Health & Wellness

Panel shares Insights into the Issues of Substance Abuse at Nutley Educational Foundation Forum


NUTLEY, NJ - The Nutley Educational Forum with support of the Nutley Municipal Alliance/H.O.P.E., held its Fall Event “Mindfulness - A Path to Prevention of Substance Use Disorders” on December 4 in the Music Room at  John H. Walker Middle School. 

Foundation members greeted attendees who came to hear a panel of community speakers provide insight and answer questions on this critical issue of substance abuse. Nutley High student Victoria Palmieri served as the moderator of the forum and NEF President Lorraine Kucinski provided the welcome address.

The first speaker, former Nutley resident Joan Mac Mullen, shared the heartbreaking story of her son’s brief life and death from a heroin overdose three days after graduating from Nutley High.

“He was always smiling. He was always happy.” Mac Mullen said her son Steven started Junior High when their family moved to Nutley. “He had a great three years here. When he went to the high school, his friends started to experiment with drugs. I was not in denial, I was in ignorance. I did not know that people like me could have a child on drugs. I thought we were the average American family. I was class mom…I thought this guaranteed me that my children would follow the right path.”

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She shared that when her son started experimenting with drugs, she did not see the signs.

Mac Mullen said Steven had a job he loved and one day when she picked up her son his boss told him to take a few days off and ‘get your act together. She told her son, “What is going on?” “He looked at my face and he started to cry and said: “Mom I’m addicted to heroin.”

She went into ‘Mom mode’ and said my son has a problem and I have to fix it. She shared she feared calling the school and the police and frantically called until she found a rehab facility that required $10,000 in cash for a 30 day program. They borrowed the money and enrolled their Steven. “There was no other option for me because my son was going to get better.”

Mac Mullen shared that her son relapsed even though he was ‘trying very hard.’ He told her: “I didn’t know you could become a drug addict from going to a few parties and taking a few drugs.”

After Stevens second rehab, he was homeschooled and graduated from Nutley High in 1994. Three days after graduation he informed his parents he and some friends were going to take a graduation trip to the Jersey Shore. That same day Steven’s father pushed in the bathroom door to find their son overdosed on the bathroom floor.

“Steven went to heaven and he took my heart. But he left me his voice and I hope that he is happy that I can share what I’ve learned so that somebody else might not have to go through the same thing.

“I tell parents today you have to be tough. When they say ‘it’s hard’ I say ‘nothing is as hard as planning your child’s funeral.”

Mac Mullen shared some of the signs she did not ‘see’ at the time: Bic pens with no pen, missing spoons, alcohol swabs… “I don’t beat myself up for what I didn’t know because I know I could not have loved him more.”

“I don’t believe there are bad kids. There are good kids who make bad choices.”

Her advice: “Be alert to signs. Get help early. Do not be afraid. Every town has drugs. It’s out there. She encouraged the community coming together and reaching out to one another when they are dealing with addiction. “If one kid in our community is on drugs we all need to reach out and help.”

Mike Petrillo, a Nutley High alum who has been ‘clean’ since 2007, was emotional as he thanked Ms. Mac Mullen for sharing her story.

Petrillo told the audience “I remember walking these halls high when I was in seventh and eighth grade… I would steal lunch to save the five dollars to buy pot after school. Drugs took my insecurities away. I was one of those kids who got involved with drugs at twelve when I started smoking pot. By the time I was fifteen, the type of drugs had progressed.

Petrillo continued. “I had a car at seventeen, girlfriends and I was popular. Drugs were a problem long before I knew they were a problem.” At eighteen, Petrillo fell down a flight of stairs and hurt his back. This is when he started taking opioids.

“I got arrested at twenty-two. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It introduced me to recovery. I now accept responsibility for my actions.”

Before he left the podium Petrillo shared a story that illustrated his belief that ‘if you put the man back together, the world falls into place. He tearfully concluded “I have a lot of family support. Drugs can’t give me that.”

Burgess chemist and pharmacist Maureen Paonessa shared how she is doing her part in addressing the crisis by being aware of individuals who might be ‘doctor and pharmacy shopping’, a strategy of opioid addicts. She shared that she also will advise clients with opioid prescriptions that it is okay to use lesser amounts than what is prescribed. She shared recently a customer called and thanked her after she advised that a prescription for Percocet prescribed after a child’s wisdom tooth extraction could be reduced to four pills.

Poanessa shared that New Jersey enacted legislation in February of this year limiting initial opioid prescriptions to ‘opioid niave individuals’ to a 5-day supply, making the limit one of the strictest in the country. “We are finally realizing these drugs [opioids] are dangerous and addictive. There are now Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMP) in 49 states.”

Ponessa also encouraged the proper disposal of prescription medications.

Lisa Cassilli is the Student Assistance Coordinator at the High School. Regarding drug use among students she said: “Pretty much, they’ve made a decision by ninth grade. Am I going to dabble or am I not going to do that?”

Cassilli said her graduate school ‘ah ha’ moment was during an exercise when she realized she had genetic addiction risks in her family. “It became a passion for me… Mike [Petrillo] said addiction is a progressive disease. I teach that model…When I work with students we talk about you are using not necessarily because you made bad choices, but there is a light switch. If you are predisposed to be an addict and you dabble with alcohol and drugs, you are turning that switch on. I’ve had to put more kids in treatment that I can count. I’ve had to bury former students and to this day I have parents who call me to say my 30 year old is back out there doing [drugs] again… and she’s homeless.”

“I always say, I may not know every student at Nutley High School but I know the ones I need to know.” Cassilli shared that her level is intervention and the district is starting the conversations at the elementary level.

“We have one of the strongest policies in the state and other districts come to use to ask how to do it right. We have a contract with the Medi-center. We send students immediately and pay for it. It runs seamlessly and we do it often.”

Cassilli shared that often intervention involves the students not being in school. “We raise the bottom. If you are going to hit bottom as a senior we want you to hit as a freshman when we say: “You are positive for marijuana. You can’t come to school. You are going for an assessment. You are going to submit urine screens regularly and we are going to get this under control.”

According to Cassilli there is another issue in the district: “We are having a mental health crisis as well.  The majority of students I am seeing are in need of psychiatric help. We have raised the bar for so many students in terms of academics, financial stress where they need to get into college and help their parents pay for college…they feel pressure to take advanced courses…they are unfortunately turning to drug and alcohol use to cope with anxiety and stress. We have a lot going on that we are addressing.”

Cassilli has been in the Nutley district for 22 years. She said: “As a Mom it’s horrifying to have to worry about these issues.” As a mental health professional: “I see only the students who need help and it’s scary. If there is anyone who needs assistance, I have contacts and put students and adults in treatment and sometimes we get scholarships. We are always available.”

“There is a lot of intervention and prevention going on.”

Joseph Cappello, Student Assistance Coordinator, Walker Middle School said “there are a lot of things we are doing to prevent use.” Outreaching, educating, partnering, providing information and resources were mentioned. 

“What are we battling?... so many things especially at the Middle School level.” Cappello talked about the use of over the counter medications, prescription drugs, steroids and our instant gratification society.

Cappello has been at the Middle School for eighteen years and encouraged parents to “Do your research. I use Urban Dictionary all the time.” He mentioned a ‘vaping’ product that is currently popular at the Middle School called “jewel”.

He read a list of “what are we doing questions” for parents that included: Have you informed them of behavioral expectation in your presence and when they are not in your presence? Are rules enforced or are you making idle threats? Are you setting a good example? Do you know the parents of your child’s friends and do you communicate with them? Have you role played refusal skills with your child…?

Cappello strongly encouraged parents to have many conversations with their kids about drugs, alcohol, tobacco, vaping. He said when watching TV, commercials are opportunities to talk with children about these things.  He stated that the show ‘Jersey Shore’ is coming back and that kids are going to be watching. He encouraged parents to have conversations with their kids about behaviors on the show.

“Just to let you know, all of our kids are at risk.”

Staela Keegen, staff member at Nutley Family Services Bureau shared five levels of treatment options with the audience. The levels start with early intervention outpatient and progress to medically managed intensive inpatient treatment.

Keegan shared that the staff at NFSB primarily work with behavioral health issues. The licensed Drug and Alcohol specialists provide intervention and referral for outpatient services at the Chestnut St. office.

She said: “People in recovery come in for supportive, behavioral health therapy.” NFSB accepts insurance, Medicaid and Medicare and offers sliding scale payments for these services.

NFSB works closely with the Nutley Police department and the local schools who identify at risk students.

The Bureau also offers NET: Nutley Empowering Teens, an early intervention program. The program teaches coping skills. During the 8-week programs, students learn things like: ‘what should you do if you go to a party and there are drugs there.’ Keegan said there are currently no students enrolled in the program. 

Addressing the approximately 30 attendees, Detective Sergeant Mike Padilla said: “We should be in a standing room only facility.”

Padilla shared events and initiatives that are an on-going part of the Township’s efforts to address drug and alcohol abuse in the community: L.E.A.D, (Law Enforcement Against Drugs), HOPE (Helping Our Parents Endure), PALS (Police and Lunch in Schools)

He said: “We are going to make arrests, however, there needs to also be help over handcuffs. We have to have people not want to buy drugs.”

“Two of my best friends have daughters who are addicted to heroin. As parents you are part of the solution… Just say ‘no’ to drugs just doesn’t work. We have to teach them [children] ‘why’ to ‘say no’.

He advised parents: “Be your own detective. Stay ahead of the curve. We can’t be afraid to talk to kids.”

The forum concluded with questions from the audience which included: “What advice do you have for ‘parent to parent’ conversations?” and district participation in Drug Free Community Surveys. Do to ‘active consent’ laws the district is no longer participating in these surveys. Participant and NEF member Blaire Rzempoluch suggested that the district and community survey alumni because active consent is not needed.

Another suggestion made was for parents and the community to ‘explore different ways the kids can have fun other than those that cost so much that the majority of kids never get to do them.’ It was noted that for many kids the cheapest way to have fun is to do drugs.

The final question was: “As a community, what else is planned?” The consensus expressed was to continue what we are doing and also look at ‘what else’ can be done.”

The panelists and Nutley Educational Foundation invite everyone to ‘keep the conversation going on all levels.’


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