Sign up For DC 37 News


Public Employee Press

Members are on the frontline fighting against addiction

Local 372 member Derrick Daniels helps students avoid drugs and gangs by helping them find jobs.

District Council 37 members are working on the frontlines of a drug abuse epidemic in New York City, where the number of drug overdose deaths has risen five years in a row.

Substance Abuse Prevention Intervention Specialists in the city schools play a critical role in getting the message out to impressionable teenagers about the deadly consequences of substance abuse. NYC Board of Education Local 372 member and SAPIS counselor Derrick Daniels is doing his part at the Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology High School.

Daniels meets daily with a group of students in the cafeteria at the Bronx high school. Every day he helps them work on their resumés and checks on their job applications. “They need help applying for jobs and they don’t know where to start,” explained Daniels, a graduate of the College of New Rochelle with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Jobs in the Fordham neighborhood are lacking, added Daniels, but street gangs like the Crips and the Bloods are growing and so is the use of heroin.

SAPIS counselor Robert York educates students about the dangers of substance abuse at the West Bronx Academy High School. York also helps students get ready for college by visiting campuses.
Treatment available in the Bronx

The Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene reported last year that four of five neighborhoods with the highest rate of heroin overdose deaths were in the Bronx, and one of those neighborhoods is Fordham-Bronx Parkway. The department also reported 937 drug overdoses in the entire city for 2015, an increase from 2010 of 541 overdoses. Of those fatal overdoses, 146 were in the Bronx and the cause was heroin. Staten Island had 38 heroin overdoses.

Clinical Psychologist Steven Goldfinger, a member of Psychologists Local 1189, works at the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, at the Comprehensive Addiction Treatment Center. The hospital offers inpatient and outpatient services to people seeking treatment.

“We have beds available in our detox ward,” says Goldfinger, who assesses the mental health needs of patients. “People can identify a problem, but looking for a solution is something else. That’s part of the process of addiction.”

The detox process at Jacobi usually takes four or five days of inpatient treatment, added Goldfinger. Jacobi then offers referrals for continued outpatient treatment, which the hospital also offers.

People can identify a problem but looking for a solution is something else. That’s part of the process of addiction.

— Steven Goldfinger
Clinical Psychologist, Local 1189

Joe Conzo, a veteran Emergency Medical Technician, has noticed an increase in the number of 911 emergency calls in the Bronx for drug overdoses. He attributes the increase in heroin use to the high price of prescription drugs. “People are switching from prescription drugs to heroin because it’s cheaper and easy to get,” said the Local 2507 member.

From West Virginia to New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio, addiction to heroin and opioids, which are prescription painkillers, is on the rise. More than 50,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses in 2015, surpassing gun homicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In New York City, the synthetic painkiller fentanyl is making the heroin crisis worse. Fentanyl’s not only cheap, but 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and is frequently mixed with heroin, usually unknown to the user.

District Attorney’s office fights back

Megan Rafaniello works as a SAPIS counselor at Jr. High School IS 2 in the Midland Beach neighborhood on Staten Island. She conducts group counseling sessions with her students and teaches them coping skills. Rafaniello, who graduated from the College of Staten Island, keeps in touch with all of the SAPIS counselors on Staten Island via an e-newsletter they created. ”It’s a good way to stay in touch and exchange information,” she says.

The Staten Island District Attorney’s office is also grappling with the borough’s heroin crisis and sends its staff to make presentations in the schools.

“They do excellent presentations,” said Rafaniello, who has hosted them at her school.

When DA Michael McMahon took office in 2016 his office also began tracking drug overdoses on Staten Island. His office says there have been at least 75 fatal overdoses in 2016. According to the health department during the first half of 2016, 35 percent of drug overdoses involved fentanyl.

In response to this crisis McMahon’s office created the Overdose Response Initiative, which will allow the Office of Chief Medical Examiner to do full toxicology workups on victims to determine whether the cause of death was heroin or a mixture of other drugs, like fentanyl.

“What spurred this is the number of cases and the dramatic increase in overdose deaths,” McMahon told “We really are a community in crisis.”

The Staten Island DA’s office is also the first in the city to investigate every drug overdose as it would a homicide.

Local 768 member and Medical Legal Investigator Alex Leung works out of the medical examiner’s office in Manhattan. When there’s an overdose, he’s usually one of the first persons on the scene. “We’re responsible for examining the body, we check for contusions and weapons,” he said. Leung works closely with the NYPD’s Crime Scene Unit and has noticed the increase in fentanyl use. “They’re breaking it into smaller pieces and selling it,” said the Local 768 member.

Clinical Psychologist and Local 1189 member Steven Goldfinger advises parents to talk to their kids about drugs.
Not enough SAPIS counselors

While heroin abuse grows in the city, the number of SAPIS counselors working in the schools has declined. Back in 2008 there were 501 counselors, but by 2015 that number was slashed to 243, less than half the staff in 2008. In 2016 the number increased to 290, after activists from Local 372 lobbied legislators in Albany for additional funds to hire more counselors.

“We got support from state Senators Leroy Comrie and Diane Savino and Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte,” said Local 372 President Shaun D. Francois I. The local president wants the positions, which are funded by the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, to be permanently included every year in the budget. “If we have to come to Albany and meet with the legislators every year we will, but those funds should be there, especially now with this heroin crisis,” said Francois, who is planning another trip on March 1 to Albany to meet with lawmakers.

The number of deaths cited by the health department would be higher had they not been averted by the use of Narcan, an anti-overdose nasal spray used to reverse the effects of heroin. First responders, like members of Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics of the FDNY Local 2507, are trained and equipped to use Narcan and have saved hundreds of lives. “Too many to count,” said Conzo of the lives his members have saved from overdoses.

Mental health professionals agree that adolescence is the critical time to get the message out about deadly drugs. Goldfinger advises parents to have a conversation with their children. “Kids will experiment,” said Goldfinger. “So you need to have that conversation and listen to what they’re saying.” He also recommends parents find out who their children are spending time with. If there is a problem, he suggests the family reach out to their primary care doctor. “Addiction is a health issue after all, and we want to keep our kids away from these substances and keep them healthy.”