5K Needles Uncollected Weekly, but Let’s Focus on Plastic Bags

We all know that school recess for children is supposed to be a time to relax, enjoy, and get a break from the rigors of the classroom. Some schools have detailed playgrounds with slides and basketball courts, while others have soccer or baseball fields to let the kids run around. Regardless of what recess looks like, it’s meant to be a truly safe space and no child should ever be put in harm’s way on the grounds of their school. But that’s not the case in Boston.

This past October, a student “came into contact” with a needle found in the playground during recess. Recess! Can you imagine? This happened right around the time I wrote a previous blog post about the opioid crisis and the stray needle problem, and asked, “does a kid need to get HIV before we do something about it?

Rob Consalvo, Head of BPS, said, “The City of Boston gives out over 10k free needles a week and only gets back 5k. And we have only 4 people on the sharps team for the entire city.” If we distribute 10k needles a week and only 5k are collected back, where are the other 5k going?! And worse, how are there only “4 people” on the sharps team for a city this large?

Let’s do some quick math. 5k a week × 4 weeks a month (and most months are a bit more) = at least 20k needles a month are NOT being collected by the city! I’d be surprised if the city even got back half of them, as they claim. That’s 20,000+ unaccounted-for needles that can show up on our playground slides, baseball fields, and sidewalks. Unacceptable. Frankly, it’s criminal to put our kids in harm’s way like this.

Maybe if we put the same amount of progressive activist energy into addressing this horrific issue as we do into bike lanes and plastic bags, our kids wouldn’t feel so disrespected and could safely play in our neighborhoods. Our children are smart, smarter than they are given credit for and they know that not all BPS kids have to deal with this nonsense. Our well-to-do neighbors’ children are not worrying about being pricked by needles on their swings. Our children are being neglected by the city and it’s unacceptable. To the Parents on the Council, would you find this acceptable for your children? Would you allow your kids to play in a playground that may contain needles?

Even as I cycled through foster homes and congregate care settings as a youth, I could always tell when someone truly gave a crap. Kids are intuitive like that. And adding a giant red “sharps” bin for drug users to toss their needles into doesn’t even begin to address the issue. Now this giant metal band-aid is steps from the school, right smack in the middle of Boston’s very Hamsterdam-like, open-air drug market where addicts have normalized an unhealthy and dangerous lifestyle (if you can call it that). If you have watched The Wire, then you can skip the next paragraph. If you haven’t, please familiarize yourself with the concept of Hamsterdam and why it’s important to understanding the intentional neglect of Mass Ave. and Melnea Cass.

“Hamsterdam” is probably The Wire’s bravest and most radical storyline. The series focuses mainly on under-resourced schooling, slow bureaucracy, political corruption, and a possible “solution” for the war on drugs. Baltimore police chief Bunny Colvin establishes three “free zones” in the roughest areas of Baltimore as that solution. The program is carefully and even-handedly analyzed to see how these zones would work and what the political, media and public reaction would be. Quickly nicknamed Hamsterdam – a corruption of Amsterdam, “one of those countries where drugs are legal” – the experiment is successful in clearing drug dealing off of residential street corners that had been blighted by drugs and violence for years. Peaceful corners re-emerge—presented like a dream, a fantasy, or a trip to the past—with neighbors hanging up their clothes, the radio trilling softly, and kids rushing past to play games.

Maybe Hamsterdam sounds like a good idea in theory, but when it’s your children’s playgrounds and neighborhoods that are sacrificed for “the good of the many,” it no longer seems too smart.

Parents, teachers, and kids who attend the Orchard Gardens Pilot School have horror stories to tell. For example, last school year, children snuck a discarded drug needle into the school and kept it in a book bin… for weeks! No one knew until the day they cleaned out the bins.  The kids had been hiding and looking at it daily. What the hell is wrong with our reality when this is a normal fact of life for children? How often were those children put in harm’s way by handling a used needle! Imagine if that was your child.

There was also an incident last year involving homemade pills that were left scattered under the school’s play structure. Multiple kids had to be taken to the hospital for exposure to an unknown substance. These incidences are straight up traumatizing for kids, and another instance of the inequity our kids have to suffer due to systemic racism that neglects the voiceless.

Surrounding communities—like Quincy, for example, who has been fighting the reopening of the Long Island Bridge—don’t want to pay their share of the cost to help their less resourced neighbors. Let’s be honest, most of these addicts are not from Roxbury! They are from places like Quincy and Weymouth who push addicts toward the city because of the lack of resources available at home. What’s the result? Our black and brown kids have to suffer because the suburbs cannot get their acts together and support the recovery community!

We are here to say no more! One teacher from the Henderson School who has a child at the OGPS K-8 came, supported, and agreed that parent voice matters. “The parents at my school (the Henderson) know how to get what they want. Last summer BPS tried to do something they didn’t like, and they all got on the phones and were able to change it. And they certainly would not accept this,” Janina said.

Why is BPS so inequitable? Why are not only the outcomes vastly different from one end of the socioeconomic ladder to the other, but also the expectations for safety?

Parents have been fed up for awhile. Parents and teachers of black and brown kids from lower income communities are tired of being ignored. Understandably, there has been good people working on this issue, but it is not adequate. It is not acceptable.

We reached out countless times to city officials to no avail and yesterday was a breaking point for Roxbury. Parents, students, and  staff at #OrchardGardens came together to shut down traffic on Melnea Cass all the way to the tunnel and demand the city take IMMEDIATE steps to stop the infestation of needles taking over school grounds. We have vowed to continue to protest until these improvements are made.

The list of demands include:

1. 8′ fence securing the playground and  common areas of the school

2. Complete sanitation via pressure wash of play structure to remove any bodily fluids

3. Replacement of all wood chips and mulch to remove all hidden needles from the area

4. Complete cutting, trimming, and raking of the grass  and bushes

5. Consistent, DAILY morning, midday, and afternoon sweeps of area with logged dates and  times

As you can see, parents are not asking for much. They are not asking for millions of dollars. The are asking for simple things to keep their children safe like a fence and new mulch. This is NOT too much to ask. We sincerely hope this gets done immediately so that the students of this school can feel safe and go back to playing outside like kids are supposed to!

This entire movement is child-focused, parent-led, and teacher-supported—the perfect coalition. We came together and strategized on how we could maximize the impact of this action. We reached out to our media contacts. We utilized the #SafetyWalkOut as a recruitment tool for the community meeting that followed. We phone-banked elected officials who represent the area to join and support us in making our demands. We did what was necessary to make our voices heard for our children. We did it together!

Big shout out to DA-elect Rachael Rollins who helped block traffic with her car to support us, Councilor Kim Janey who was physically in the middle of the intersection blocking traffic, and State Rep. Liz Miranda who came out to support us. Also grateful to all the media that came and covered the walkout. The only way we will be able to get what we need for our children to be safe is by making noise. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. And to that end, parents will be keeping up the pressure and testifying at the Boston Public School Committee hearing tonight at the Bruce Bolling Municipal Building at 6pm. Our kids can’t even PLAY in their PLAYground, so in solidarity, WE ARE NOT PLAYING EITHER!

By Ed Shoemaker


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