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Hempfield student's overdose death is fifth since Tuesday

| Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The death of a Hempfield Area High School senior is the latest drug overdose fatality in Westmoreland County, one of five the coroner's office has investigated since Tuesday.

Jonathan Morelli, 18, died Wednesday at his home, according to Coroner Ken Bacha.

Bacha said the deputy investigating Morelli's death found “evidence to indicate drug use,” but he won't know which drug was involved until toxicology tests are complete.

Hempfield Superintendent Andy Leopold said counselors met with students and teachers at Crossroads, an alternative education program for students with discipline problems, where Morelli was a student. Students were allowed to go home for the day after news of Morelli's death spread, and the district had a school psychologist on call, he said.

“A number of students went home with their parents, who came to school to take them home,” Leopold said.

The coroner's office investigated one drug overdose death Tuesday and three on Wednesday, Bacha said. A fifth person died after being hospitalized in an intensive care unit for nearly two days.

The overdose deaths this week bring the number so far this year to 16, according to the coroner.

Overdose deaths in Westmoreland reached an all-time high in 2012. Bacha's deputies investigated 71 overdose deaths last year, surpassing the record of 64 in 2011, according to year-end statistics.

The majority involved prescription painkillers; 22 were heroin-related.

Fourteen more suspected cases may be added to the total after toxicology test results are complete, Bacha said.

In comparison, the coroner's office investigated 22 overdoses in 2002.

Westmoreland County Judge Alfred Bell, who handles a heavy case load of drug-related offenses, said an average of one to three defendants who have been in his courtroom die each month from drug overdoses, usually from heroin and other opiates.

“Most are decent, middle-class kids who are dying,” Bell said.

Between 80 and 90 percent of the defendants who come before him say they use heroin, he said.

“We need to make the public aware how big the problem is, how it affects the public,” Bell said.

Hempfield has a program to deal with drug use, and the school board created a drug awareness committee headed by Director Randy Stoner to emphasize drug education in the district.

Stoner helped to initiate a voluntary home-drug testing program in the district and promotes Reality Tours for students at the Westmoreland County Courthouse.

Citing privacy laws, Leopold declined to comment on an incident last month, when administrators caught a student in a locker room with several bags of heroin.

Students who violate drug policies typically are expelled or are sent to Crossroads after a hearing before the school board. In 2010, the school board expelled 15 students for drug-related offenses.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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