Opioid crisis takes center stage at candidates forum

Students also press contenders for County Legislature on endorsement

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Longtime East Meadow residents Thomas McKevitt and Eileen Napolitano recently faced questions from local high schoolers about how they would tackle the opioid epidemic. McKevitt, a state assemblyman, and Napolitano are both vying for the Nassau County Legislature seat now held by Norma Gonsalves.

Gonsalves, who represents the 13th District and is the Legislature’s presiding officer, is retiring after 20 years in office.

“I wanted to know what the candidates would do about the constant drug use that we see each day outside of our school,” said 17-year-old Mehrin Ali, an East Meadow High School student, at a candidates forum hosted by the League of Women Voters. “We have a jail down the street — not that inmates break out of jail and sell drugs or anything, but we see drug paraphernalia and drug use right off Carman Avenue.” 

Ali added that the sight is upsetting, and asked how each candidate would approach the issue. 

“East Meadow is no stranger, sadly, to opioid overdoses,” McKevitt said, referring to the Suffolk and Nassau County medical examiner’s offices’ recent opioid death statistics, in which East Meadow came in third, behind Massapequa and Levittown.

The statistics also showed that so far this year, there have been six reported opioid-related deaths in East Meadow. “We can start to combat this through education in elementary schools,” McKevitt said. “We need to make sure that officers are acquainted with schools.” 

McKevitt, who has two children in McVey Elementary School, said he would start a program that would allow officers to sit in classrooms and interact with students to create more communication and trust. 

Napolitano proposed a three-step plan to help combat drug use in schools. “Education is key,” she said. “Elementary school-level children absorb information so much quicker than older children. I agree with Mr. McKevitt that this is where we should start with our prevention efforts.”

Additionally, Napolitano stressed the need to create youth support programs, expand neighborhood task forces, and make sure resources are available for people who need treatment.

Ali, a senior, said that throughout her four years at East Meadow High, she has heard only one speaker — a former East Meadow High student — recall his own drug use and rehabilitation during a cautionary portion of a health class. 

“Hearing someone talk about their drug use once isn’t cautioning anyone,” Ali added. “We want more classes on drug use. We want kids to really know the dangers of getting hooked on hard-core drugs like heroin and cocaine.” 

“We need real change,” agreed Jack Doughty, 17, a senior at the high school. “It seems that everything here is stagnant. There’s little to no change in terms of political issues.”

At press time on Tuesday, East Meadow School District Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Card Jr. said that schools in the district are “proactively” educating students as early as elementary school about the dangers of drug use. “We are also committed to working with local law enforcement to ensure the community is safe for our students,” Card said. “When incidents such as the one mentioned by the student are brought to our attention, we immediately take action by notifying local precinct.”

As the forum continued, another East Meadow High student, Anika Talib, 16, asked McKevitt and Napolitano about their plans to lead the county into an environmentally friendly future, while keeping climate change in mind.

McKevitt, who added that the New York League of Conservation Voters have supported him during his time in the State Assembly, vowed to implement and expand a renewable energy program that includes installing solar panels at larger venues, including Nassau Coliseum. 

Napolitano, meanwhile, stressed that coastal areas should be protected as well, and said that, if elected, she would pitch a plan to reduce the “chemicals we put in our lawns that later end up in our water system.” 

Talib said that after reading about wildfires destroying miles of land in Californian — including homes — last week, and after the recent hurricanes that devastated Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, she wants to raise awareness about climate change at a local level.

“It’s disheartening to hear some political leaders dismiss climate change,” Talib said. “I came here to make sure that the candidates are aware of these issues. I wish to see change.”

“Our next representative needs to create a place for people to congregate — students and community members — to make a real change,” Doughty added. 

Legislative District 13 constituents may cast their votes on Nov. 7 at their closest polling stations. The Herald will continue to update the community with election coverage in the coming weeks.