School Board Wants More Information On Needle Exchange

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 8/16/2018 11:56:02 PM

Claremont — The Claremont School Board has invited Valley Regional Hospital CEO Peter Wright to its Sept. 6 meeting to speak about a needle-exchange program that Wright has agreed to locate at the hospital.

On Wednesday, the board tabled a decision on whether to allow the program at the hospital, which would be legal after a recent change in state law. Board members preferring to hear more details from Wright first.

Supporters have said needle-exchange programs help reduce the prevalence of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C and also can increase the likelihood that drug users will enter treatment.

But two board members — Steve Horsky and Vice Chairwoman Rebecca Zullo — said they would not support the program because the hospital is next to Disnard Elementary School.

“I don’t want to take a chance being so close to our children,” Zullo said.

Board member Jason Benware said he was “bothered” by the idea of a needle exchange program but is equally bothered by seeing discarded needles on the street and the medical side of effects of the use of dirty needles.

“I don’t believe it will increase drug use,” Benware said, adding that this is today’s reality. “It is the lesser of two evils as far as I am concerned.”

The other board members — Chairman Frank Sprague, Mike Petrin and Carolyn Towle — did not give an opinion, though Petrin did suggest approving the program on a trial basis of six months or a year.

A needle exchange for intravenous drug use did operate briefly last year at the Claremont Soup Kitchen on Central Street but was shut down in October when it was brought to the attention of city officials that it was within 1,000 feet of a school, which was in violation of state law because schools are designated as drug-free zones.

The law was amended in the last legislative session to permit local school boards to grant exceptions having “syringe service programs” in drug-free zones. Gov. Chris Sununu signed the bill in June.

The School Board said the program would operate at the urgent care center on Dunning Street but Wright said on Thursday hospital officials are not 100 percent certain where it would be located, whether urgent care, the emergency department or somewhere else.

As for opposition by some board members, Wright said he looks forward to explaining the hospital’s approach.

“What I hope to do is bring an understanding of the scope and nature of how we would operate this and they will come to realize it brings no additional threat to safety,” Wright said.

Though the school and hospital properties are abutting, the urgent care center is at least a quarter-mile away. However, for those accessing the service on foot, they most likely would pass in front of Disnard, unless they used Elm Street. It is not clear how many individuals would use the program but according to a report sent to the state by the two Dartmouth College students who initiated the needle exchange at the soup kitchen, the group provided 1,690 clean needles and collected 329 dirty ones between July 1 and Sept. 30 last year.

Laura Byrne, the executive director of the HIV/HCV Resource Center in Lebanon, which operates needle exchange programs in White River Junction and Springfield, Vt., addressed the board on Wednesday evening. She said the program is far more than exchanging needles and includes other services, including HIV and hepatitis C testing.

“I think it is critical people get this help,” Byrne said. “It is important people get tested. We offer a point of contact for these services.”

Otherwise, Byrne said, it is likely that they would not get into treatment.

Police Chief Mark Chase sees the value of running the program at the hospital.

“It is where they can get help with other services so there is potential win-win for the person with the addiction,” Chase said. “It also means risk reduction for the person with the addiction and those helping them. I’m not sure five or 10 years ago I would have supported this, but I definitely see the need now.”

Byrne said typically they would run the service two to three hours a week but the precise times would need to be defined. Benware suggested after school hours, which Byrne said is a possibility but it would depend on staffing availability.

The board did not bring up the potential for opposition from parents nor was there a suggestion that the pending decision be communicated to parents to obtain input.

Disnard Principal Melissa Lewis did not offer an opinion either way on the proposal, but said that the wooded area between the school playground and driveway to the emergency room is likely a concern of the board but that it need not be.

“I have an incredibly vigilant staff that always puts safety of the children first,” Lewis said.

Mayor Charlene Lovett, who has made finding a new location a priority for the city, said on Thursday she hopes the board is given full access to all of the data and research done on the subject.

“This is a community-wide issue and if we are going to be serious about addressing drug addiction, we have to have the tools to help these people,” Lovett said. “This does not increase addiction; they are already addicted. The challenge is how do we safely transition them off drugs.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at

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