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A proactive war on drugs Falls district's zero-tolerance drug policy shines a brighter light on problems, and administrators feel students have taken the message to heart

A 15-year-old boy was arrested Jan. 12 and charged with having four pieces of crack cocaine in his hallway locker at LaSalle Middle School.

Seventeen days later, a teenage boy at Gaskill Middle School was arrested when his principal found 14 hypodermic needles hidden in the boy's coat.

On Feb. 13, a 16-year-old student was charged with possessing 5 grams of marijuana and eight Ecstasy pills in Niagara Falls High School.

Another Gaskill pupil was arrested two weeks after that, when he was found with three bags of marijuana at school.

Four drug arrests inside city schools in less than seven weeks.

And there's more. By the end of February, the district had suspended 21 students for possessing drugs or drug paraphernalia in school this school year -- the second-highest number in the last six years, with four months left on the school calendar.

Nobody is sounding an alarm over these numbers, or maintaining that, per capita, the drug problem in Niagara Falls schools is much worse than those faced at other schools. In fact, some in the district maintain Falls schools are a victim of their own success.

Niagara Falls High School Principal Mark Laurrie sa id teachers, counselors, security staff and two school resource officers from the city police department are always on the alert for drugs.

In a school with 2,300 students, the school has had relatively few incidents, he said. The reality in Niagara Falls schools, he and other educational leaders told The Buffalo News, is that the district has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs and other crimes.

School leaders aren't afraid to call police, encourage arrests and face the prospect of what some might consider negative publicity.

It's an approach some in the law enforcement community applaud.

"I don't think any school district is immune to [student drug use]," Niagara County Drug Task Force Chief Mark Driess said. "It's out there in the community, so sometimes it's going to get into the schools. You can't keep them out 100 percent of the time."

Driess said several other school operations in Niagara County have lived through a drug arrest or some type of drug investigation this year.

After checking with a couple of Niagara County sheriff's deputies stationed as resource officers in other school districts, Driess said, "The Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services had seven students arrested for drug possession this year involving [the painkiller] Oxycontin and marijuana.

"As an example, there was one student arrested in an investigation that found he was stealing [painkillers] from his father's prescription medication.

"The Newfane School District had a couple of marijuana possession arrests this year. In the past, it has had prescription drug arrests. . . . A Niagara- Wheatfield student recently was under investigation for allegedly having a prescription drug in his possession."

Driess also said he gave two pupils credit in the Lewiston- Porter district recently for recognizing that a substitute teacher was snorting cocaine in class. He noted that the 59-year-old woman was charged because two fourth-grade girls turned her in. That case is still pending.

Driess said drug activity in area schools involves very few students.

In Niagara Falls, those students can expect to be singled out.

The arrests since the start of the year were made at the bidding of school principals because of the district's zero-tolerance drug policy. As is the case in other districts, Falls students even may get suspended if they have legitimate medications in their possession but don't notify school officials. On school grounds, a school nurse must dispense prescription and overthe- counter drugs.

"It's not a massive problem, but you notice it because it's in the paper. It's in the paper because we called the police," La- Salle Middle School Principal Richard Carella said.

Superintendent Carmen A. Granto has an established policy, Carella said, "which is to call the police when a student has drugs. The police come in, take the substance, analyze it and make an arrest when it's appropriate. Students caught with any kind of drugs are suspended and given a superintendent's hearing."

So far this school year, 21 students in the district have been suspended for possessing drugs or drug paraphernalia in school. That's second most over the last six school years, after 32 suspensions in 2003-04.

> Schools 'more in tune'

Maria Massaro, an assistant school district attorney who conducts suspension hearings on Granto's behalf, says such suspensions may include students who bring legitimate prescription drugs to school, but do not turn them over to the school nurse to be administered.

While some students have been found in possession of drugs, strange or unruly behavior as a result of drug use is extremely uncommon, Falls principals said.

"We don't really notice, at least in the school, our kids showing the effects of using drugs," Carella said. "We are very vigilant. We run a lot of programs about the dangers of drugs and alcohol abuse, and they seem to [largely] work. We do things like random locker searches to discourage kids from bringing drugs into school. . . . We are pretty much a drug-free zone.

"But this year we caught a kid with crack and ended up with a felony cocaine arrest," Carella said. "It's the only time we've ever found a kid with cocaine. It happened because we've been doing more random searches this year. A random locker search turned up the crack."

He said LaSalle has had about seven drug-related suspensions this year among a population of 605 students, which includes those arrested.

"When we do find a street drug," he said, "it's usually marijuana."

A major reason why LaSalle Middle is largely drug-free: "The students know it's wrong and those very few students that might be tempted to carry something into school know they have a good chance of being caught," Carella said.

"Drugs certainly are not a greater problem than they've ever been," said Laurrie, the high school principal. "I believe there were more problems in the schools years ago. We are more in tune with things now and are much more proactive in making sure we provide a safe, drug- and violence-free environment for our students. We do everything we can to keep the streets out of the school.

"We do random locker searches. We even had eight area police agencies bring in trained drug dogs last month to do a [sniff] search of student lockers -- 2,832 of them -- for drugs and drug paraphernalia, but nothing was found."

One ninth-grader was suspended from school that day because he reported he had marijuana in his locker when he didn't. Laurrie said the student was joking around, but he told him it was no laughing matter. The student was suspended for "disorderly behavior during a serious lockdown."

Like Carella, Laurrie said his best weapon is the vast majority of students who want nothing to do with drugs and don't want them in school.

"More kids tell us about kids they suspect have something with them. That's our best source of information," Laurrie said. He said he believes the students feel free to do that because they have such a good relationship with the school staff.

In such cases, the suspect student is searched, he said.

While painkillers seem to be the trend around the country for drug abuse among students, Laurrie said that hasn't shown up at the high school.

Gaskill Principal Joseph Colburn said he's had about five pupils out of 704 suspended in drug-related incidents this year.

"We had a couple of them arrested for marijuana, along with a student who had hypodermic needles in the building. . . . I know it's a very small percentage of the population that's affected, but clearly just having one kid involved is too many."

Like other city secondary schools, Colburn said Gaskill has programs in place to fight drug use, including the school's "positive behavior program." In that program, the school staff teaches pupils how important it is to keep the school safe from things like drugs, and how pupils should treat others, including their classmates.

"I'm always impressed at how smart our kids are," Colburn said. "They will let us know what's going on in ways that nobody else knows about it. They want the school to be safe, but they don't want to be labeled as snitches. So I'm very impressed how often kids come down and tell us that 'so and so has something I don't think he should have' or 'I think there's going to be a problem over here.'

"It helps us to be proactive and take care of issues before they can get worse."

> A societal problem

Colburn said the sad fact is that drugs are a societal problem.

"Drugs are in our community and what's in our community comes into our school sometimes. It's one of the things we have to be able to deal with. We don't sweep it under the rug. We take care of it with the appropriate action inside the school, but we also call the police because we think it's the right thing to do," he said.

Even though the recent rash of drug arrests may seem to represent a spike, Colburn said he feels that safety in his building is getting better every year.

City Police Officer Neil Stenzel, a high school resource officer, agreed.

"Drugs are always a concern, but we're not being bombed with drug-related complaints," Stenzel said. "There are problems, but it's not rampant."

And because the district has a zero-tolerance policy along with many other deterrents and drug resistance education programs in place, Stenzel said he believes officials are pretty successful on limiting what gets into the schools. Often, he said concerned students let resource officers or school staff know if someone has drugs in school "because they don't want it here."

"My daughter goes here," he said. "If it wasn't safe, I wouldn't let her. I'd never put her in danger. She's totally safe in this school."


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