With the controversy still swirling, West Deptford committeeman Sam Cianfarini said Thursday he isn’t backing down or apologizing for controversial remarks he made at a closed-door staff meeting last week.
It was just two words—“Heroin High”—that ignited the firestorm, which Cianfarini said has been taken out of context and used for purely political purposes.
“I did not demean the school in any way,” he said, sticking to his assertion he was quoting others when he made the reference originally. “I was not referring to West Deptford High School as ‘Heroin High’ from my own perspective.”
Cianfarini said he’s heard the reference numerous times over the past several years, as his sons have gone through West Deptford High School, and brought it up during a township department head meeting as a way of bringing a problem to light.
“I’m saying that categorization is out there, and it’s unacceptable,” he said.
School officials, however, called Cianfarini’s repetition of the phrase, “disappointing.”
Superintendent Kevin Kitchenman said the implications of the statement are simply wrong.
“It’s unfortunate that a reference like that was made,” he said. “It paints a very inaccurate picture of West Deptford High School.”
Members of the public who spoke at both last week’s township committee meeting as well as Thursday night’s seemed to agree with that sentiment, excoriating Cianfarini for the remarks.
Tom Sullivan, who first brought the issue up last week, called the repeated reference “insensitive and irresponsible.”
“I’m quite concerned…why he’d make a comment such as that,” Sullivan said.
Terry Holovachuk was livid as she slammed Cianfarini for what she called a bad choice by an elected leader.
“I do not care how many people might be saying the same thing outside; it is your role to help to correct the problem, it is not your role to further that comment,” she said. “It was in extremely poor judgment to repeat those words in the forum you did.”
Eric Agren went so far as to bring in a newspaper clipping of an article about West Deptford Middle School students bringing donations to the county animal shelter as a way of offsetting the “Heroin High” comment, which he said did nothing but bring harm to the students.
“I believe there should be a retraction and an apology,” he said.
Though Cianfarini claimed conditions at the high school allowed the label to be applied, there’s little to suggest there’s a factual basis at all for West Deptford High School allegedly being labeled “Heroin High,” or any evidence the moniker, which has been applied to schools throughout the state, from Washington Township to Toms River, is anything but apocryphal.
Cianfarini acknowledged he wasn’t aware of any statistics that would back it up, and in fact, the statistics would seem to disprove it directly.
In the district’s violence and vandalism report released in May 2011, there were a total of 31 substance abuse incidents throughout West Deptford schools between 2007-2008 and 2009-2010, including 11 at the high school in 2009-2010.
The high school’s random drug tests also showed little evidence of a widespread drug problem, with six positive tests among 220 in 2010-2011, down from eight each in both 2009-2010 and 2008-2009.
“We spend a lot of time, a lot of effort educating our kids,” Kitchenman said. “The drug problem in West Deptford is no different than probably any other community in the nation.”
Besides the random drug testing program, the district has also put together an alternative high school program to help keep students who might have a substance abuse problem in school and on their way to a high school diploma.
Still, Cianfarini said more can be done to deal with what drug problem does exist in the district.
He’s talked with school board President Christopher Strano already, to discuss the reference, as well as what else could be done to help combat drugs in the district.
Whether that’s creating peer mentoring programs or getting the Police Athletic League involved in some kind of after-school program, Cianfarini said the focus should be on solutions, rather than semantics.
“There are people who are trying to make it political, and shame on them,” he said.