School on South End’s Edge Fighting Discarded Needles, Homeless Encampments

When the colorful fall leaves fall on most schoolyards in Boston, it’s a unique and happy time to play outside, but at Orchard Gardens K-8 on the edge of the South End, the falling leaves present a grave danger and severe risk.

That’s because the kids and adults at the school cannot see all of the dirty, discarded drug needles that inundate the grounds, and inevitably, a child gets poked with one of those needles hiding under the cover of the pretty leaves.

It’s a sad reality for a group of more than 700, mostly low-income, children and families that attend school on the edge of the South End’s Albany Street and are forced to fight the growing opiate epidemic that unfortunately has its epicenter in and around their schoolyard.

“Kids love to run and play, but they can’t do that safely on our schoolyard, which is a beautiful space, but you just can’t sweep the place every day to make sure there are no needles,” said Nurse Susan Burchill, who appeared with other school leaders at the South End Forum Opiate Working Group on Tuesday. “The needles are just everywhere. We have an encampment back there. They eat from our school garden. They have camps with tents and defecate on our playground because they can easily sit on the equipment. They come in front of our windows and urinate because they can’t see in but we can see out. It’s insane. We’ve had three dead bodies back there. We had to put tarps over them so kids would walk around them and not see them. The minute the leaves fall off the trees, we have a dangerous situation. You can’t see the needles under the leaves and kids get stuck. We had a child stuck with a needle this year in the leaves and the needle was full of opiates and blood. That little guy had to go through a month of anti-HIV treatment.”

Maintenance worker Jeannette, who chose not to give a last name, said every day she tries to remove the needles the best she can. When she calls the City, very little happens. So, she has started removing them herself.

She also has to remove homeless people and drug users from sleeping in the doorways starting at 5:30 a.m. because kids start arriving soon after that.

“(The City) came down the first week and we thought that was going to be how it was, but we haven’t seen them since,” she said. “When I call, nothing happens. They want to ask me if it’s on school property or City property. I just needed five mornings of help, but we didn’t get it.”

Nurse Burchill has instituted a program for needle safety at the school, and it’s readily apparent as soon as one walks through the doors. In the hallways where drawings and artwork are typically displayed at a school, Burchill has put up a display teaching children to ‘Stop, Turn and Tell’ when they see a drug needle. She also teaches them to call 3-1-1 to report it, especially the older kids.

It’s another sad reality.

Burchill and sixth-grade teacher Suzie McGlone also said it has affected the psyche of the students – whose school is only 15 years old and in top condition inside and outside, excluding the needles, drug user encampments and other drug paraphernalia.

Both produced a drawing made by an elementary school student last year when asked by the central administration to suggest something that would make their school better. The picture shows a student playing in the leaves with more than 10 syringes stuck to his body. The suggestion was that the school would be better if so many children didn’t get stuck with stray needles and get sick.

“They can’t take advantage of a beautiful playing field, a basketball court and a baseball field because it’s dangerous,” said McGlone. “I would hope people will agree it’s not okay there are so many needles at our school. I would hope they are disgusted by this…Every time I go out, I sweep for needles. One time a month, the kids go out to play and I always go out to sweep first. I think anyone who has children would be disgusted that this is going on, but it has continued for a while. We need help.”

And that’s exactly what the Opiate Working Group hopes to provide in welcoming the school community to the table of the nearly two-year old group that has worked to eliminate just these kinds of situations.

“We want you to feel that you’re not alone in this,” said Moderator Steve Fox. “So many fighting this felt alone in the battle, and that’s why we formed this group. So far it has worked very well and we hope we can help you.”

Sue Sullivan of the Newmarket Business Association, and a Board member of the school, said that this shouldn’t happen.

“There is no reason this should happen and we can do something about it,” said Sullivan.

Added Councilor Frank Baker, who noted the school is just outside his district, “What we need to do is put together a plan and a set of strategies to get action on this.”

  • Compassionate Organics medical marijuana group appeared before the Working Group on Tuesday to give a presentation on their plan for a proposed dispensary at 633 Tremont St.

The group had been on the agenda last spring, but did not show up due to a miscommunication. Already, their one competitor, Liberty Compassionates, has presented at the Working Group. The Group has decided to hear all such proposals, but at the moment isn’t taking a stand on any of them – though that could change.

Attorney Mike Ross, a former City Councilor, presented for the group and gave an overview of their plan. At 1,200 square-feet, he said they are different because they will be small – a boutique-style operation, locally owned by Back Bay’s Geoffrey Reilinger, that he felt would be accessed by walkers from the neighborhood. He contrasted that by suggesting that Liberty is set up for a larger-scale operation by owners from Rhode Island, who are capitalizing on being next to the interstate.

One new thing suggested was that the Tremont Street proposal would be similar to the Newbury Street proposal, which is medical marijuana only. Ross said they would put a proviso on the zoning document that would specify medical marijuana.

“We are going to put a proviso on our zoning document that would say medical marijuana only,” he said. “That would force us to go back and to convince them to strip that from our document (if we wanted recreational). Geoffrey is doing that because he wants to prove himself. We have definitely made that commitment.”

  • The drive for more needle kiosks in public places continues, but Moderator Steve Fox said there has been little progress recently. Already there are a few of them in the South End, but they are hard to find and many believe there needs to be more. The ongoing debate is whether they would be used or not by those that discard drug needles.

Newmarket Business Association Director Sue Sullivan said they would be used if they are in the right place, but if a user has to walk 50 yards to find one, they wouldn’t be used.

Fox said it is time to make a push to get action.

“We have to demonstrate we can do this,” he said. “I think we need more in high traffic areas and I think we need them to be obvious. We need an education component with it. We really need to bite the bullet on this.”

Jessie Gaeta, medical director for Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, said there is a fledgling group of drug users on Albany Street that is organizing to bring attention to their needs. She said it might be a good idea to get input from them about the best places and the need. All agreed that was a good idea.

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