The Pennsbury School District has formed an opioid and mental health task force to explore ways the district can better fight the abuse of opioids and other drugs.
School district officials announced the group's formation during a press conference Wednesday night in front of Pennsbury's administrative offices in Falls. Forming the task force was spurred by an appearance by several members of the family of Luke Johnson at a June 8 school board meeting.
Johnson, a 2013 Pennsbury High School graduate, died of a heroin overdose on May 17 at age 22. His addiction started in the ninth grade when a classmate slipped him a synthetic opioid pill, Pennsbury teacher David Mills said at the June 8 meeting.
During that same meeting, Johnson family members made emotional appeals for the school district to expand its drug abuse prevention curriculum, hire a drug counselor for the high school and take other measures to better educate students on the dangers of heroin, synthetic opioids and other drugs.
Even though the district already had several drug abuse prevention measures in place, Superintendent William Gretzula said at Wednesday's press conference that he and many others realized more had to be done after that June 8 meeting.
"The pain of the Johnson family was obviously real and raw, and the next day we began to act and realized we needed to reconsider our efforts and our resources," Gretzula said Wednesday.
The 25-member task force — comprised of district-level administrators and principals, school counselors, social workers, psychologists and others — will meet regularly over the next few months and map out ways the district can better fight the drug problem. The group will eventually include students, said Gretzula.
It will review the district's mental health curriculum and look at ways to improve it, host community forums on drug addiction and provide staff training to recognize signs and symptoms of at-risk students, among other measures, he added.
Also speaking at Wednesday's press conference were Pennsbury school board president Jacquelyn Redner; state representatives John Galloway, D-140, of Falls and Perry Warren, D-31, of Newtown Borough; Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, R-8, of Middletown and Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Tom Gannon.
Redner said that among the task force's priorities will be looking at some of the root causes of drug addiction — like bullying, peer pressure and pressure to maintain good grades — to see how the district can better deal with those issues.
"I am looking at all aspects of the drug problem from a national view, but what you're doing here today is the most important piece, working on it from the ground level," said Fitzpatrick.
"There are not enough laws you can pass that will take care of the problem, so what you need is a triangle — legislation, law enforcement and the public — to become very actively engaged," said Galloway.
Luke Johnson's mother Maureen and his sister Alex both said they were encouraged by what they heard at Wednesday's press conference.
"It shows a lot of initiative to step up and be a leader among school districts in fighting this problem," said Alex Johnson.
Maureen said the family plans to speak in front of several area school boards in the next few weeks about ways to better fight drug addiction.