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Needles Can Be an Issue

Elizabeth Dobbins edobbins@lowellsun.comMay 20, 2019

LOWELL — — Nowadays, a pile of leaves looks a little different to Rick Underwood, operation and maintenance director for Lowell Public Schools.

The threat of discarded hypodermic needles buried in these piles has introduced a new challenge to maintaining school grounds, he told the School Committee Wednesday night

“Who would think picking up leaves would become a hazardous job in the city, but that’s exactly what it’s becoming in several of our school locations,” Underwood said.

“The days of having day custodians grab the kids and go out and go clean up the yard, which was always helpful and always a joy for kids, is gone from many of our schools.”

The Rogers School, Murkland Elementary School, Robinson Middle School, Lowell High School and others are among the affected locations, he wrote in a memo to the committee.

In response, Underwood said he plans to use next fiscal year’s funds to purchase a commercial leaf vacuum, backpack blowers and puncture resistant gloves.

He said he also expects to reintroduce a program that allows security guards to work on a landscape crew during school breaks while full-time custodians are busy preparing the schools for students.

“It also allowed us to get to things that weren’t normally done,” Underwood said.

He said this plan will leave the district with three or four fewer employees compared to last year’s “already stretched” custodial staff. In a memo, he wrote he believes this plan is achievable and will improve the schools’ safety and “curb appeal.”

Underwood said a local Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC, will also conduct clean-ups on school grounds.

His department is meeting with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department next week to discuss maintenance, including the division of clean-up responsibilities for city parks used by the schools. He urged cooperation.

“They have the equipment and we have the manpower,” Underwood said.

School Committee member Robert Hoey Jr. said he wants the schools to improve their exterior appearance.

“That’s all I wanted out of this,” Hoey said. “To make sure we look better than we ever did.”

In recent years, discarded needles have been associated with the opioid epidemic. The city saw double digit increases in opioid overdoses through 2017 with numbers finally leveling off in 2018.

The most recent numbers suggest a downward trend for emergency calls for overdoses in the city, however fatal overdoses are still on par with last year for the first quarter of 2019, according to numbers presented to the Mayor’s Opioid Epidemic Crisis Task Force last month.

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