2022 | Schools

Parents of overdose victim warn Wootton High seniors of drug use dangers  

Montgomery County state’s attorney joins couple, whose son was a 2018 graduate

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Geoff Pisarra speaks to students at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville on Thursday during an event about the dangers of drug overdoses. Pisarra's son Michael, a 2018 graduate of the school, died in July 2020 after taking a Xanax pill laced with fentanyl.

Photos by Dan Schere

Michael Pisarra was not a drug addict, but he lost his life one night two years ago when he took a Xanax pill that hadn’t been prescribed to him and that was laced with fentanyl.

Pisarra, a 2018 graduate of Wootton High School in Rockville, died July 29, 2020, after taking the pill. He was 20.

“That one decision changed all of our lives,” his father, Geoff Pisarra, told the senior class Thursday at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville.

Geoff and Michael’s mother, Jenn, spoke to the seniors about the dangers of overdoses, particularly in the wake of a rise in overdose deaths from opioids over the past several years. They were joined by Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy and others.

Thursday’s event was meant to raise awareness about the dangers of drug overdoses, and was part of the Speak Up, Save a Life campaign, which was started by the State’s Attorney’s Office to educate students in the county on the opioid epidemic and Maryland’s Good Samaritan law.

Michael Pisarra graduated from Wootton High School in 2018.

“We never get to see him again. We never get to hug him again. We never get to see him laugh, cry. Things we all take for granted every day,” Geoff Pisarra said.

Jenn Pisarra asked the students to raise their hands if they knew someone who took a pill that hadn’t been prescribed. Many raised their hands. She said she hates the words “addict” and “overdose” because they don’t describe her son’s situation.

“You do not have to be a drug addict or addicted to drugs to be killed by this poison,” she said.

Jenn Pisarra said the pain of losing her son remains “as real as it was two years ago,” and urged students to say no if they are offered a non-prescription pill.

Unintentional drug and alcohol-related deaths rose from 671 in 2011 to 2,799 in 2020, according to the Maryland Department of Health. According to the department, of all intoxication deaths in the state in 2020, 90% were opioid-related, meaning they involved the use of heroin, prescription opioids and nonpharmaceutical fentanyl.

Nationally, there were more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the 12-month period from April 2020 to April 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – a 28.5% increase from the previous 12-month period.

McCarthy emphasized that “no one is immune from this,” when it comes to the increase in overdose deaths across the state and the country. And he said he worries that the social isolation many have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic is a contributing factor to the increase.

McCarthy also discussed the dangers of counterfeit pills that have been laced with fentanyl, noting that a 16-year-old student at Walt Whitman High School earlier this year died after he took what he thought was Percocet, but what turned out to be a pill laced with fentanyl.

He encouraged the students to call 911 if they see a friend or a loved one overdosing, pointing out that Maryland’s Good Samaritan law does not penalize people for calling 911 in an emergency overdose situation. It protects people from being charged with possessing or using a controlled dangerous substance, possessing or using drug paraphernalia and providing alcohol to minors, according to the state Department of Health. The law does not protect people witnessing the emergency if they are not helping the person who is overdosing.

State’s Attorney John McCarthy.

“I’m hear telling you as the state’s attorney for Montgomery County, I’m not gonna prosecute you,” McCarthy said. “If you make a call and save the life of a person who is in distress because they’re dying of an overdose, you’re gonna get a free pass. Because quite candidly, I value the life of that person more than I value another drug indictment.”

Many of the seniors said they took a way a good deal of information from the event. Ethan Fane said it was important that his generation be enlightened to the dangers of overdoses.

“It is creating more awareness going into future years of college and life after high school where we’re not really guided anymore and it’s kind of our choices for what we do,” he said.

Senior Dylan Safai said hearing about the victims of overdose deaths brought tears to his eyes.

“Hearing about the fentanyl…and hearing the parents speak, I thought: I never want to put my parents through anything like this,” he said.

Jenn Pisarra told Bethesda Beat after the event that “not a day goes by” when she doesn’t become emotional, particularly remembering her son’s “million-dollar smile.”

“I think these are messages kids hear and they think: That doesn’t apply to me. That’s not gonna happen to me. And I’m hoping to get the point across that you’re not invincible,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com