Four Niagara Falls School District students were arrested in about seven weeks at school on drug charges early this year, but the incidents do not seem to indicate drugs are becoming an increasing problem for city schools.
"I haven't felt a spike in it, but that doesn't mean there may not have been a few more incidents this year as opposed to last year or any year before that," said Maria Massaro.
Massaro is the assistant school district attorney who handles all student suspension hearings for School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto. That includes adjudicating any cases involving students in drug-related matters.
Checking her files, Massaro said 21 of the district's 7,666 students have been suspended so far this year for possessing drugs or drug paraphernalia (such as a marijuana pipe or a hypodermic needle).
Having handled suspensions hearings here since 1999, Massaro said her records that date back to the 2001-02 school year showed the number of drug-related suspensions has varied annually.
In that time, she said the most drug cases in the last six years came to 32 in 2003-04, and went down to a low of 14 in 2005-06.
Massaro said the suspensions are a result of the district's zero tolerance policy.
"When a student is caught with drugs it's an automatic suspension, no exceptions," she said. "That means they can't have street drugs like marijuana or any type of drug paraphernalia in school. They can't even have prescription medication with them unless they bring in an original prescription in the bottle with the script on it," and that medication must be placed in the hands of and dispensed by a school nurse.
"I think the reason we have the arrests and suspensions we have is because the district has deterrents in place to detect drug problems," she said. "And when a student is found with drugs, there are consequences.
"If there is a rise in the number of drug suspensions, I think its more because of vigilance on the part of staff, and because students are very willing to come forward and let us know if somebody has drugs in school. There are a lot of things that could attribute to the public seeing more arrests as opposed to saying it's all attributed to more drugs in the schools."
As for drug suspensions, they are not limited to one age level. Suspensions have been given to middle school and elementary pupils, as well as Niagara Falls High School students.
Of the 21 drug-related suspensions this year, Massaro said three involved elementary pupils.
"Two were suspended for the same incident," she said. "I believe they found a marijuana cigarette on the way to school. They were caught showing it to each other in school instead of bringing it to the attention of a teacher. The third student's situation was similar.
"The suspensions were minor," Massaro added. "They were just kids being kids. But they should have known enough to do the right thing, and reported it."
In the upper grades, she said one student faces legal action in court for being caught with cocaine in LaSalle Middle School, and has been suspended and sent to the city's Alternative High School. "He has to earn his way back to his home school," based on how he performs and behaves, she said.
Suspensions can range from five days to indefinite periods. Massaro said the severity of suspensions are based on a number of things, including the circumstances surrounding an incident, the intent of the student involved, and the student's disciplinary history.