Bay program addresses overdose, suicide

Amy Fritz shares photos and stories about her son, Russell Brill, pictured at left on the screen, during the “Our Children Are Dying” presentation on April 12. A 2007 Bay High graduate, Russell battled addiction and had been sober for seven years before he passed away from an overdose last December. Photo by Denny Wendell

For Bay Village school and city officials, drug overdose and suicide headlines are personal

Too many funerals of beloved Bay Village graduates dying from drug overdose and suicide drove three, heart-wrenching presentations at the Bay Village Schools on Wednesday, April 12.

“I have attended 15 funerals for former students over the past 16 years,” said an emotional Sean McAndrews, Bay Middle School principal. “I can’t stand it anymore.” He noted that in Cuyahoga County, we are losing almost one person a day to heroin or opioid overdoses, with 60 people dying from those causes in February of this year alone.

Bay High Choraleers opened the presentations with an a capella rendition of “Tears in Heaven” while photos and obituaries revolved on a screen, memorializing the Bay High graduate victims of addiction and suicide. The presentations were meant to have an emotional impact that would “stick with” students and parents.

“In my career I don’t think I’ve been involved in something I feel more strongly about, that’s more important, or that is more emotional for me,” said Bay High Principal Jason Martin as he addressed his student body. “All those students we introduced to you are students that Mr. McAndrews and I have had contact with. Students just like you who sat in this auditorium, walked in our hallways, participated in our athletic teams – they’re students who had meaning to our school, had meaning to us personally.”

Amy Fritz and Nick Pugliese shared stories of losing their adult children, but also sent a message of compassion and hope to today’s high school and middle school students, as well as to their parents.

Russell Brill, who passed away from an overdose at age 27 this past December, was introduced through photos by his mother. Brill had joined AA because of alcohol addiction in 2009, had been sober for seven years, and recently married. Fritz unapologetically described her son as “brilliant” in his intellectual curiosity and musical talent. More important, he was a kind and caring, fun-loving person, a great brother and son. He also sponsored many AA members, and he was always on the phone with someone he sponsored.

“Once you are sober, it is an everyday struggle to stay sober,” said Fritz. “At the visitation, I had probably a dozen guys come up to me, sobbing, because Russell saved their lives. He saved their lives.”

Fritz said she wanted to speak to students because she thought if she could reach even one young person who might realize his or her use of alcohol or drugs could lead to the kind of tragedy her family experienced, and would change that behavior now, it would be worth it.

“I’m pretty sure that Russell and [his friend] Jimmy had their first beer together in the eighth grade,” said Fritz. “And Jimmy passed away two years ago from a heroin overdose.” She pointed to a strong correlation between the earlier use of alcohol and addiction. “If you haven’t had your first drink yet, please put if off. If you’ve already started, cool it.” She stressed that repetitive drinking “re-wires” the brain to look to alcohol or drugs for those good feelings they can temporarily produce. 

Nick Pugliese lost his daughter, Jacqueline, to suicide four years ago. Jacqueline was a family counselor who worked with homeless and at-risk families. Her boss was a clinical psychologist who had lost his own father to suicide. No one had any idea that the 30-year-old, a mother of one daughter, was struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide.

He shared a moment when he overheard a girl who was participating in a school track meet say that she “could kill herself” over her disappointing performance.

“I stopped her and asked her, ‘are you serious, is that a threat? Are you really telling me you’re going to commit suicide? Because if you are, I have to do something. I lost a daughter to suicide.’ She said no, she was just joking.”

“Suicide is not funny,” said Pugliese. “Next time you hear someone joking about ‘just killing myself,’ or that someone would rather ‘just kill myself, just hang myself, just shoot myself, I would rather jump off a bridge, than take that test or sit through this class,’ please take a minute and think about all the jokes about death by diabetes, cancer, stroke, car accidents. Take a minute and think – is someone dying tragically ever funny? Please do not joke about suicide. To those who have lost a loved one, like me and my family, to suicide, it is not funny, ever.”

He stressed with several examples the importance of being kind, and related that he still felt the sting of his father commenting on his acne when he was a young man. “Don’t be the person who drives that nail in the fence. You can say you’re sorry, but what happens when you pull the nail out? The hole is still there.”

The evening presentation was geared toward parent education, with added speakers including Superintendent Clint Keener, Mayor Paul Koomar, Police Chief Mark Spaetzel, Detective Kevin Krolkosky, Bay High 2010 graduate Jamie Laskowski, parent advocate Kathy Winzig, former Bay High principal Jim Cahoon, and representatives from Bay Family Services, MetroHealth Hospital, Cuyahoga County Drug Court, and Lean In.

Videos of the presentations are available at

Karen Derby

Director of Communications for the Bay Village City School District

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Volume 9, Issue 8, Posted 10:24 AM, 04.18.2017