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Eden Laikin

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No Place Safe From Heroin’s Wrath

From left to right: Garrett Kassler, his mother, Lisa, his sister, Erica, and his dad, Lee.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a new monthly column exploring the local impact of the national heroin and opioid crisis. Contact the author via elaikin@longislandpress.com

As a child growing up in Plainview, Garrett Kassler loved the Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Once a teenager, it was water and the outdoors. He wanted to open a scuba diving shop, live on the beach, and enjoy a simple life.

His parents, Lee and Lisa, had moved to the upper middle-class suburb when Garrett was a baby, as it promised great schools, little to no crime, a good neighborhood and the perfect place to raise a family.

“We watched our children [including daughter Erica, now 24] flourish from pre-K through high school,” Lee says. “We were active in the PTA, we both coached soccer and Little League, we watched our children closely and made sure they stayed out of trouble.”

Garrett first had trouble dealing with stress while away as a college freshman. A campus doctor prescribed Xanax. His parents were comforted that it was a physician. But Garrett’s mood and behavior began changing.

He eventually told his parents he couldn’t stop taking the anti-anxiety medication. They brought him home, sent him to therapy and the “Xanax problem” appeared to be resolved. Then, oxycodone and, ultimately, heroin, replaced Xanax. For the next eight years, Garrett was in and out of rehabilitation facilities.

“This was our life now,” Lisa says. “We needed to accept the fact that our son was an addict and find help… . We were always proud of him, never ashamed. We learned he had a disease, and it not only affects the user but everyone in the household.”

Garrett seemed to improve and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. But a call came a few weeks into boot camp. Garrett, unable to meet the vigorous demands, was discharged. Home again, he continued to use drugs.

In 2014, Garrett’s doctor prescribed Vivitrol®, an opioid-receptor blocker that stopped his cravings and blocked him from getting high. It worked well.

Clean for 14 months, Garrett volunteered with Nassau County’s drug education and awareness programs, speaking at events and sitting on the Heroin Prevention Task Force. He helped launch the county’s “Shot at Life” (Vivitrol®) program and became a recovery coach. He planned to become a credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselor.

But he wasn’t in drug treatment. Months after stopping Vivitrol®, he relapsed, and the cycle of using and stopping began again.

“Never once did he deny being an addict,” Lee says. “He’d say, ‘I am wired just a little different then many of you. No rhyme or reason. I just have to deal with it.’”

On Feb. 4, 2017, excited after he passed a drug test and landed a new job, Garrett Kassler would use once more and overdose in his Plainview home at the age of 26. It was Fentanyl, and powerful painkiller often added to heroin, that killed him.

Garrett was one of 195 people to die from opioids in Nassau that year, including another Plainview man his age. The other 194 came from Massapequa, Long Beach, Manhasset, Floral Park and Oceanside. No area is exempt. Suffolk County’s fatal overdose numbers are even higher than those in Nassau.

“Remember, if it could happen to us, it could happen to anyone,” Lee says. “The drug crisis is real. Addiction is real.”

Weeks later, the Kasslers started a nonprofit in his name: The Garrett L Kassler Memorial Fund. Their goal: “to make recovery possible – one person, one family, one life at a time.”

Garrett’s high school principal wrote on the foundation’s and school’s website about the student he knew well at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School.

“His tremendous smile and great laugh were infectious, and his wonderful sense of humor could brighten the darkest day,” Principal James Murray wrote. “He was friends with everyone; no peer group was excluded from his kind and welcoming heart.”

On Feb . 3, 2018, Lee posted on the memorial fund’s Facebook page.

“Tomorrow- One year. Our lives were changed forever. Every day is a rollercoaster of emotion. The sadness, loneliness and heartache, I wish on no one… We miss our boy terribly. Hurt beyond imagine… Life and health are precious. Do not take one moment of it for granted.”

WHERE TO FIND HELP

Long Island Crisis Center
24/7 Crisis Hotline (Call or Text) (516) 679-1111

NAFAS
Nassau Alliance for Addiction Services Helpline: (516) 481-4000 nassaualliance.org (community treatment providers)

Information & Resources
heroinprevention.com L.I.C.A.D.D. 24/7 Hotline for Info & Referrals (631) 979-1700

For those affected by a loved one’s Substance Use Disorder:

Nar-Anon (516) 318-6134 nar-anon.org
Al-Anon/ Alateen (516) 433-8003 alanon-nassau-ny.org
• Families Anonymous (516) 204-3202 familiesanonymous.org

For Free Naloxone (Narcan) Training Community Calendar of Opioid Overdose Trainings
health.ny.gov

Hempstead Schools Draw State Review, Again

School board president Maribel Touré, left, and acting superintendent Regina Armstrong debate issues before the school board. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

Persistently struggling: That’s the term that the New York State Education Department used to describe the state of the Hempstead School District as it has once again come under a microscope.

Areas of critical concern that the state identified include student safety, nutrition, deteriorating buildings, gang activity, inability to collect and utilize millions of dollars in grants and funds, and graduation rates as low as 38 percent. To try and improve educational outcomes in the district, NYSED asked the schools’ chief to immediately begin correcting the issues highlighted in a January report, and submit monthly memos on the progress, beginning March 15. And NYSED Commissioner MaryEllen Elia sent an auditor to Hempstead High School in February, to review records and “evaluate if the school met its indicators related to credit accumulation” for seniors to graduate.

“As always, our number one priority is mutual: enable our students to meet their educational goals that will place them on the track to college and career,” Acting School Superintendent Regina Armstrong said in a statement in response to the state’s actions. “We welcome New York State’s cooperation in meeting these goals and will continue to do all in our power to provide our students with the resources they need to succeed in the classroom and secure a brighter future.”

At the same time, Armstrong is overseeing the District’s five-year capital plan, which would start with demolishing the long-shuttered Marguerite Golden Rhodes Elementary school and constructing a new school, to ease the burden of overcrowded classrooms. The three-year, $47 million project would be the first step in addressing the issues and would require residents to approve a bond in May that could raise property taxes from $80 to $235 per homeowner each year to fund Hempstead’s $2 million portion.

What’s more, it’s budget season for school districts, and among the first items on the agenda at Hempstead’s February 15 school board meeting was how to address the inability of school business officials to claim millions of dollars in Medicaid reimbursements due the district.

The latest saga in Hempstead began when NYSED Commissioner Elia commissioned a report on the District in October 2017. The report highlighted the 10 most critical
areas of concern throughout the District and blamed most of the deficiencies on the “irresponsible behavior” of the school board. The report stated that the board “fails to prioritize student’s needs,” and there’s a “lack of follow through on agreed upon plans and lack of transparency.” References were made to earlier audits that found a school board “too busy fighting to solve problems.” The report concluded that many of the issues facing the Hempstead School District are “longstanding and systemic and that past corrective action plans have been inadequately implemented if at all.”

One issue noted in the report is that the district has been unable to do what’s necessary to collect and use a $5.4 million state grant for “community schools,” allocated to them for the 2017-18 school year, and unable to apply for and collect millions of dollars in Medicaid reimbursement funds for eligible services.

Of the District’s 7,600 students, some 70 percent come from families who receive public assistance; 40 percent are not proficient in English; and 10 percent are students with disabilities. Over the last decade, the school district’s enrollment has shifted to 70 percent Hispanic or Latino, 31 percent black or African American, and 2 percent white.

Hempstead’s graduation rates remain among the lowest in the state – with just 38 percent graduating last year, compared to a statewide average of 80 percent. NYSED data also shows that since September 2017, nearly 300 seniors have left Hempstead High School early – a 34 percent drop-out rate. Only three of the district’s 10 schools are listed as in “Good Standing” with the state education department.

The report stressed that first and foremost both the board members and superintendent should have regular state-sanctioned training within the first year of service, which is already required under state law.