Caroline Toth Bernstein has a pretty convenient commute to her 6-year-old son Oscar’s school every morning. They walk a couple of blocks to Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School on Albany Street in Boston. But in that short journey, she has been spotting something that disturbs her: an orange cap lying in the grass.
“I’ve trained myself to look for the orange caps for the [hypodermic] needles, because if there’s a cap, there’s probably a needle nearby,” Toth Bernstein explained. She's been posting pictures on social media of the needles she's found along her route.
Orchard Gardens near Boston Medical Center is in the heart of what some call "Ground Zero" for the opioid epidemic in the city.
"For me, this year the problem has gotten worse because we see a lot of people as we're walking from school, and it's not the needle. It's the people actively using drugs," Toth Bernstein said. "I've been asked for a lighter on my way to pick up my son from school."
On a recent morning, as parents and buses were dropping kids off, there were no needles in plain view, but people appeared to be living in two small camping tents on a sidewalk near the school building.
Crossing guard Karen Perry said finding drug paraphernalia has become increasingly common.
"I’d say over the last two years, it's much worse," she said. "I mean, it’s almost a definite thing that I’m going to walk in one direction or another and see needles — to the point where I won’t even walk in certain areas and don’t allow my children in the grass."
Perry calls the Orchard Gardens students "my children."
"It breaks my heart to see so many of my young children are coming to school starting their day off watching people get revived and seeing the ambulances come and try to save their lives," she said. "I don’t really think they quite understand, but the parents on a regular basis approach me."
One of those parents is Rhonda Smith.
"This is the area right here. See that tree? They can sit there, and they use their needles and dump them right there," Smith said, pointing at a spot right across the street from the school.
Smith said she has complained to the school about drug activities in that area several times.
"I hope they’ve logged [my calls]," she said, laughing and joking that she calls the police so frequently they likely don't want to answer her calls.
Boston Public School officials declined to be interviewed. They issued a statement last week in response to this story saying the safety of its students and staff is a top priority and steps have to be taken to address the problem. The district said school staff sweep the grounds before classes begin every morning. Parents said the school also puts up posters in the hallways warning students not to touch needles.
City officials also recently doubled the staff of its Mobile Sharps Team, which picks up discarded needles throughout the city.
Toth Bernstein acknowledged that the opioid epidemic is a difficult problem to fix and one affecting communities across the nation.
"This is a public health crisis that is happening throughout our nation, and it needs to be addressed from many different angles," Toth Bernstein said.
"I tell my son that there are people who aren’t getting help and they need help," she added.
A week ago, Toth Bernstein put up a big banner on the school fence that reads #Over414000. That's a reference to the total number of hypodermic needles the Boston Public Health Commission says the city has collected in the past year, including needles that have been disposed of safely in kiosks.
The banner was removed after about 12 hours, but Toth Bernstein said she is still talking with parents and reporting found needles to the city.
"For me, it’s about having a discussion, because it’s a discussion that is not being had," she said.
On that recent morning, after the school day got underway, and the parents and crossing guards and buses left, things got fairly quiet at Orchard Gardens.
Leaving the parking lot, a group of three people sat on a nearby patch of grass. One of them rolled up the left sleeve of their blue hoodie, while a woman across from him held up a needle.
This segment aired on November 14, 2017.