New law to combat heroin use

The law will require local police to notify local school districts when an arrest for the use or sale of heroin is made in the vicinity of a school, and will also mandate the notification of private-school principals. A new county Web site will map heroin-related arrests and sales.
First proposed by Legislator Dave Mejias (D-Farmingdale) in November, the law was signed by County Executive Tom Suozzi on Dec. 22. It is aimed at improving communication between the police and school districts on the rising incidence of heroin use in Nassau County. According to statistics released by the county district attorney's office, heroin-related arrests among teens in the county have increased by 50 percent since 2002.
Mejias stressed that the deadly drug is highly addictive, and anyone can fall prey to it. "Parents and schools need a heads-up on heroin use before it's too late," he said. "The initial signs of heroin use are not easily detectable. This law gives everyone a fighting chance to combat this insidious epidemic. Schools notify parents when a child in their district has head lice; the county should notify schools about possible heroin use and sales in their districts."
Mejias proposed the bill, named after a Massapequa teen who died of a heroin overdose last year, at a press conference before a Nov. 17 legislative session. He referenced a recent reported denial by Massapequa’s acting school superintendent, Charles Sulc, that the district had a heroin problem when, in fact, school officials were aware of several heroin-related arrests involving Massapequa students. Mejias said that the law is intended to inform school districts of the presence of heroin in and around their schools, and to make it clear that they can no longer remain "ignorant" and deny that they have a heroin problem.
"We want the school districts to do what they are supposed to be doing," Mejias said.
Legislator Joe Scannell (D-Baldwin), chairman of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee and a strong supporter of the bill, said, “Heroin destroys lives, and it is our responsibility to protect our children from it. This bill is an important step forward in eliminating heroin from our schools.”
While individual school boards have endorsed the law, according to Mejias, others — including the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association and some Republican county lawmakers — have claimed that the language of the bill leaves school districts, and possibly the county, liable to lawsuits. They have urged Mejias to expand the bill to require notification of other community organizations as well, and proof from the county attorney's office that the county and schools would not be held liable if provided with such information by police.
Peter Schmitt, the Legislature’s Republican minority leader, has been critical of portions of the bill since a Dec. 1 public hearing, when he challenged Mejias to provide assurances that the county and local school districts would not be held liable. "I don't think anyone is questioning the intent of this law," said Schmitt. "I remain concerned about the issue of liability.”
Jay Breakstone, Nassau vice president of the NSSBA, who had voiced similar concerns at the bill's public hearing, spoke again at a legislative session on Dec. 15, when the bill passed. Breakstone wondered why, if the intent of the law was to bring the heroin epidemic to light, school districts would be the only ones notified. School district boundaries, he said, do not always coincide with those of villages and hamlets, and therefore many residents may be excluded from finding out valuable information.
Breakstone said that he supported the law in theory, but, like Schmitt, he was concerned about liability issues. "The school boards are responsible for children six hours a day, but the community is responsible for them 24 hours," said Breakstone, who proposed the notification of churches, synagogues and civic groups as well as schools. "School boards will have to do something about this, and that costs money."
Mejias accused Breakstone and Republicans in the Legislature of looking out for themselves rather than the well-being of students. "You're going to know that there's a heroin dealer in your schools whether you want to or not," Mejias said after Breakstone made his argument on Dec. 15.
Though several attorneys assured lawmakers that liability would not be an issue, Republicans were skeptical, questioning them on their expertise in such cases and accusing one of being invited to support the bill on Mejias's behalf. They demanded that a county attorney make such an assurance. After nearly two hours of argument, Myles Kuwahara, deputy county attorney for the legal counsel bureau of the county attorney's office, told the Legislature that schools are often notified of heroin-related cases that police discover, anyway, so while the new law will increase notification and with it the possibility of potential lawsuits, any litigation brought against the county or schools would be "foolhardy."
"I think there's a possibility that it may increase the number of notifications that are made to the school," said Kuwahara. "And that may increase the possibility that a plaintiff's attorney may attempt — and I think it would be a foolhardy attempt — to bring a negligent action against either the school or the county."
Before the bill was approved, it was amended to include a provision that the Nassau County Police Department "establish and implement a Nassau Drug Mapping Index (NDMI) website available to the public that will map arrests for possession and sale of heroin and include the nature and class of the arrest, the alleged offender's age and the date, time and location of the arrest."
Before he signed the measure into law, Suozzi spoke briefly of the steadily increasing use of heroin by the county’s youth, even those as smart and beautiful as Natalie Ciappa was. "Here in Nassau County, we see a growing use of heroin because it's cheaper and more potent," he said. "We need to do a better job to better communicate with parents and schools about what is happening. This is a tool in the arsenal to help school districts to help with this problem."
The Ciappa family was present for the bill's signing, and Natalie's parents spoke about the importance of recognizing the signs of heroin use, because it can mean the difference between life and death. "We really hope that this bill will save some lives down the road," said Doreen Ciappa, Natalie's mother. "There's nothing worse than spending Christmas without your child."
"Knowledge is power, and denial is deadly," added Natalie's father, Victor.
Unlike most county laws, whose enforcement begins 90 days after the county executive signs them, the Natalie Ciappa Law went into effect immediately.
Comments about this story? or (516) 569-4000 ext. 283.