The following is part of a monthly series probing the financial and emotional costs of overdose deaths. We welcome reader feedback as we continue to probe this difficult subject.
In her first 12 years at Connellsville Area School District, Torrie Winseck recalls counseling two students through the traumatic experience of losing a parent to drug addiction.
In the last four months, that total doubled.
While the sample size is small, Winseck’s experience is emblematic of an issue that continues to grow in communities in Fayette County.
As the opioid epidemic shows few signs of slowing and fatal overdoses continue to rise, school districts are left to face the destructive impact.
“It’s becoming more frequent,” said Winseck, who splits her time between South Side and West Crawford elementary schools and bears the responsibility of providing support for students who suffer the loss of a loved one.
This year has been busier than usual for the guidance counselor. In April, it was a second-grade student whose father died from a drug overdose. Two months prior, the parent of a Connellsville Area first-grader was slain in a drug deal gone awry, in what Winseck calls another tragic drug-related death.
These deaths, and similar ones that have occurred throughout the county over the past several years, leave a lasting impact on not only the surviving family members, but also the school communities that help provide emotional support in the aftermath.
Tami Puckey of Belle Vernon understands that impact.
Tami’s daughter Jenna Puckey died of an overdose at in 2013 at age 22. Jenna’s daughter was 3 at the time, and still doesn’t know how her mom died. Tami and her husband had been granted physical custody of their granddaughter in 2012, but have always been the girl’s primary caregivers due to Jenna’s addiction to pills, and eventually heroin.
“I think that the hardest thing for them is, and I’ve already heard it, (is) when someone says to her, where’s your mom?” Puckey said. “And she’ll look at me with these big brown eyes and doesn’t know what to say.”
A growing concern
Winseck is usually one of first people notified in the event of a death in the school community. She attends the memorial service. She meets the student at the classroom on their first day back. It’s important, she says, to show support for the child and the family during the days following a death.
“A lot of our students are being raised by grandparents due to the opioid epidemic,” said Winseck, one of four counselors serving eight elementary schools in Connellsville Area. “You never know day to day what’s going to happen. For a little one to try to process what has happened, that can be difficult.”
She hopes that next school year, providing support to grieving students will become easier when the district partners with the Highmark Caring Place — a program that provides grief counseling for families, and a partnership that has arisen out of necessity due to what Winseck calls “a growing problem.”
While the opioid epidemic hasn’t hit the heights recorded in neighboring Washington and Westmoreland counties, it remains rampant in Fayette County.
In 2012, Fayette County was the location of 14 deaths attributed to drug overdose. That number has risen each year, more than quadrupling to 60 deaths last year, according to online database OverdoseFreePA, which collects data from coroner’s offices throughout the state.
In the first four months of 2017, another 21 people from around the county have succumbed to opioid addiction.
In total, there have been 199 fatal overdoses in just more than five years. They occurred mostly in and around Uniontown and Connellsville. The majority of the victims were age 35 or older.
When tragedy occurs with such frequency, Brenda Caromano admits that consoling can be tiring, even for a counselor. In 12 years at Uniontown Area High School, she has experienced her share of overdose deaths among students’ relatives — usually at least one per school year.
“It’s very challenging,” said Caromano. “In the more extreme cases where the students are directly affected (by an unexpected death), it does become draining.”
Helping to heal
Four to five times throughout the year, on average, Bill Rouse helps students cope with death, usually the tragic result of car accident.
Rarely is it overdose and never, during his 12-year tenure at Brownsville Area Middle-High School, has a student suffered a fatal overdose. But due to the availability of opioids, he feels it coming.
“It hasn’t happened yet, but it will,” said the guidance counselor.
Rouse and nurse Jennifer Assad comprise half of the team at the Brownsville secondary school that provides a lifeline to students coping with the death of a loved one.
They support students with grief counseling to help them understand “the why and the how,” walking them through the basic stages of grief and providing encouragement.
“They want to process the death and try to understand it better. I counsel them through it and help them make sense of it,” said Rouse, one of three guidance counselors in the district.
But sometimes a student may need to a little extra attention that can’t be provided in the school, instead being referred to someone who specializes in a certain area, like a child trauma specialist, Rouse said.
Assad explained that schools often provide additional support through the state-mandated Student Assistance Program (SAP), in which staffers identify problems such as home drug abuse and may refer students when appropriate to additional counseling agencies for further assessment.
School districts typically network with counseling agencies in the community to bring in more counselors in the case of a tragedy. They also promote inter-district collaboration, sharing resources and counselors if a crisis warrants additional assistance.
A parent dying means a child could be left homeless, causing the guidance team to step in and help gather resources and provide basic necessities and lodging.
For Caromano, the overdose death of a loved one isn’t always obvious, especially if a student isn’t ready to openly discuss the event.
Instead, she and her team have to look for other signs of trauma.
“We absolutely see the grief,” she said. “But we also see the secondary things: the absenteeism, the poor academic performance.
“Some people keep it pretty quiet. It can be a challenge because you don’t exactly know what the root of the problem is, but we still find general ways to help to give them some positive in their life,” said Caromano. “We can still support the student even though we don’t know the ‘why.’”
While disengagement is typical following such a traumatic event, students also can show signs of disruptive behavior.
This year, Winseck encountered what she considers an “extreme” case, one that saw a student so distraught over a death that functioning in a regular classroom became impossible, facilitating a move to an emotional support classroom.
“Sometimes they have a hard time dealing with all the emotions, and it comes out as a behavioral problem in the classroom, and the child needs more intensive help,” said Winseck. “To see those students go from happy and sweet to brooding and not wanting to talk to people throughout the grieving process is just astounding.”
Winseck said students often open up when they realize there is someone at school who will listen.
“The majority of students are open to talk, and they seem happy for someone to want to talk with them. I think sometimes they get lost in the commotion at home, as the adults at home are consumed with their own grief and there are a lot of voices. Having someone at school for the child to talk to without everyone talking around them is important.”
Keeping up with costs
At Connellsville Area, Superintendent Phil Martell said the opioid epidemic has no prejudices.
“It transcends wealth to poverty,” he said, “across every income level in school district.”
In an effort to stem the tide, the district found funds in its budget to provide educational programs that will save lives. But fighting the crisis comes at a cost.
Martell estimates that the district has used $20,000 to $30,000 of its own funds — as well as $15,000 in grant money — over the last two years to fight the opioid epidemic through preventative programs.
“We’re being proactive to introduce these types of measures so (students) don’t go down this path,” said Martell. “School districts have to do due diligence and set aside funds and find money in budget for it,” despite resources in a school district not being readily abundant.
Officials at smaller districts, like Frazier and Brownsville, that have taken less of a hit during the epidemic, report that costs are very minimal. “We do rather well at relatively no cost,” said Brownsville Superintendent Dr. Phil Savini, noting that the district works with local agencies like the Intermediate Unit, the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission or Fayette County Children & Youth Services for external grief counseling.
Laurel Highlands Superintendent Dr. Jesse Wallace said the district has used grant money from the state over the last two or three years to partner with community organizations for several types of services associated with battling the epidemic: educational programs and resources, counseling, professional development.
“Our counselors are touching on it weekly — almost daily — in the middle school and high school, about family members using (opioids) and how to deal with it,” said Wallace.
While schools scrape for the resources to educate students about drugs, some students will learn about the topic in other, more personal ways.
Puckey knows her granddaughter will start to get curious soon about why her mother died. Telling her why will be the start of her drug education.
Above all else, Puckey hopes school won’t be a place that haunts her granddaughter with the stigma of addiction and how it took her mother away – and that drug education and prevention is her takeaway there instead.
“If we can stop it with those kids, maybe it will end,” Puckey said. “Maybe there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Herald-Standard reporter Mike Tony contributed to this report.