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Mt. Pleasant students see stage performance showing effects of drug use

Renatta Signorini
| Wednesday, March 30, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Actors Andy Hickly (standing) and Rachel Smith (seated) perform a scene from 'Jessica's Story' which illustrates the chains of addiction during Off-Script, which is a production of Saltworks Theater Company, and is a play about the misuse of prescription opioids, at Mt. Pleasant High School on Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Actors Andy Hickly (standing) and Rachel Smith (seated) perform a scene from 'Jessica's Story' which illustrates the chains of addiction during Off-Script, which is a production of Saltworks Theater Company, and is a play about the misuse of prescription opioids, at Mt. Pleasant High School on Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2016.
Actors Andy Hickly (left) and Karter Schachner perform a scene from 'Kyle's Story' which illustrated an accidental overdose with a lethal mixture of prescription pills and alcohol, during Off-Script, which is a production of Saltworks Theater Company, and is a play about the misuse of prescription opioids, at Mt. Pleasant High School on Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Actors Andy Hickly (left) and Karter Schachner perform a scene from 'Kyle's Story' which illustrated an accidental overdose with a lethal mixture of prescription pills and alcohol, during Off-Script, which is a production of Saltworks Theater Company, and is a play about the misuse of prescription opioids, at Mt. Pleasant High School on Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2016.
Students from grades 9-12 at Mt. Pleasant Area High School observe a scene from 'Jessica's Story' which illustrated the chains of addiction during Off-Script, which is a production of Saltworks Theater Company, and is a play about the misuse of prescription opioids, at Mt. Pleasant High School on Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Students from grades 9-12 at Mt. Pleasant Area High School observe a scene from 'Jessica's Story' which illustrated the chains of addiction during Off-Script, which is a production of Saltworks Theater Company, and is a play about the misuse of prescription opioids, at Mt. Pleasant High School on Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2016.
Colleen Hughes, director of the Westmoreland County Drug and Alcohol Commission, speaks with students from grades 9-12 at Mt. Pleasant Area High School after watching a performance by Off-Script, which is a production of Saltworks Theater Company, and is a play about the misuse of prescription opioids, at Mt. Pleasant High School on Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Colleen Hughes, director of the Westmoreland County Drug and Alcohol Commission, speaks with students from grades 9-12 at Mt. Pleasant Area High School after watching a performance by Off-Script, which is a production of Saltworks Theater Company, and is a play about the misuse of prescription opioids, at Mt. Pleasant High School on Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2016.
Mt. Pleasant Area High School Principal John Campbell speaks with students from grades 9-12 at Mt. Pleasant Area High School after watching a performance by Off-Script, which is a production of Saltworks Theater Company, and is a play about the misuse of prescription opioids, at Mt. Pleasant High School on Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Mt. Pleasant Area High School Principal John Campbell speaks with students from grades 9-12 at Mt. Pleasant Area High School after watching a performance by Off-Script, which is a production of Saltworks Theater Company, and is a play about the misuse of prescription opioids, at Mt. Pleasant High School on Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2016.

A Mt. Pleasant auditorium full of high school students fell silent when a person died of a drug overdose before their eyes.

A performer's depiction of his body shutting down after he took prescription pills and alcohol captured the students' attention.

“It's reality,” said David Battiste, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency in Pittsburgh. “Because of the problem, we have to equip the kids.”

A 45-minute performance of “Off-Script” by the Saltworks Theater Company on Wednesday was the first the DEA has staged in a local school as part of its 360 Strategy to address drug abuse in the region. The Mt. Pleasant area has been targeted by Westmoreland County's drug and alcohol commission for education and awareness, director Colleen Hughes said.

“We thought this school would be on board immediately,” she said.

High school students can relate to the play, Battiste said, which featured performers portraying students who became addicted to drugs and shows the consequences of their actions:

• “Justin” was injured as a soccer player and began taking prescription painkillers. His grades dropped and he took to stealing money and medication from friends and family.

• “Jessica” was a high-achieving student who was sad after she lost her boyfriend and performed poorly on a test. She began taking Adderall after a friend offered it.

• “David” sold four prescription painkillers to a friend for $20 at a party. The friend died after mixing the pills with alcohol, and David coped by using heroin.

“It gives kids the opportunity to see the pitfalls,” Battiste said.

Performers acting like teenagers got laughs from students, but the most powerful moment came during the overdose scene.

“The problem depicted in this amazing play is a problem across the country,” U.S. Attorney David Hickton said afterward. “But we are in the middle of it right here in Western Pennsylvania.”

In 2015, the Westmoreland County coroner investigated a record number of drug-related deaths — 126. In 2016, 13 have died from drug overdoses and an additional 22 deaths are being investigated as overdoses.

Between 2013 and 2015, 12 people died of drug overdoses in Mt. Pleasant borough or township.

Allegheny County also had a record number of drug overdose deaths — 372 — in 2015. The previous year, 307 people died.

“We have moved from prosecuting this problem ... to recognizing that addiction is a disease,” Hickton said.

In November, Pittsburgh was selected as one of four pilot cities in the country to test the Project 360 strategy, which focuses on drug treatment, increased enforcement, awareness, prevention and related programs.

“If we can prevent people from using from the very beginning, that's a good thing,” said Gary Tuggle, special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh DEA branch.

Hughes said New Kensington students will see the play next month. She hopes students in all county school districts eventually see it.

John Campbell, principal at Mt. Pleasant Senior High School, said students may face decisions about situations similar to those they saw onstage.

“I thought it was wonderful,” he said. “I was very pleased with the performance.”

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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