What I do

What I do: Michele Singer, director of alcohol and substance abuse

Michele SingerJonathan Fickes

With 42 years in the school system, first as a teacher and now as the senior member of the team of drug directors represented by the UFT, Michele Singer works to ensure students stay safe in the midst of the opioid crisis.

How are you involved in dealing with alcohol and substance abuse in city schools?

As the North Queens director of alcohol and substance abuse, I am one of a team of seven drug directors who oversee the 300 substance abuse prevention and intervention specialists (SAPSIS) who work in schools at every level citywide. Our job is to identify where drug counselors are needed and then to help them develop appropriate plans to meet the specific problems at the school. We follow up with observations and analysis of the data that SAPSIS counselors are required to file regularly with the state, which funds their work and ours. We also make sure principals understand and respect the role and responsibilities of the assigned drug counselors.

How do you determine if a school needs a drug counselor?

Drug and alcohol abuse recognize no social or economic boundaries. We look for risk factors that might make students vulnerable to becoming alcohol or drug abusers. A school in a community with a high rate of alcoholism or drug use or high-stress poverty levels may be a high-risk area. Children of alcohol and drug abusers are of special concern. In schools with high suspension rates, those students may be at risk. Or a middle school may report a cohort of students with high rates of discipline problems or bullying issues who are transitioning to high school and may need special attention. Reports of increased drug traffic in an area also put us on high alert. A drug counselor, however, can only be assigned to a school at the request of a principal.

Are the needs of at-risk students being met?

We certainly are doing all we can, but it’s a bad time. We have always faced drug problems and can’t seem to get away from them. In the 1980s, it was crack, especially in poverty areas. Then it was AIDS and crack back to back and, in the last decade, abuse of prescription drugs has led to the opioid crisis we’re now confronting. Our work is not just dealing with problems once they have taken hold, but it also focuses on prevention — ways to help students stay safe — and that includes outreach to parents and communities. Right now, there are 10 drug counselors fighting the opioid crisis on Staten Island. But too often we feel as if we are just putting our finger in the dike.

Are there enough counselors and directors to do the job?

We could certainly use more counselors and directors given the opioid crisis. During the Bloomberg years, our chapter was cut from 40 to 25 in the mayor’s first reorganization of the school system and then to five in the second round of reorganization, and we’ve never recovered. I survived the cuts because of my seniority. The ranks of the SAPSIS counselors have been decimated, from 800 to 300. Like everything else in education these days, lack of funding is blamed for the ongoing shortage of drug counselors and directors.

Does your work extend beyond schools?

Yes. We work beyond the school day and beyond the school walls. We do a great deal of work with parents and community groups. It is especially important to make sure parents know what to watch for in their children’s behavior, how to talk to them, and how to set boundaries. Too many students are not ready to buy into the harmful effects of alcohol and drugs. On Staten Island, one of our directors, Robert Mikos, has been working round the clock with other agencies helping to bring the whole community on board in facing and solving their serious opioid crisis.

What is your work day like?

Sometimes my day starts before the school day begins if I learn of a crisis situation and have to be at the school to alert the principal and deans and advise them on how to handle it. Other work days last well into the afternoon and evening with principal, parent and community board meetings.

How does someone become a drug director?

Most of us started as teachers and went on to earn the required supervisory degrees. Today most of our new directors come from the ranks of the SAPSIS counselors. As a team of seven directors, we are one of the smallest UFT chapters, but we are very connected and share and bounce ideas off each other all the time.

— As told to reporter Dorothy Callaci

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