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Family struggles with son’s psychosis

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Center Grove High School. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Center Grove High School. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Whenever Alex Kenney takes medicine, he risks becoming paranoid about anything bad that’s happening in the world.

The 16-year-old Center Grove junior has been dealing with substance-induced psychosis for two years, and anytime he takes medication prescribed to help him, he can become disconnected from reality.

At first he doesn’t realize what’s happening. All he knows at the time is that he can’t sleep. Then, that insomnia is followed by an overwhelming guilt that he’s somehow responsible for the problems of the world.

When this happened for the first time two years ago, after taking medicine prescribed to treat a poison ivy rash, he became paranoid about the drought that was affecting central Indiana. He thought he had something to do with the severe weather and that he could control the climate based on what he ate.

The delusions worsened, and he became catatonic for a time before his father, Jack Kenney, and stepmother, Stacy Uliana, got him treatment with a counselor and a psychologist.

“I can’t think straight,” Alex said, recounting what had happened. “Everything is really fast. My mind is racing everywhere, all at once.”

Earlier this year, Alex started taking medicine to help with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and he started becoming paranoid and confused again. The symptoms of the psychosis returned April 15, the night Center Grove High School officials discovered a bomb threat at the building. Alex became worried people would think he had something to do with the threat.

The next day, Alex was arrested for making the threat and taken to the Johnson County Juvenile Detention Center, where he spent the night on suicide watch.

But he had nothing to do with the threat.

‘I was in shock’

Center Grove officials called Alex’s parents on April 16 and told them their son had admitted to making the bomb threat at the high school. They didn’t believe Alex had made the threat, his parents said, but they knew they had to get him help for the psychosis. Jack Kenney immediately went to see his son, while Uliana called Valle Vista Health System so that Alex could receive treatment for his reaction to the ADHD medication.

When Jack Kenney arrived at the high school, he saw Alex shaking. His son told him that he didn’t leave the bomb threat, and that he didn’t confess to it. Jack Kenney asked school officials to check the high school’s surveillance video so they could verify who left the threat, but they refused, Jack Kenney said. Instead, Alex was arrested and taken to the juvenile detention center.

“I was in shock,” Jack Kenney said. “I thought we were going to take him to the hospital. And instead he was taken out in handcuffs. It was heartbreaking.”

Center Grove Community School Superintendent Rich Arkanoff will not answer questions about the incident, policies or the investigation.

A Center Grove news release on April 16 said that the school district’s police department and administrators had investigated the bomb threat and that a student was arrested after admitting to an administrator about making the threat. Two days later, the school district sent a second news release that said the student had falsely confessed to school officials and that another Center Grove student had been arrested for making the bomb threat.

Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper has said Center Grove police, and not administrators, should have been conducting the investigation and that Alex never should have been arrested for making the bomb threat. Surveillance footage and student interviews conducted after Alex’s arrest proved he had nothing to do with the threat.

A week after the arrest, Cooper had the teen’s record expunged.

‘We can forgive mistakes’

Jack Kenney and Uliana are considering whether to file a lawsuit against the school district and are frustrated with school officials who have been unwilling to admit they made a mistake and to review and change the way crimes at schools are investigated. Failure to admit a mistake was made means other students could be falsely arrested and jailed for crimes they didn’t commit, they said.

“We can forgive mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes,” Uliana said. “Nobody ever admitted they made a mistake.”

Arkanoff and the school district’s five school board members declined to be interviewed for this story.

Arkanoff provided the following written statement in response to several requests for an interview:

“The safety of Center Grove students and staff is always a top priority in any situation. While every situation is unique, Center Grove will continue to work with the Johnson County prosecutor, parents and our students to ensure that safety. We will continue to work with our students to build positive relationships with law enforcement and to educate them about the importance of being honest with police officers and school administrators in all situations. We will also continue to follow all policies and laws related to situations involving students.”

Arkanoff declined to answer questions about how the school district would ensure other students aren’t taken to jail by school police for crimes they had nothing to do with. He also has not responded to specific questions asking when Center Grove officials checked surveillance tapes or interviewed students to verify who left the bomb threat, how and why the investigation focused on Alex, how school officials learned Alex wasn’t responsible for the bomb threat and how the school district learned who actually left the threat.

‘He was gravely ill’

Alex didn’t show any symptoms of psychosis until July 2012, when he was prescribed a steroid to help treat poison ivy. That’s when his parents noticed he was acting differently. He wasn’t sleeping, and he started acting paranoid, worrying he was somehow responsible for the safety of people throughout the world.

That summer a severe drought was affecting Indiana and much of the Midwest, and Alex worried that people weren’t getting enough food and water because of the drought. He also thought that he was responsible for the drought and that if he stopped eating and drinking, the weather might improve.

His parents took him to his pediatrician, who treated the teen’s reaction to the steroids with Benadryl and additional medication, but the condition worsened. He started to become delusional, eventually stopped talking and became catatonic. His parents took him to the hospital.

“It was just a nightmare,” Jack Kenney said. “He was gravely ill.”

Alex spent about two weeks at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health and at a stress center at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis before he started to improve. A low dose of an antipsychotic medicine helped, but it’s very difficult to know how Alex will respond to medication. Medicine that helps him one day could stop working or become harmful later, his parents said. Alex also started seeing a counselor and a psychologist, his parents said.

“You don’t know what’s going to help him and what’s going to hurt him,” Jack Kenney said.

He missed the first few days of his freshman year while he was recovering, but he quickly made friends at Center Grove High School and joined the football team. The Kenney family told his teachers and counselors about his condition and what had happened during the summer, and they all wanted to work to ensure Alex could complete high school successfully.

‘We were horribly mistaken’

Alex remained healthy and didn’t appear to have any recurrence of the psychosis until the spring. He was having trouble concentrating in Spanish and geometry, and he asked his parents if he could start taking medicine for ADHD.

Jack Kenney and Uliana didn’t want Alex taking medication. But he was persistent.

“I wasn’t considering the consequences,” Alex said. “I just wanted to generally have better grades. I just thought it was the right decision at the time.”

Alex’s parents spoke with a neuropsychologist, who recommended a low dose of medication to help him focus. The doctor told Jack Kenney and Uliana that the effects would be similar to caffeine.

“We were horribly mistaken about that,” Jack Kenney said.

He started taking the medicine. While it did help him focus in class, his insomnia returned. Over spring break, Alex was prescribed a different medication for the ADHD.

The insomnia remained, and Alex seemed anxious. Then, the night of the bomb threat, he started telling his family he was worried people would think he was involved in making the threat.

He saw on social media that the bomb threat had been written in purple ink. Alex’s room is painted purple, and he worried that anyone who knew that would think he had something to do with the threat, his parents said.

‘I was really frustrated’

Jack Kenney and Uliana tried to get Alex to calm down and not worry about what people would think and whether they would suspect him because of the color of his room. But they also didn’t realize how concerned he was, they said.

The next day, April 16, Alex was questioned about the bomb threat and arrested. He was taken to the juvenile detention center, where he was placed on suicide watch. That meant spending the night in a room where the lights are never turned off, making it nearly impossible to sleep, Alex said.

Seeing four blank walls also reminded him of being catatonic.

“I was really frustrated,” Alex said.

Jack Kenney and Uliana, who are both lawyers, quickly hired an attorney who worked with Cooper to get Alex released from the juvenile detention center the next day and to have his record expunged within a week. The couple are thankful they knew enough to hire a lawyer and work quickly for their son’s release; otherwise he could have remained in the center longer, they said.

“Thank goodness the prosecutor put a stop to this,” Jack Kenney said. “Thank God they put a stop to this insanity.”

The stress from the false arrest also affected Alex’s brother, Ian Kenney, who graduated in May as Center Grove’s valedictorian. Ian Kenney missed several days of school because of the stress caused by his brother’s arrest, and at the same time he had to keep his grades up.

“I wanted everything to be worked out,” Ian Kenney said. “But it was kind of beyond me.”

‘I felt duped’

After Alex was released from the juvenile detention center, his parents took him to an area hospital for treatment, and he’s been seeing a counselor and psychiatrist. Alex missed a lot of school during his recovery and had to take summer school classes to make up for the work he missed at the end of the school year.

Uliana asked for a meeting with Center Grove administrators after the arrest. She wanted to talk about what had happened, the school district’s procedures for investigating threats, how they needed to be changed and how the school district deals with students who are medicated. She spoke with one administrator who said that was a reasonable request. But when they spoke again several days later, the administrator told her that the school district had done nothing wrong.

“That really hurt,” Uliana said. “That was when it caused a lot of anger and hurt. And I felt duped.”

As the Kenneys decide what to do, they also are considering how what they do will impact their son, who soon will be back at Center Grove.

Alex thinks it will be awkward when he sees administrators who investigated the bomb threat and who had him arrested. But he’s also looking forward to seeing his friends and counselors and teachers who have helped him in his classes.

“I just want to get back to normal,” he said. “As soon as possible.”

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