Northside High copes with student's tragic death

Justin Patrick Johanson remembered by his Northside coach and and principal

Patriot baseball coach Dee Miller and school principal remember JP, and talk about the school's "family" of students.
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Patriot baseball coach Dee Miller and school principal remember JP, and talk about the school's "family" of students.

Northside High School continues to grieve the loss of a student on Sunday.

Justin Patrick “JP” Johanson, a Northside sophomore, was pronounced dead at the scene at 4 a.m. in the area of Bradley Park Drive and River Road. He died from blunt-force trauma, Muscogee County coroner Buddy Bryan said. According to a Columbus Police Department report, JP was lying on the road when a Kia Optima ran over him. The report doesn’t explain why JP was there at that time and in that position. The driver wasn’t impaired, the reports says.

Autopsy results haven’t been announced. Columbus Police Maj. J.D. Hawk said Wednesday evening that nobody has been charged and the case is still under investigation.

Bryce Valero, 15, was one of JP’s friends and teammates in the Northside baseball program. Bryce already misses his friend.

“I wish he was here,” he said. “He should be here.”

To cope, he said, “I just come closer to my other friends, just let them know that we need to come together and support his family, pray for his family.”

Bryce described JP as a good person with a unique personality who never put anybody down.

“JP just always was a fun guy,” Bryce said. “He always could make you laugh.”

JP was a catcher on the ninth-grade team and probably would have also played other positions on the junior varsity team in the spring, said Northside baseball coach Dee Miller. He was a “yes-sir, no-sir kid” who displayed the rare combination of being fun-loving but also a hard worker, Miller said.

With a magnetic personality that “just pulled you in,” Miller said, “you loved him from the minute you saw him. I think that’s why he had so many friends. He was easy to befriend.”

Miller, who chairs Northside’s special-education department, has spoken to several of his players individually since JP’s death. “Some of them were having a rough day,” he said. “But we’ll get together as a team tomorrow and talk about JP.”

The talk won’t focus on any lessons to learn from this tragedy, Miller said. That will come later, he said. For now, he said, “it’s about support. It’s about if you need to talk to somebody, if you just need a hug, if you need to step out for the moment. Don’t hold your emotions back. Let them go.”

Then he followed his own suggestion. As his tears started to flow, Miller said, “It’s like I told his dad, ‘My greatest fear as a coach is like our greatest fear as parents, and that’s losing one of our kids.’”

Like the empty seat JP left in each of his classes, Northside has a hole in its collective heart.

“Our kids are struggling; our teachers are struggling,” said principal Marty Richburg.

Last year, Natalie Pegram was a 17-year-old senior at Northside when she died in an October 2015 car crash in Tennessee. Going through that experience doesn’t make dealing with this mourning period any easier, Richburg said.

“It’s new every time,” he said. “… The students do a good job of leading that charge. We help them as much as possible.”

Through creating a makeshift memorial and ceremony around the flagpole Tuesday, through having an extra crew of counselors on campus, through seeing social media messages of support from other schools, the Northside students and staff haven’t been alone in this loss.

“There are no classes in school — you don’t go through this type of training when you get ready to be a leader,” Richburg said. “So, to be quite honest, we’ve been kind of been fumbling through it, doing the best we can, making decisions on the fly.”

Richburg’s words in an announcement to the students and staff asked them to rally together like a family, to “lock arms, love on each other. We’re never guaranteed another day, and this is a reminder of that.

“It’s easy to have that mantra or that slogan when things are going well, but having to deal with a tragedy like this, it can pull you together, which is what we’re hoping.”

Richburg has known JP since he was 7, when the boy played coach-pitch at Peach Little League with his son.

“Great parents,” Richburg said. “… He was a great kid.”

For parents such as Pamela Watson, however, it wasn’t too early to emphasize such a life lesson. Her son was one of JP’s classmates in the 10th grade at Northside.

Regardless of why JP was where he was then, Watson said, “there’s nothing out there but trouble at that time. It’s so important for parents to talk to our children, to know our children, to know what they’re doing.”

And then she thought of JP’s parents.

“My heart just rips for them,” she said.


A celebration of JP Johanson’s life will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at St. Luke United Methodist Church, according to McMullen Funeral Home and Crematory. Interment will be held in Ponemah Cemetery, Bogalusa, La.

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