An 18-year-old woman, who was a heroin addict, in her...

An 18-year-old woman, who was a heroin addict, in her bedroom at Outreach House in Brentwood. She has been at the house for 13 months. (June 24, 2009) Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

Despite sharp spikes in the number of heroin-related arrests and overdoses among Long Islanders, local education officials have been notified they will lose more than $1.5 million Islandwide next year in federal aid aimed at creating safe, drug-free schools.

Aides to President Barack Obama, who formerly supported such efforts, contend that federal drug-prevention money is spread too thinly among school districts to be effective, and have convinced Congress to eliminate next year's funding. Annual grants on the Island include more than $30,000 to larger systems such as Freeport, Uniondale and William Floyd and to a high of $73,270 in Brentwood.

Sums small, but important

The newly announced cuts stunned many local school administrators. The sums involved are relatively small - individual districts typically spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on counseling and mandatory health lessons dealing with substance abuse - but administrators say the federal funding pays for specific and effective programs that, in some cases, might have to be cut.

Local educators add that the cuts couldn't come at a worse time, with a growing number of districts now scheduling night meetings to address parents' anxieties over drug addiction.

From 2005 to 2008, Nassau saw a 91 percent spike in arrests on heroin-related charges, while Suffolk had a 126 percent surge. Heroin overdoses are also up.

"The irony is that, at the time of greatest need, we're losing that money," said Gordon Brosdal, assistant superintendent of secondary instruction in the William Floyd district. The system now receives $46,860 in federal prevention aid, which is slated for elimination.

Jacqueline Rizzuto, a social worker in the Commack district, insists that the $21,749 in prevention money received there this year is being spent effectively. Much of it pays for Second Step, a national program that encourages students to make smart choices, starting with simple behavioral lessons in kindergarten, then moving on to lessons that deal directly with avoiding drugs in later grades.

"Of course, it's shocking to hear," Rizzuto said of the federal cuts. "To know we're going to have less financial support is very disheartening."

This year, Washington is distributing $294.8 million to states and local school districts nationwide for programs aimed at combating student violence and substance abuse under the federal "Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities" program. Funding has declined since 2003, when Congress allotted $472 million for the same program.

In 2008, when then-President George W. Bush called for ending the program, Obama, then a U.S. senator, protested along with 36 colleagues, who called the program "the backbone of youth drug prevention."

But last spring, a newly elected President Obama called for eliminating the program. Presidential aides cited a 2001 study by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center that found the program "profoundly flawed."

Another federally funded study, released last month by University of Michigan researchers, found a nationwide rise in adolescent marijuana use, but little change in use of harder drugs including heroin, which peaked in the mid-1990s.

Congress' elimination of the prevention program will mean a loss of $18.5 million in federal grants for school districts and charter schools in New York State. The federal government will continue spending $224 million next year at the national level for development of programs designed to curb disruptive school behavior, including drug and alcohol abuse.

Notice from Albany

On Friday, Albany authorities notified superintendents statewide of next year's federal cuts.

"We believe that here in New York State the money has been used well to create safer school environments," said Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the State Education Department. "So it will be missed."

Will Jenkins, a spokesman for Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), noted Monday night that Congress has appropriated billions of dollars overall since last year to prevent "drastic" cuts in local school budgets. And Justin Hamilton, press secretary at the U.S. Education Department, added that his agency is striving to make the federal grants program "more comprehensive, rigorous and measurable."

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