In a standard show this week at the Nassau and Suffolk Legislatures, a teenaged choir serenaded lawmakers, high school dancers flaunted their moves, and whiz kids paraded their academic awards. Any of them could have been Natalie Ciappa, the late 18-year-old Massapequa girl who was equally gifted, but instead became the new poster child for the Long Island heroin epidemic when she fatally overdosed in June. The talented singer, beautiful cheerleader and above-average honors student received awards similar to the citations that legislators handed out like Santa—a far cry from your typical junkie. Yet in death, the Plainedge High School graduate, who was awarded a scholarship to SUNY Old Westbury, starred in the role of her life as two bills that aim to root out the spreading heroin scourge were named in her honor.
Spurred by a special series of reports by the Long Island Press, the Natalie Ciappa Law passed nearly unanimously in both legislatures after much debate. Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi is expected to sign the bill into law, although a spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy would not commit, saying he has yet to review the legislation. Under the law, IT (information technology) staff with police departments in Nassau and Suffolk counties would have until March 16—Natalie’s birthday—to start mapping heroin possession and sales arrests on the Internet. There are talks of the counties pooling resources to create a regional website, since both bills mandate that the information be updated monthly with the date, time, location and defendant’s age. The ultimate goal of the website is to pinpoint heroin “hot spots” and inform concerned parents to make sure their kids avoid those areas, proponents say.
Without the planned website, here’s what we know: Heroin-related arrests are up 30 percent in Nassau with 198 through November of this year, compared to 152 in all of 2007. Suffolk has a 28 percent increase, with 766 arrests, up from 597 for the same time periods, an increase attributable to Island-wide police efforts to investigate overdose cases. In May, Nassau police held a summit for school officials and alerted the public to the increase in heroin use among young adults, especially in the county’s southeast corridor. State mental health officials report an increase in opiate overdose-related emergency room visits on LI, while national anti-drug advocates report the mean age for first-time heroin use fell from 26 to 21 years old. And as the Press investigation into high school heroin use [“Long Highland,” June 26] revealed days after Natalie died, new users often start in their teens nowadays.
“The pain and anguish that this family is feeling could have been prevented,” says Legis. David Mejias (D-Farmingdale), who proposed the bill on Nov. 18, of Doreen and Victor Ciappa, Natalie’s parents, who are now on a mission to pass a similar law statewide. “Had [Doreen] known that there was a heroin epidemic in the Massapequas, she could have done something about it,” Mejias says, blaming school districts for what has been described as “ostrich-like behavior.” Mejias charged the schools as being more interested in protecting their image than alerting parents on the issue.
Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Lindenhurst), who proposed Suffolk’s version of the bill the same day as Mejias, says that the plan is “putting a light, opening a window, on this issue that has caught so many by surprise.” School denials combined with the fact that younger users snort or smoke the increasingly potent, highly addictive opiate instead of shooting up, makes it more difficult for parents to notice—a pattern that has proved deadly.
If the Ciappas knew that there was a student arrested with 28 bags of heroin in Massapequa High School in October, 2007—a fact that the school district was caught lying about to the Press—they would have considered heroin a possible cause of Natalie’s troubles and sent her to rehab, says Victor.
With the information to be provided on the website, Natalie’s family hopes fewer parents will have to suffer as they have. “There is no excuse for anybody saying they didn’t know,” says Doreen, urging parents to put the information to use. “This law will mean nothing if people don’t take action, so I am pleading with parents to go on this site and check it regularly. We want to make sure that other people have every opportunity to save their children.”
Although the bill passed, it did not come without a fight and some compromise. The original draft did not include the website and instead required police to directly notify school districts when there is a heroin arrest within their district. But officials from the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association (NSSBA) were adamant that direct notification would leave school districts open to lawsuits—a position that received mixed reactions on either side of the county line.
Mejias maintained the direct notification portion of the bill was necessary and chastised the NSSBA, while taking the suggestion to also notify PTAs, civic groups and houses of worship. To not notify schools directly “takes away completely the spirit of the bill,” Mejias said following a Dec. 1 public hearing on the proposal. His final version still included the notification, but added an amendment meant to prevent schools from being sued, which led to hours of debate before the final vote on Monday, Dec. 15. If a school received information but did nothing with it because they felt that the information was too vague, but then a student died, the district could be held liable, the association argued.
Jay Breakstone, vice president of the Bellmore-based NSSBA, was not pleased with the fact that the direct notification to schools remained in the Nassau bill. “What I feared two weeks ago has come to fruition: The impression seems to have been left that the school board association is in favor of heroin use on Long Island,” he testified in what became a loud back-and-forth with Mejias. After assurances from an official with the Nassau County Attorney’s office that any lawsuit brought against a school district under the law would lose, the legislators voted unanimously in favor of the bill, with one abstention because that legislator represents a school district in his law practice.
“So what that a school has a liability to tell the parents that there’s a drug dealer in the school?” Mejias asked rhetorically, noting that districts notify parents when there’s a sex offender in the neighborhood or lice in the schools. The bill does not mandate that the school do anything with the information, just that they be notified.
Horsley, on the other hand, dropped the notification amendment to avoid the liability issue and redrafted the bill to establish what is officially called the Suffolk Drug Mapping Index, modeled after the Parents for Megan’s Law website. “Isolating a responsible party may end up being a short-sighted, narrowly focused approach that does little more than consign blame, and relieve other parties of enduring responsibility,” he explained in a statement following the change, suggesting that schools are not solely responsible.
Then in the week prior to the final vote in Nassau, Mejias quietly came around to the website idea, amending the bill to create the Nassau Drug Mapping Index. Both lawmakers spoke of possibly merging the two into a regional website. Still, the website wasn’t favored by everyone.
Suffolk Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) said he has dealt with parents of heroin-addicted children before, and the story is always they same: “Never my child.” That is why he believes parents will continue to stick their heads in the sand and, in effect, only help make criminals better prepared. “Dealers and pushers will use the information to their advantage,” he said in explaining why he was the only lawmaker on Long Island to vote no, yet still praising the intent. The website “will not remove one drug dealer from the street,” he said, because “the pushers will be on the move” if they know where the hotspots for arrests are.
The concern had been echoed by police sources speaking anonymously, but there is a clause in the Nassau bill to prevent against heroin investigations being compromised. Detectives will not release arrest information until the investigation is complete, the same way that some drug possession arrests do not make it into police blotters immediately, so as to not tip off the dealer.
“This particular law, we feel, will aid in identifying areas where heroin usage is prominent and as one of the proactive approaches this department supported in this increasing epidemic,” says Detective Sgt. Anthony Repalone, a police spokesman for Nassau. He notes that other crimes such as burglaries and bank robberies have been linked to heroin and that there have been additional fatal heroin overdoses among teens that have not been made public because of medical privacy laws, although he could not provide a number.
According to Detective Lt. Peter Donohue, deputy commanding officer of the narcotics/vice squad, the department has recently established a new process to track any heroin-related incidents encountered by patrol officers. Different codes are affixed to different incidents, such as a heroin possession, sale or if an officer finds heroin on his or her patrol. When a patrol officer is involved in any heroin-related enforcement, the information must be shared with narcotics.
“There has been payoff with the new system. It enables us to get a real handle on things,” says Donohue. “The junkie wants to get out of jail. They will sell out their connection in a heartbeat to get out to get more.”
A spokesman for Suffolk Police did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Natalie’s Law Beyond L.I.
A website is by no means a silver bullet to an issue this complex, but continuing to raise awareness is a good start, officials say. “This bill is one piece of a puzzle,” Mejias says. Horsley has mentioned amending the bill next year to include other hard drug arrests, such as cocaine, methamphetamines and prescription drug arrests.
That would prove useful as kids often are introduced to the opiate world at “pharm parties,” in which they raid their parents’ medicine cabinet for high-strength pain killers such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet. It not uncommon for kids to crush up the pills to sniff them, opening the door to intranasal drug abuse, and since today’s heroin is easy to get and can been found for as cheap as $5 a bag on Long Island, that next step is easier than ever before, drug counselors say.
Yet despite the undeniable prevalence, denial still runs rampant. “This bill imposes no obligation on the school to add heroin awareness curriculum or to educate its administrators, teachers and staff on the dangers of heroin,” testified Oscar Michelen, a lawyer, professor and anti-drug lecturer. As the founder of The Law Squad, Michelen offers drug abuse and criminal justice seminars to schools, but often finds that “they don’t want the tough ones” about hard drugs. “They ask for more of a fluff piece such as how to protect yourself at prom,” he says.
But with the website, involved parents can cajole unresponsive school boards, not that school officials say they’ll need it. “Once we find out that we have hot spots, we have an education forum that we can move forward with,” says Fred Langstaff, area director of the New York State School Boards Association. But the local pressure will have to be up to other parents, as the Ciappas have their sights set elsewhere.
“What’s happened here I think is the first step in proving that there’s enough people out there that that law is wrong,” says Victor while planning the next Natalie’s Law benefit concert to help lobby for a federal law that they hope to get passed. “We’re financially responsible for them until they turn 21, but we can’t check them into rehab when they need it, if they need it, when they’re 18,” he says. He learned the reason behind Natalie’s unusual behavior two months after her 18th birthday, so she was able to refuse rehab. Only a judge could force her, provided she was arrested.
“When a kid is in their darkest hour, a parent is probably their last line of defense, or their last help, and when you take that parent’s right away, its really not helpful to the kid and they’re still 18—as far as I’m concern they’re still kids,” he says.
Natalie’s family had no idea she was a abusing heroin because she sniffed it and didn’t have the track marks from using needles to shoot up, the most obvious sign of heroin abuse. Here are the more subtle signs for parents to look for:
• To cover up the physical signs of drug use, kids will try to hide themselves. Be wary of a hat being used to cover the eyes or wearing long sleeves at inappropriate times.
• Persistent blank expressions and increased lethargy.
• Change in temperament; lethargic or aggressive behavior.
• Excessive sniffling and nose-blowing.
• Avoiding conversations by giving short yes or no answers.
• Falling asleep mid-sentence, in their food, or at other inappropriate times.