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Lights seized in drug bust will help New London schools grow food

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New London — The same lights that once illegally helped marijuana plants flourish soon will increase the number of crops students in New London's culinary and environmental programs can grow through the winter.

The monthslong process — a partnership of New London High School, the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, New London police, state police and the state court system — began at the start of the school year, according to School Resource Officer Max Bertsch.

During a walk around the high school campus, culinary arts instructor Chef Tomm Johnson had shown Bertsch and Detective Sgt. Lawrence Keating how his indoor produce-growing practice had expanded since its 2014 launch.

Inside a glass-walled greenhouse on the back end of the STMHS building and in the Whaler Café kitchen area, a variety of vegetables and herbs peeked out from vertical towers.

They’d been cultivated through a practice called hydroponics, in which grow lights and indoor watering systems replace their natural counterparts — sun and rain.

Bertsch and Keating were impressed.

“Chef Tomm — the man does so much for those kids,” Bertsch said. “We wanted to help.”

Aware that quality grow lights often are seized from illegal marijuana cultivation operations, New London police reached out to the Statewide Narcotics Task Force and asked what happens to them.

They learned that, once a court case is over, it’s up to the prosecutor’s office and the presiding judge to determine the lights’ fate.

“We checked with the prosecutor’s office and asked, ‘Do you have an issue if the seized grow lights are donated to New London High School?’” Bertsch said.

It took some time — about six months — and “tons of paperwork,” but eventually all of the involved parties agreed: the thousands of dollars' worth of lights and equipment from a recent bust would be signed over to Johnson for use at the schools.

“How cool is it that we can benefit from police confiscating things and taking them off the street?” Johnson asked. “We’re pretty excited.”

It’s a procedure that’s not unheard of.

Back in 2006, Southington High School's vocational agricultural program benefited from a similar transaction. And in 2008 and 2014, respectively, schools in Smyrna and Erwin — both in Tennessee — did, too. 

But it’s not common, either: Both Bertsch and Johnson said they believe no such deal has been struck in New London or the surrounding region in the past.

For Johnson — and Chuck Mulligan, who teaches marine and environmental sciences at STMHS — the donation paves the way for expansion of an already-thriving program.

Over the past couple of years, what began as a small hydroponics garden Johnson set up in a room near the kitchen has morphed into a joint program between the two high schools that even has a summertime component.

In the greenhouse, for example, Mulligan’s environmental students oversee the plants and also tend to tilapia being raised in a tank using aquaponics.

When the herbs, vegetables and fish are ready to go, Johnson’s students take over, either preparing the food fresh or learning the ins and outs of selling it at local markets.

Now, Mulligan said, they’ll be able to more quickly work toward some of their loftier goals: Producing an effective amount of produce to be used locally year-round, expanding the selection they bring to area markets and the number of markets in which they participate, and even helping similar programs in other districts get off the ground.

“What the police were able to provide is one of the most expensive components of getting things growing indoors,” Mulligan explained.

Bertsch said New London police will continue to check back from time to time to see if any more seized items could be repurposed for education rather than destroyed.

“We always like to support New London students and kids,” Bertsch said. “If we can help by supplying more items, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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