Overdose death spurs drug summit in Hempfield

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A White House official and Pennsylvania's attorney general will be the keynote speakers on Thursday at a drug summit in Hempfield Area High School to address the record number of overdose deaths in Westmoreland County.

David Mineta, deputy director of the White House office of Drug Control, and Attorney General Kathleen Kane will attend at the invitation of Tim Phillips, director of Community Prevention Services of Westmoreland.

The summit will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium and is open to the public, said Superintendent Andy Leopold.

Leopold said the school board decided to organize the summit as a result of the overdose death of Hempfield student Jonathan Morelli in February.

After the 18-year-old died, Leopold said, the school board discussed ways to make students and parents more aware of the growing use of heroin and prescription drugs county-wide. Administrators wanted to use Morelli's death as a teaching experience for other students, Leopold said.

“His death affected a lot of our students,” he said. “We wanted to strike while the iron was hot with emotion. We almost need to grab students and strike fear, if not attention, that this is not a casual situation, that we're taking this very seriously.”

Public attendance at past drug summits was sparse, Leopold said.

“We looked at the situation and asked, ‘How can we get this message out, and how this is one session you can't miss?'” he said. “We wanted to do this one bigger and better to entice people to come out.”

Other speakers at the summit include Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck; Sheriff Jon Held; Carmen Capozzi, who founded the anti-drug group Sage's Army in honor of his son who died of an overdose; and county Detective Anthony Marcocci.

The number of drug overdose deaths in Westmoreland County reached an all-time high in 2012, according to a year-end report from Coroner Ken Bacha.

He said 78 people died of drug overdoses last year, surpassing the record of 64 in 2011. Drugs were suspected in another four deaths that were ruled undetermined.

In the first two months of 2013, the coroner's office recorded 17 drug overdose deaths; six were linked to heroin.

While heroin-related deaths increased 30 percent in 2012, most of the fatal overdoses involved prescription pain medications, the coroner said.

Twenty deaths involved some form of oxycodone, according to the report. Other overdoses involved cocaine, fentanyl, methadone, morphine and amphetamines.

Leopold said Hempfield, like other school districts in the region, is dealing with a growing problem with heroin and prescription drugs.

“We acknowledge there are drugs circulating in our student population,” the superintendent said.

The school district has urged students to attend Reality Tours at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, offered drug-testing kits for parents to test children at home, and has spread warnings at school open houses.

Hempfield has suspended or expelled a number of students for drug use, possession or sales in school.

Richard Gazarik is a staffwriter for Trib Total Media.

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