Syringe on the ground

Why are used hypodermic needles being discarded in Stowe, and nowhere else around?

Last August, police started keeping track of hypodermic needles found in Stowe. That week, three were found.

By October, police found 15 one week and 14 the next.

Numbers dropped as winter closed in, but earlier this month, police found a whopping 34 needles in a six-day period.

Since last Aug. 19, 300 discarded needles have been found in Stowe, according to police records.

They’re mostly found on the Stowe Recreation Path near Thompson Park, and on Park Street, River Road and Thomas Lane, said Stowe Police Chief Don Hull.

The earliest record the Stowe Reporter has of needles found in town and noted by police was in the fall of 2015.

The overwhelming majority of needles found in this part of Vermont were reported in Stowe, with only a few elsewhere. Morristown police noted six needles found between July 2016 and July 2017, primarily in parking lots.

Disgusting and dangerous

In May, Adam Fortunati of Stowe wrote online that he’d found seven needles on River Road while walking his dog.

Last December, Carrie Noonan found a handful on River Road.

“In addition to my shock, I’m angry that my dogs nearly stepped on them as I walked them this morning, and that it very well could have been my child who discovered this while getting the mail or walking the dogs,” Noonan wrote.

“The first one that we found was August of last year underneath the kids’ picnic table in the playground,” said Lindsay Baumann, director of The Kids’ School, a preschool and child care center on Park Street.

“After we found the first one, we called the police. We inspected, then we implemented our inspection process every morning. The person who opens the school needs to inspect the entire playground and sign off on their inspection every day,” Baumann said.

She said her staff was finding four or five needles a day — including several found by students — until the colder months. But the needles were still being discarded.

“When the snow started to melt, then we actually had to close the playground for four days. We went on walks instead because the needles were melting out of the snow,” Baumann said.

Since The Kids’ School installed cameras, Baumann says, there haven’t been any needles.

She praised Stowe police officers, who have been prompt to safely collect needles that were found, but says the discarded needles are affecting her school.

“It’s a huge safety hazard. Not only is it disgusting, it’s so very dangerous,” Baumann said.

Her staff members have been telling kids “just to be safe, and never to touch something if they don’t know what it is. The teachers are here to keep them safe.”

Baumann said parents are “horrified and disgusted."

“They’re impressed with the policies I’ve had to quickly put in place. Keeping them updated is super important, and ensuring we’re following through with the policies I put into place so they’re 100 percent sure their children are being protected as best we can” has been important, she said.

Stop, don’t touch, tell someone

“It’s pretty terrifying. It’s really sad and it’s really scary,” said Marty Lacasse, who retired this month as principal of Stowe Elementary School.

No discarded needles have been found on the school property, but just in case, she has the custodians and staff members do safety checks of the playgrounds before kids go outside.

“We’ve shared safety information for parents in the school newsletter, and the director of nursing services prepared a slideshow with pictures of what the needles might look like for teachers to share with their classes,” Lacasse said. “They presented that early in the year, and again right before Green Up Day, because many students participate in that event and we wanted them to have a refresher. We kept our instructions to children very straightforward and simple:  Stop, don’t touch, tell an adult. The instructions for adults were similar: Stop, don’t touch, call the police.”

School nurse Mary Karen Crawford bought a sharps container in case the police couldn’t help out, but so far, they’ve been on the case, Lacasse said.

Makes no sense

“They’re getting hammered down there” with needles, said Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux.

Marcoux said his department doesn’t deal with anywhere near the number of sharps being found in Stowe.

“I think there were four reports or six reports in a town and four in another one. I don’t know why, but they’re just not very prevalent, as they are in Stowe,” Marcoux said.

He has no idea why they’d be so concentrated in Stowe.

“I wish I had that answer,” Hull said. “I don’t know if it’s happening in Morrisville or Hyde Park or anything like that, but it is happening quite frequently in Stowe.”

“It might just be as simple as a user down there that’s just choosing to get rid of them there,” Marcoux said.

Theresa Vezina is executive director of Vermont Cares, an organization that runs a harm reduction van around the state. The van stops in Morrisville, and has a needle exchange, but Vezina says no one’s used it.

“It could be a number of different reasons. I would hate to say this means there’s an increase in injection drug use, because you really don’t know without knowing a little bit more about other equipment that might be found,” Vezina said.

Hull said needles and syringes are the only drug paraphernalia being spotted.

Marcoux said he’s looking into working with the Vermont Department of Health to put receptacles across Lamoille County, but he hasn’t taken any steps to put them in yet.

Hull says he’s working on a public education program centered around on needle problem, but for now, he encourages people who find needles to follow Stowe Elementary School’s guidelines — don’t touch it, and call the police.

Or, if you have to move needles, “pick them up with a pair of gloves or tongs and put them in a hard plastic container, like a laundry detergent container or something thick and plastic, and then just seal it up with tape and you can throw it out,” Hull said.

He says they’re ending up in landfills.

“If anyone has any information, and knows of anybody who potentially could be throwing these needles out, we want to know about it,” he said.

His department’s efforts have been applauded by those affected.

“I know they’re going above and beyond. I know they have people out. I know they’re trying their best and I don’t know what else they can do,” Baumann said.

To her, the situation smells fishy.

“Something’s weird and sneaky about all of this. I don’t think it’s just one person using the needles. I don’t know if they pile them up and toss them out of their car. It’s really weird. It’s not just a normal user. It doesn’t make any sense that it would just be in Stowe,” Baumann said.

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