose, the president of the Pennsbury school board wept as she thanked her colleagues for unanimously approving an ambitious new $149,000 antidrug program aimed at fighting an opioid epidemic that has ravaged young grads in their Lower Bucks County community.
“Thank you all for doing this — now more than ever it means the world to me,” a tearful Jacqueline Redner said immediately after the vote. After a decadelong battle with addiction, her son Josh was found dead in a motel room on Sept. 13.
Redner then walked into the audience to hug her husband, George, as well as the parents and family members of Luke Johnson. Back in June, just weeks after Johnson, 22, was found dead of an overdose in a Florida apartment, Johnson’s family had begged Pennsbury educators to do something about heroin addiction.
Officials credited Johnson’s parents with playing a pivotal role in persuading board members that — with young Pennsbury alums dying from opioid addiction at a stunning frequency, two or three overdoses in some weeks — the school district needed to dramatically increase antidrug education, counseling, and treatment.
Yet another jolt for the shaken suburban district came at the start of the meeting with news that the drug crisis had touched yet another member of the Pennsbury board. Christian Schwartz told the gathering that his nephew had died of a drug overdose eight days ago, on Sept. 11 — two days before the passing of Josh Redner.
It was just three months ago that board members promised to take action after hearing a plea for a large-scale drug intervention program from the Johnsons, who spoke in detail about how Luke, a 2013 Pennsbury High grad, spent much of his time after high school in and out of drug treatment before his fatal overdose.
“We came here on June 8 and made an emotional plea for help,” John Johnson, Luke’s father, told the board after Tuesday’s vote. “There is a need in our community for growing awareness, for de-stigmatizing, and for education — and you listened.”
“I truly believe this program is going to change a lot of lives — save a lot of lives,” George Redner told the board, adding he hoped the effort would influence schools nationally.
The board’s vote gave final approval to an $149,000 contract with the Plymouth Meeting-based Caron Foundation, which has promised officials in the Lower Bucks County school district to develop an in-school assessment and counseling program aimed at going beyond the services they provide in other Philadelphia area schools.
Caron, a drug rehabilitation and treatment network, has said it 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. In addition, the district is looking for funding and partners to launch a program for on-site drug therapy for individuals and families.
The board also voted to implement a new curriculum for grades 6-8 called Second Steps that will emphasize antidrug education as well as dealing with issues such as alcohol abuse and emotional and social well-being.
When Maureen Johnson spoke to the board in June, she told them that five other recent Pennsbury grads had succumbed to drug addiction within two weeks of her son Luke’s death. District officials told Johnson they were aware that dozens of young recent Pennsbury alums had fallen victim to overdoses or suicide or have been struggling with addiction and agreed that night to establish an Addiction and Mental Health Task Force to map out an aggressive school-based program.
One of the biggest supporters of the task force push has been Redner, who in addition to losing her son Josh last week, has also pushed for more mental-health counseling in the schools after one of her five sons, Georgie, died by suicide two years ago at age 27.
Officials don’t have overdose statistics specifically for the area covered by the 10,200-student Pennsbury district, which stretches from Levittown and other working-class communities in Lower Bucks to the more upscale suburbs of Yardley and Lower Makefield Township.
In all of Bucks County, however, overdoses spiked last year by 50 percent, to a total of 185, and officials say problems continue to rise as more dealers mix heroin and other drugs with the powerful additive fentanyl. School officials and parents say the bulk of the overdoses are young adults in their late teens, 20s, or early 30s, although family members said many local addicts were still students when they began using drugs.