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Epic Denial

Despite mountain of evidence, some schools still ignore L.I.'s heroin epidemic


Young hands hold heroin purchased at Nassa University Medical Center on July 3, steps from emergency room entrance

Young hands hold heroin purchased at Nassau University Medical Center on July 3, steps from emergency room entrance

With Anthony V. Brienza, Matthew Manguso and Michelle Ragalado


Not that anyone would know it from taking a look around the packed room at the Heroin Summit in Nassau’s legislative chamber on July 28, but there are still some out there who are trying to distance themselves from the epidemic. Namely, school officials.

“They’re afraid of guilt through association,” said one high-level law enforcement official at the summit, who asked that his name not be used and declined to name specific school districts because he hopes they will come around and allow heroin-awareness lectures for parents and students.

Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi held the meeting, which was intended to get top cops, school officials, healthcare directors and drug counselors all on the same page in the war on heroin. On July 27, he announced that the county expects record heroin-overdose deaths this year. So far this year there’s been 25—averaging four per month. The same day, Suffolk announced 110 heroin-related arrests in a recent crackdown. Despite all of this, “stonewalling is still an issue” when contacting school administrators, the official said.

“We need to make a phone call when people are not cooperating,” Suozzi said when the three-hour conversation turned to school districts refusing the lectures. And if they still refuse, the county should take the “next step,” he said, without elaborating.

Although it was repeated that this issue affects every community in the county, Massapequa remained at the top of the list for heroin arrests, with 28 out of 243 so far this year. There to explain the district’s prior attempts at avoiding association with the heroin epidemic was Susan Woodbury, assistant superintendent for Massapequa Public Schools.

“It took us all by surprise,” Woodbury said, referring to the death of 18-year-old Massapequa resident and recent Plainedge High School graduate Natalie Ciappa, who fatally overdosed on heroin at a Seaford house party in June 2008.

At the time, the school district was found to be lying to the Press about a student being arrested for heroin possession at Massapequa High School ["Heroin Claims Another," July 10, 2008]. Ciappa’s story—a talented student from a “typical” home lost to the deadly drug—and the school district’s attempts at quashing coverage of heroin in its high school resulted in Nassau passing a law requiring police to notify schools when its students are arrested for heroin, on or off campus. (Suffolk dropped a similar proposal and opted instead for a “drug mapping index” website that maps heroin arrests, which Nassau adopted as well.)

Now that the district has been shamed into addressing the issue at community meetings, they’re realizing what a difficult problem it is to address.

“What we’re finding with many of our youths that are in trouble is that they don’t have any goals,” Woodbury told the audience, describing how the kids are often in a state of abject apathy beyond the usual teen angst.

Such tales are common nowadays—mostly young white men and women from middle-class neighborhoods are hooked. An undercover Narcotics/Vice Squad detective in Nassau who interviews junkies when arrested, no matter the charge, recalled a teen he came across recently.

“Out of 12 to 14 people he considered his close friends, he was the last person to use heroin,” the detective, whose name remained undisclosed due to the nature of his job, said at the summit.

Then a girl broke the kid’s heart. “Here, try this, this will make you not care about anything,” the addict said his friends told him, according to the detective.

As is often the case, the first hit was free. It’s an easy trade-off for a dealer, since the user will be addicted for life.

With this new wave of young people addicted to heroin on Long Island reinforcing the need for cops to work together on heroin task forces from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) down to village police, the summit urged similar coordination for prevention and treatment.

“Treatment delayed is treatment denied and those that we deny treatment we’re doing an injustice,” said Jeff Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, referring to the “call back in 48 hours” response that junkies typically get when they first contact a detox clinic—a result of a lack of enough beds to meet demand.

“We set these people up for failure,” he added, not just because the urge to quit using heroin may pass while the addict is made to wait, but because insurance companies oftentimes don’t cover the 28-day program, which is really just the beginning of an expensive, lifelong treatment process. Leaning on the New York State Legislature to pass a law that would require insurance companies to pay for all of detox, not just seven days, for example, was brought up.

Whether getting all of these experts in one room will amount to any tangible solution remains to be seen.

“We’ll just have to see where we go from here, but it looks promising,” says DEA Agent Joseph Evans, who is in charge of the agency’s LI office. “The proof is in the pudding.”

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