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Many students at THHS have started off the school year without a familiar face making its way around the first and third floors. The guidance suite, a temporary home to the former SPARK students and their counselor Marc Duke, now continues on without him. Although many students have expressed frustration about Mr. Duke’s absence, members of the THHS administration explain that issues revolving around funding will prevent his return.
The SPARK (School Prevention of Addiction Through Rehabilitation and Knowledge) program, which focuses on curing drug addiction as well as any personal problems students face, was lost when New York City recently stopped hiring SPARK counselors. Although Mr. Duke retired in June 2012, he was rehired by the THHS administration as a part-time counselor, coming once a week to offer help to students with emotional difficulties for a portion of last year. However, as of last June, Mr. Duke no longer works at THHS at all.
Last year, there was money in the school budget for a SPARK or SAPIS (Substance Abuse Prevention and Intervention Specialists) worker. However, because Mr. Duke retired, he has not been working under the Department of Education, rendering that money unusable. This change brings with it a new set of rules.
“Legalities have changed,” explained Mr. Barbetta, “and there are new definitions of what [Mr. Duke] can and can’t do. He may not be able to hear certain information from students and the confidentiality lines are cloudy at best.”
Because of these uncertainties, the administration chose to move ahead and stop hiring Mr. Duke, while continuing to improve the Guidance Department in other ways.
“I’m sure students miss [Mr. Duke]; I miss him myself,” said Ms. York. “But we needed to move forward with a different approach.”
“We couldn’t keep putting a bandaid on things,” she added.
As part of these changes, Ms. York has also been working with the Psychology and Counseling Departments of Queens College to help students cope with any emotional difficulties and personal issues. Additionally, the head of NYC’s SPARK program received a grant for “Kids of Promise,” an afterschool group aimed at helping students deal with addiction, and asked if THHS was interested in it. The THHS administration affirmed that it was and the program is now co-run by Ms. York.
As for student efforts to bring Mr. Duke back to THHS, Ms. York is sympathetic, saying that she herself “begged [Mr. Duke] to stay” before he made the decision to retire.
Many students and teachers assumed that Mr. Duke left as a result of students taking advantage of his presence and cutting class. When asked to comment, Mr. Barbetta said that the statement had “some validity.”
“On the other hand, sometimes kids are in crisis and [SPARK] workers have helped,” he added.
At first glance, much of the uproar over the loss of the program and Mr. Duke seems to have died down.
“There was more of a demand last year,” Mr. Barbetta noted. “Kids have moved on.”
However, Mr. Barbetta has been pressuring the city for a SPARK counselor, and THHS was assigned one this year. However, the counselor was promoted and Mr. Barbetta is continuing to try to find another.
This year’s seniors have also witnessed the fight for Mr. Duke’s return slowly die out. Senior David Heifitz noticed the difference as the former SPARK students graduated.
“I think that demand for Duke has decreased because there are fewer amounts of students who know about SPARK,” David said.
Despite this, current juniors and seniors who spent their years at THHS either in the former SPARK office on the first floor or in the makeshift hangout in the guidance suite disagree.
Such students have expressed their frustration at receiving unclear answers when inquiring about Mr. Duke’s absence.
“I’ve spoken to Mr. Duke, Ms. Rizzuto, and Ms. Widman about what can be done to fix the situation,” said junior Anaya Brannon. “I was told to speak to Principal Barbetta. I’ve gone to him several times and I’ve just been given the runaround.”
In addition, many students who went to Mr. Duke feel lost without his guidance.
“There are a lot of kids that have mental breakdowns and don’t know where to go besides into corners,” said junior Eli Betts.
Anaya agrees, saying that the students who went to Mr. Duke for help “are struggling without somebody to talk to.”
“The guidance counselors and the entire administration need to be trained to handle the students better,” said Anaya. “All the progress that he made with the students he helped is being reversed.”
Mr. Duke did not return request for comment.