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Andrew Schwartz. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

In the era of social media, people reveal a great deal about themselves, from the food they eat, to the people they see on a subway, to the places they’ve visited. Through their own postings, however, people can also share elements of their mental health.

In a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Andrew Schwartz, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook University, teamed up with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania to describe how the words volunteers wrote in Facebook postings helped provide a preclinical indication of depression prior to a documentation of the diagnosis in the medical record.

Using his background in computational linguistics and computational psychology, Schwartz helped analyze the frequency of particular words and the specific word choices to link any potential indicators from these posts with later diagnoses of depression.

Combining an analysis of the small cues could provide some leading indicators for future diagnoses.

“When we put [the cues] all together, we get predictions slightly better than standard screening questionnaires,” Schwartz explained in an email. “We suggest language on Facebook is not only predictive, but predictive at a level that bears clinical consideration as a potential screening tool.”

Specifically, the researchers found that posts that used words like “feelings” and “tears” or the use of more first-person pronounces like “I” and “me,” along with descriptions of hostility and loneliness, served as potential indicators of depression.

By studying posts from consenting adults who shared their Facebook statuses and electronic medical record information, the scientists used machine learning in a secure data environment to identify those with a future diagnosis of depression.

The population involved in this study was restricted to the Philadelphia urban population, which is the location of the World Well-Being Project. When he was at the University of Pennsylvania prior to joining Stony Brook, Schwartz joined a group of other scientists to form the WWBP.

While people of a wide range of mental health status use the words “I” and “me” when posting anecdotes about their lives or sharing personal responses to events, the use of these words has potential clinical value when people use them more than average.

That alone, however, is predictive, but not enough to be meaningful. It suggests the person has a small percentage increase in being depressed but not enough to worry about on its own. Combining all the cues, the likelihood increases for having depression.

Schwartz acknowledged that some of the terms that contribute to these diagnoses are logical. Words like “crying,” for example, are also predictive of being depressed, he said.

The process of tracking the frequency and use of specific words to link to depression through Facebook posts bears some overlap with the guide psychiatrists and psychologists use when they’re assessing their patients.

The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” typically lays out a list of symptoms associated with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression, just to name a few.

“The analogy to the DSM and how it works that way is kind of similar to how these algorithms will work,” Schwartz said. “We look at signals across a wide spectrum of features. The output of the algorithm is a probability that someone is depressed.”

The linguistic analysis is based on quantified evidence rather than subjective judgments. That doesn’t make it better than an evaluation by mental health professional. The algorithm would need more development to reach the accuracy of a trained psychologist to assess symptoms through a structured interview, Schwartz explained.

At this point, using such an algorithm to diagnose mental health better than trained professionals is a “long shot” and not possible with today’s techniques, Schwartz added.

Schwartz considers himself part computer scientist, part computational psychologist. He is focused on the intersection of algorithms that analyze language and apply psychology to that approach.

A person who is in therapy might offer an update through his or her writing on a monthly basis that could then offer a probability score about a depression diagnosis.

Linguistic tools might help determine the best course of treatment for people who have depression as well. In consultation with their clinician, people with depression have choices, including types of medications they can take.

While they don’t have the data for it yet, Schwartz said he hopes an algorithmic assessment of linguistic cues ahead of time may guide decisions about the most effective treatment.

Schwartz, who has been at SBU for over three years, cautions people against making their own mental health judgments based on an impromptu algorithm. “I’ve had some questions about trying to diagnose friends by their posts on social media,” he said. “I wouldn’t advocate that. Even someone like me, who has studied how words relate to mental health, has a hard time” coming up with a valid analysis, he said.

A resident of Sound Beach, Schwartz lives with his wife Becky, who is a music instructor at Laurel Hill Middle School in Setauket, and their pre-school-aged son. A trombone player and past  member of a drum and bugle corps, he met his wife through college band.

Schwartz grew up in Orlando, where he met numerous Long Islanders who had moved to the area after they retired. When he was younger, he used to read magazines that had 50 lines of computer code at the back of them that created computer games.

He started out by tweaking the code on his own, which drove him toward programming and computers.

As for his recent work, Schwartz suggested that the analysis is “often misunderstood when people first hear about these techniques. It’s not just people announcing to the world that they have a condition. It’s a combination of other signals, none of which, by themselves, are predictive.”

Recently I received a voicemail message asking me if we were planning to cover fairly a contentious issue currently in the community. The speaker cared deeply about one side, and said he understood that we had friends on the other side of the issue. As a result of those ties, were we going to favor them or, at the least, bury the story in the back of the paper where no one would read it?

Forty-two years ago this week, a handful of us started The Village Times in a tiny office but with great ambition. We promised to serve the community according to “the highest ideals of a free press.” It was 1976, the bicentennial year. We were well aware of the singular role the press played in the American Revolution and the sanctity with which the Founding Fathers viewed the press. Today, we acknowledge other forms of free speech and press by putting them all together and calling them “media.”

But the press, specifically the printed word on newsprint, will always be where my heart is in this business, no matter that we now have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a place on YouTube and are called TBR News Media. We’ve gone viral on the internet, with over 17 million views for our story and video dealing with school safety in Rocky Point, and to have that kind of reach certainly impresses me. Nonetheless the printed story, the elegance of crafting exactly the right words to describe a scene or an issue or emotion, laid out efficiently and attractively, and most especially truthfully and fairly on a page, with pictures to drive home the information, gives me enormous professional satisfaction. Words as precision tools are not respected the same way on the more frenetic media.

Nor are truth and facts always respected there. Because there is little or no vetting, some people take advantage of the lawlessness to write the most astonishing things, slanted or even untrue as they may be, and others willingly believe what they read. Right now, Facebook, which was started in 2004, is facing the consequences of publishing unmonitored content presented as news or advertising, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg tries to answer hard questions put to him by the U.S. Congress.

Not to revel in another media’s troubles, but everything printed in a newspaper is vetted, even the ads, the sources of the ads and, to the extent possible for facts, the letters. That does not mean everything you might read in our papers is correct. We can and do make mistakes. But those are, or should be, immediately acknowledged and corrected in the next edition. Nor are we without bias, however hard we try. But if we try for a truthful and balanced presentation in every story that we print, to a large extent we can succeed. We reserve our opinions for the opinion pages.

At least, so I believe. With such a long track record, I was quite surprised to hear that question on my voicemail. The caller left his number, and I was able to return his phone call. We had a heart-to-heart talk, and that, along with the story we wrote, I trust, persuaded him that we had dealt with the matter fairly. If he were trying to encourage us to lean in his direction on the issue, his strategy clearly didn’t work.

Here are some of the other things newspapers don’t do. We don’t compile personal information about our readers and then sell that information to potential advertisers. We don’t even sell the names and
addresses of our subscribers, although we have been asked a number of times. Your privacy is not for our profit. We don’t write stories about businesses in order to get their advertising. Our newspapers have never been hacked. But I wouldn’t mind having a couple of their billions. And forgive my pride if I suggest that there is some kind of old-fashioned honor that underpins a good newspaper serving its community. That’s not a sentiment I associate with the internet.

Smithtown Animal Shelter. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

By Sara-Megan Walsh

The Town of Smithtown’s decision to shut down the Smithtown Animal Shelter’s Facebook page is the latest controversy to bombard the already problem-plagued center.

Smithtown resident John Urbancik openly criticized town councilmembers’ decision to take down the shelter’s Facebook page earlier this month at the Nov. 7 town board meeting.

“Before you took down the page, you weren’t promoting the animals,” Urbancik said at the board meeting. “Put it back up and promote the animals. If you want the animals out of there, you need to promote them.”

Councilwoman Lisa Inzerillo (R) said the site has been temporarily taken offline alleging that public commenters harassed and cyberbullied town employes by claiming they had failed to provide adequate care for the shelter’s animals.

Shelter dog Dinah was recently adopted. Photo from George Speakman

“It was destroying the self-esteem of the staff who work there every day,” she said. “It’s been shattered with this negativity. It’s hurting our adoption success. It’s hurting the animals. It’s a few people who start these rumors that go all over about the shelter, but they aren’t thinking about the animals.”

Over the last two years, the Smithtown Animal Shelter has been plagued by a series of problems. Former director James Beatty resigned in May 2015, after more than 30 years running the shelter, following months of accusations by Smithtown residents of his animal neglect and cruelty. He was replaced by Rocky Point resident Sue Hansen, who was fired by the town in July 2017 on charges of incompetence and mismanagement which led to a deterioration of the animals’ living conditions.

Urbancik said in a telephone interview with TBR News Media Nov. 10 that the shutdown of the shelter’s Facebook page wasn’t over harassment or bullying, but rather a calculated effort to silence public outcry. He claimed the shelter’s dogs are being neglected, citing they are being left locked inside unclean kennels.

Urbancik has started several Facebook pages of his own to draw attention to his problems with operation of the shelter including “Smithtown Animal Shelter needs a director” with more than 700 followers and “Remove Public Safety from Smithtown Animal Shelter” with more than 70 followers as of time of this publication.

The Smithtown Animal Shelter Facebook page comments, Urbancik’s social media posts, along with others made by animal activists concerned over conditions at the Smithtown shelter, caught the attention of New Jersey resident George Speakman.

The self-professed dog lover traveled more than two and a half hours Nov. 12 after hearing rumors the shelters’ vet was operating without anesthesia and all dogs in the shelter would be euthanized by December.

“I saw the Facebook page before it went down; it was one of the main reasons I decided to travel up to New York to take a look — I wanted to see for myself,” Speakman said. “If it was the way it was described on Facebook, I would have sat outside that shelter and protested.”

“I walked out of there with the impression that these people do nothing but love and care for these animals.”

— George Speakman 

Upon arriving, he said he met with the shelter’s veterinarian, Dr. Susan Zollo, and a kennel attendant.

“I told them about the stories I had heard, and for my own peace of mind, asked if I can look around and see the shelter,” he said. “She was more than happy to accommodate me.”

Speakman said he toured the facility and took a video recording of the kennels and dog park before deciding to adopt Dinah, a female bull terrier and corgi mix who has been a long-term resident of the shelter.

“I walked out of there with the impression that these people do nothing but love and care for these animals,” he said, saying he would highly recommend local residents visit themselves. “They bend over backwards for them.”

Smithtown resident Vicki Feuerstein, a volunteer of the shelter since it was under Beatty’s leadership, said there have been positive changes in recent months at the shelter with proactive leadership and the remaining staff responsible and dedicated to their jobs.

“You have the backbone to make it a really good shelter,” she said.

Feuerstein admitted there is still room for improvement as dogs are spending too much time in their kennels, largely due to a shortage of kennel staff.

“I would love to see more kennel staff, that really affects the life of the dogs,” she said. “ Also, an animal behaviorist.”

Councilwoman Inzerillo admitted the town only has two full-time employees at the shelter, after recent efforts to clean house of troublesome employees. She said there have been conversations with supervisor-elect Ed Wehrheim (R) about hiring two additional kennel staff members once he takes office. In addition, Inzerillo said the town has started extensive renovations to improve the dated shelter.

“We are focusing on moving forward,” she said. “We can’t focus on the negativity. I encourage residents to go and visit the place.”

Smithtown United Civic Association published the above master plan aimed at revitalizing Main Street and the downtown area on its Facebook page Oct. 6. Photo from Smithtown United Civic Association

A small group of Smithtown citizens have come together to draft and present a plan they hope may lead to big changes for Main Street.

The Smithtown United Civic Association unveiled a detailed conceptual plan for downtown revitalization Oct. 6 on its Facebook page. The group is asking residents to review the proposal and provide feedback via social media before they present it to town officials.

Timothy Small, president of Smithtown United, said the organization’s goal is to give local residents a voice in the future of their town. It was formed when Smithtown residents came together earlier this year after two events: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) allocated $20 million for sewers in Smithtown and the proposed sale of Smithtown school district administration headquarters on New York Avenue to the town for a sewer treatment plant to support a condominium development. Small said the two events set in motion real opportunity for revitalization of the town.

“If you look at the downtown areas of Smithtown, Kings Park and St. James, they are tired looking,” he said. “There’s a lot of vacant shops and properties. We live in a wonderful town. The schools are wonderful, we love our homes, but it’s our downtown business districts that are deeply suffering.”

Small, a retired engineer who held an executive position at a utility company, said for approximately six months the group assessed the community needs and drew inspiration from surrounding towns including Huntington, Patchogue, Sayville, Bay Shore, Farmingdale and Babylon for changes they’d like to see in Smithtown.

Smithtown United’s plan for the western downtown area focuses on several key points including consolidation of the town offices into the New York Avenue school building and retaining the sports field behind it for public use.

“It’s the last green space that remains in all of downtown,” Small said. “I would consider that an anchor for the western edge of redevelopment. It would be tragic to see that property lost to dense development.”

The civic supports the town’s acquisition of the property in exchange for selling off its other buildings scattered across the business district, but discussions of the deal have been tabled by the Smithtown school officials. The plan also proposes several existing downtown storefronts be made into two-story, mixed-use buildings with retail on the first floor and apartments above. These housing options, according to Small, would be attractive to young adults and senior citizens. Behind the existing New York Avenue school district property, the plan calls for construction of a new sports and community center.

“We need a place for our kids to go in the evening,” Small said. “There needs to be a community space for our residents and young adults.”

The conceptual design also calls for several changes to Smithtown’s existing roadways, including a rotary at the intersection of Main Street and New York Avenue and rerouting Edgewater Avenue to run parallel to Main Street. This would cause Edgewater Avenue to empty onto Maple Avenue, and there would be a new set of village townhouses built on the southwest corner of the new intersection.

To further increase available housing, the proposed plan suggests the construction of three-story, transit-oriented housing near the Long Island Rail Road train station and municipal parking lots.

Initial feedback on the plan from residents on the civic’s Facebook page has been a mix of positive and negative, along with offers to help refine it. Supporters have praised the organization for taking action, while critics expressed traffic concerns.

“Main Street is already undersized for what it is used for,” said John McCormick, 29, of Smithtown. “[The] parking does not look to be sufficient for customers of the first-floor shops and people renting out upstairs apartments.”

McCormick, a young homeowner, feared adding townhouses and apartments would change the character of the local community and the plan’s possible impact on the school district.

Smithtown resident Michael Tarquinio, 20, said the plan was a step in the right direction but needed to be more innovative.

“They need to stop thinking with a Robert Moses mind-set,” Tarquinio said, who is studying environmental science at the University of Maine. “I’m all for it, but you can’t wipe out your heritage and start fresh. You need to know where you came from to know where you are going.”

He said he believes successful downtown revitalization will require the civic to work with town, county and state officials to improve roadways and mass transportation options to reduce traffic.

Small said he agreed the proposed overhaul of both the business and residential space in downtown Smithtown required cooperation at several levels of government. It would only be possible if sewers can be brought to the downtown area.

“Anyone who is going to invest money into redevelopment won’t unless there is adequate sanitary sewer conditions,” Small said. “It’s essential.”

The civic group has tentative plans to present its proposal to Smithtown officials at the Oct. 26 town board meeting at 7 p.m. at town hall.

Tracey Farrell, above, with her son Kevin who died of a heroin overdose, created an organization On Kevin’s Wings that helped Nick McErlean, below, afford recovery. Photo from Tracey Farrell

By Desirée Keegan

One hundred and one days ago, Nick McErlean got on his knees as he does every night and prayed.

The 27-year-old struggling drug addict and alcoholic was looking for a way out and a way off Long Island.

“I said, ‘God, you could send me to West Palm Beach, or you can keep me here,’” he said. “‘Whichever is your will.’”

At 8:30 a.m. the next morning, Tracey Farrell, a complete stranger to McErlean, called him regarding her new nonprofit organization, On Kevin’s Wings, to tell him she’d like to help him get that plane ticket out of New York and into recovery. After her two-hour initial conversation, she kept in close contact with him, and after a short two-day span, he was on a plane to Florida. He’s now 99 days sober.

Nick McErlean. Photo from Tracey Farrell

“I say this very seriously — it’s like God sent me an angel,” McErlean said. “Tracey found out about me and just took a chance, and it’s turned out to be the greatest thing to ever happen to me. I struggled for 13 years with drug addiction and alcoholism and what Tracey provided for me was a fresh start somewhere new. I could seek out the recovery I wanted and find out who Nick really is.”

Farrell, the founder of the group North Shore Drug Awareness, who helped work with Suffolk County to create the PSA “Not My Child,” following the loss of her son Kevin to a heroin overdose, said that although she initially wanted to create a coalition two years ago, she realized what she was doing was much more important.

“Of course, prevention is important, but North Shore [Drug Awareness] is really about awareness, communication, education, support — it’s just such a bigger scope than that,” she said. “I’ve had so many people reach out to me for help with their family members to get treatment, and so often I hear of families who want to send their kids out of state and unfortunately are stuck because of financial hardships. It totally clicked in my head, that that’s where I can help. Whether it’s airfare, bus fare, train fare. Anywhere I can help with transportation I’m going to take advantage of it.”

While formulating an idea of what she wanted her foundation to be, McErlean was living at a sober home in Riverhead. He said he was unhappy, and he was afraid he’d start using again.

“I’d been on Long Island my whole life, and I felt stuck,” he said. “I was caught in the grips of an overwhelming cocaine addiction. I saw my life on the streets ending with death, and I knew I didn’t want to die, and I knew that I didn’t want to be homeless and I didn’t want to hurt anybody else, most importantly myself.”

In conversation with a friend in the Riverhead facility, McErlean joked about wanting to move away. His friend responded that if he was serious, he might know someone who could help. McErlean was connected with Katrin O’Leary in West Palm Beach, who helped place his new friend in the home in Riverhead. The parent advocate told him that if he could get money for a flight, she’d save him a bed.

“It takes a village to help each other,” said O’Leary, who is also on the board of the Florida Association of Recovery Residencies. “Due to my connections, I connected him with someone who was willing to scholarship him in until he gets his feet on the ground.”

“I’m a suicide survivor, and the biggest thing that I’ve gotten out of this whole journey is my will to live back.”

—Nick McErlean

But he didn’t have money for a flight. After telling O’Leary, that’s when she reached out to Farrell, whom she’s known for a few years, asking if she knew anyone that could help.

“I literally had just started the foundation, so it was kind of amazing,” Farrell said when she received the call from O’Leary. “It reinforced me that this was the right thing to do.”

Two days later, she was helping put McErlean on a plane to Florida, and O’Leary, whose son is currently 25 months sober, couldn’t be happier to help him and for the work Farrell continues to do.

“He’s thriving,” O’Leary said. “It feels fantastic to help another person find their way into recovery. That’s what we all hope for. It’s someone’s child, and everyone should have a fair chance at life, especially when they’re willing. And Tracey is my hero. I cannot even fathom losing a child to substance abuse disorder and instead of just walking away, because that would’ve been her way out, she continues to help other children. I have the utmost respect for her.”

While some say the best way to get over the past is to face it head on, that was not the case for McErlean, who tried and continued to fail. He said being on Long Island he was surrounded by the reminders of his past, but in Florida, recovery and sobriety is all he knows, and he’s surrounded by people who will go to great lengths to get and stay sober.

“That’s what I needed in my life,” he said. “My whole life, I had a void within myself. I never felt worthy of anything. I never felt that anything I got I deserved. I always felt less than and I came down here on a self-seeking discovery and the journey is turning out to be beyond my wildest dreams already.”

In Florida, he’s gaining more than just sobriety. He has a full-time job, and he’s seeing and experiencing things besides sobriety he said he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to without Farrell’s help.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if I stayed on Long Island I would have relapsed and I would have died,” he said. “It’s just how my life had gone from 14 years old to the point before I moved down here. I’m a suicide survivor, and the biggest thing that I’ve gotten out of this whole journey is my will to live back.”

McErlean called Farrell when he reached 90 days sober. It happened to be the day Farrell started a GoFundMe page for her organization. As of publication, On Kevin’s Wings has raised $2,075 with the help of 33 donors.

Tracey Farrell’s children Breanna and Kevin. Kevin died of an overdose, leading to Farrell becoming an advocate for awareness and support for addicts. Her daughter is currently a recovering addict who, like Nick McErlean, received help from being sent off of Long Island. Photo from Tracey Farrell

“I’m watching the money come in … and $1 million could’ve come in and I would still be more happy about his 90 days,” she said. “I’m just so proud. That’s a big number. That’s when their brain actually starts to heal — after that 90-day mark, so it’s so key that he got there. My son didn’t get to get to the 90-day point. Kevin was just shy of 90 days. I could cry that’s how much it means.”

Farrell said when she first got involved in helping others, she told herself, “if I could help one person,” but knew one was not enough.

“The fact that people know me by name now and know that they can come to me and I can help them, it’s the most gratifying thing,” she said. “It helps me heal in ways I could never have imagined.”

Farrell held the organization’s first fundraising event, a food and wine pairing dinner at Pure North Fork Craft Kitchen & Bar in Wading River Jan. 25. The event sold out days in advance. The next fundraiser will be held at Buffalo Wild Wings in Miller Place in March.

If in need of help, reach out to Farrell through the Facebook page North Shore Drug Awareness or On Kevin’s Wings Facebook page. If you’d like to donate to the organization’s cause, visit www.gofundme.com/on-kevins-wingshope-takes-flight.

“It’s only because of this relocation process that I’ve become so willing,” McErlean said. “The addiction crisis on Long Island is absolutely at an all-time high and I’m tired of burying friends, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, you name it. People are dropping like flies. As I gain more and more sobriety and as I gain more and more through this process, it isn’t about me anymore. I want other people to know and see that there is a way out.”

By Tracey Farrell

I was honored to be named a Person of the Year by Times Beacon Record News Media for 2015.

While I was truly honored, I was more excited at the prospect of getting the word out about the work I do with my group: North Shore Drug Awareness.

After losing my son to an accidental overdose in 2012, I was given a voice I chose to use to help other families who are struggling with addiction — to share my failures and successes, and the resources I have found and acquired through networking.

The absolute most poignant part of this story is that my story was published. The original story — in which I was named a person of the year — was seen by a woman who recognized me in my photo that accompanied the article as a client in her accounting office. She immediately shared the story with her best friend — a friend who desperately needed help with her addicted children.

A message I received from her changed a life. Linda Cirone was absolutely paralyzed by her children’s addictions. Not only did she enable her adult children, but she hid in shame. She could barely function or participate in her own life, and in her message in my Facebook inbox, she used that key word — Help.

Tracey Farrell with Linda Cirone at TBR News Media’s honorary dinner. Photo from Tracey Farrell
Tracey Farrell with Linda Cirone at TBR News Media’s honorary dinner. Photo from Tracey Farrell

I brought her with me to the honorary men and women of the year dinner, because her story of how she reached out to me was too important not to share. The power of that article could potentially save a life. And it did … her own.

This past year has been a roller coaster of change for her.

She chose to finally open up and share beyond the confines of her best friend and family members who would listen. She reached out through social media to the different parent groups that she learned of and began to realize she was so not alone. She began to share her story, which, like mine, has helped others.

Her children are still struggling, and while one is improving, Linda has grown in her own recovery. Yes, her own.

Addiction is a family disease and, as a parent, you too must learn to cope, or you will lose yourself in the process. She has learned to no longer enable like she did in the past. She has also followed a dream. She moved away from her children to the warmth of Florida, and now has a lovely condo on a small waterway. While she still feels the pull of her children’s addictions, she has also started to feel some freedom. Freedom to feel the sunshine, enjoy a nice day out with friends and family she has near her. This was not even an option to her a year ago — just a dream.

While her son was in Florida after we came up with a plan for him to seek outside-of-state rehabilitation, she met a woman who is the guardian angel for parents who send their kids to Florida for rehab.

The other day, as I opened my Facebook feed, I saw a post.

Linda checked in to the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County with that angel I spoke of. She attended her first task force meeting to help fight for positive changes in addiction services and housing in that area.

She has grown exponentially over this past year. She needed to. She was sick of hiding, but didn’t know where to look for help. And she found it. All because of an article in a local newspaper.

Tracey Farrell, previously Tracey Budd, is a Rocky Point resident who, since her son’s passing, educates others on drug abuse and assists in finding help for those who are struggling or know someone who is struggling with addiction. She is the founder of North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates and also a 2015 TBR Person of the Year.

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Superintendent James Grossane file photo

By Rita J. Egan

Students and parents filled the Joseph M. Barton auditorium during the Smithtown board of education meeting Sept. 27, to comment on the incident involving Smithtown West teacher Veronica Welsh.

Last week the teacher faced backlash after a Facebook post she published saying, “This week is Spirit Week at Smithtown HS West. It’s easy to spot which students are racist by the Trump gear they’re sporting for USA day.”

Early in the meeting, Superintendent James Grossane addressed the matter.

“One mistake should not outweigh the estimated 10 years of goodness, kindness and positive impact that Coach Welsh gave to the community of Smithtown.” —Student

“As we are all aware one of our teachers posted a statement on social media regarding our students,” he said. “The board of education, administration and staff of the district strive to foster a school atmosphere of tolerance and respect of student’s political and other beliefs. The district does not condone this teacher’s statement in any way.”

Grossane said the district is in the process of an investigation of the incident.

“As soon as the district learned of this teacher’s post, immediate action was taken including directing the teacher to remove the post and reassigning the teacher to duties outside of the classroom,” he said. “An investigation is currently underway utilizing the appropriate legal due process required when a tenure teacher is the subject of an investigation. Because this is a matter involving district personnel, no further comment can be made at this time.”

During the public session of the board meeting, Smithtown resident Gay Campisi expressed her concerns over the social media post.

“For an adult teacher employed by this district to arbitrarily label a child a racist based on a particular political candidate the child appears to support is outrageous and entirely unacceptable behavior,” she said. “What is even more disturbing is that the post raises legitimate concerns for parents about what the particular teacher and other teachers in the district may be saying in the classroom or as part of the curriculum based on their personal political perspective.”

Campisi called for more transparent and concrete corrective action than reassigning Welsh. “Simply moving an offending teacher to a different position does not address the root cause of the problem and can be compared to reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titantic,” she said.

The Smithtown resident suggested in addition to disciplinary action there should be an update of the code of conduct and revised guidelines when it comes to social media use for teachers.

Members from the track and field team Welsh coaches spoke highly of the teacher and coach, and many students in the audience were visibly upset and had tears in their eyes. Parents of the students asked the students not be identified, expressing concern that if someone didn’t agree with them, their child could be targeted.

“The events of the past week have been both disheartening and upsetting,” a 2014 Smithtown West graduate said in a message her sister read at the meeting. “But, what we have to closely evaluate is this: yes, Coach Welsh made a significant mistake. She was wrong, but a mistake should not have the ability to define someone as a person as well as their past and future. One mistake should not outweigh the estimated 10 years of goodness, kindness and positive impact that Coach Welsh gave to the community of Smithtown. The decision you have to make regarding her future is in your hands, and I hope pressure from the community does not influence it.”

A senior male student at West echoed sentiments of Welsh’s character.

“Like my teammates have said before me none of us are here to justify what Ms. Welsh said but as they also said, I want to make it very clear that that is not the kind of person she is,” he said. “What is reflected in that post is not indicative of her character in any way.”

He continued to say when he heard about the post he was caught off guard, and added after being in her class for two years, “nothing of this sort has ever happened in the classroom.” He also said he wanted those in attendance to know that the teacher has never forced any kind of political agenda in the classroom.

At the end of the meeting, Grossane reiterated that the board could not comment on the teacher’s actions any further. However, he added that while principals already discuss social media use at faculty meetings, the district is looking into further training “to sensitize them to the dangers of social media posts.”

North Shore shows support in family’s time of need

Supporters display custom-made #PrayforDan shirts donated by Port Jeff Sports. Photo from Facebook

Helen Keller once said, “alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” And in former Comsewogue baseball player Daniel Colasanto’s time of need, the community has come together to be the catalyst for recovery, in mind, body and spirit.

Colasanto suffered significant head trauma after being hit by a car on Route 25A around 1 a.m. on June 16. The 18-year-old received what his father Wayne called “life-saving surgery” at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson before he was transported to Stony Brook Hospital’s trauma center.

“The care that he has received, although a different type of care, has been parallel with the efforts and outpouring of the community,” Wayne Colasanto said of the staff at both hospitals. “You couldn’t ask for more. They’ve been that impressionable.”

Friends and family wait in the hospital lobby. Photo from Facebook
Friends and family wait in the hospital lobby. Photo from Facebook

Following the accident, the family’s pastor, Randy Paige, of Christ Church United Methodist in Port Jefferson Station, held a prayer service for Daniel, who his father said always wakes up with a smile because he finds the good in everything.

“It’s a small church,” Colasanto said. “And there were over 300 people there — there was zero room left. Some of the people included surgeons, people Danny played baseball with 10 years ago, teachers, guidance counselors, an endless amount of family members. There was a potpourri of people from every facet of our life represented at that prayer service. It was truly amazing.”

And that support hasn’t quieted down. It’s still more than noticeable — as the community helped the Colasanto family heal.

Wayne Colasanto said the family has received food, blankets and other things to keep the average 25 kids in the waiting room comfortable, almost entirely from anonymous donors.

“That, to me, speaks volumes,” he said. “I always felt that the gift was in the giving, not the recognition.”

The Port Jefferson Station family has also received donations from local and surrounding community establishments.

Chick-fil-A in Port Jefferson Station has brought in freshly cooked food to the Ronald McDonald Lounge on the 11th floor of the hospital every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. GREEK-TO-GO in Stony Brook has brought a “humongo” Greek salad every day, and Gyro Palace in Rocky Point has also supplied food.

“Seeing the caring spirit in humanity, the general concern of people you don’t even know and how they have leaped into action in support, it’s humbling.”

— Wayne Colasanto

“The people who are donating to our family are feeding everyone up on the 11th floor,” Colasanto said. “The amount of food that’s been donated through friends, other restaurants — if we were having an eating contest at Coney Island on the Fourth of July we couldn’t get through all the food.”

And the donations keep coming.

Colasanto said that every time he goes downstairs to retrieve donations, he’s almost immediately sent back, if not interrupted on his way back upstairs, to collect more donations.

Assistance has also come in other forms.

Zachary Colasanto, one of Daniel’s older brothers, is extremely close with his brother.

“They’ve never had a fight in their life,” Wayne Colasanto said.

The father said that when Daniel was a junior and Zachary a senior, they approached him to ask if they could forego their own bedrooms and purchase a bunk bed to live as they did when they were younger.

“That’s how close they are. But as a parent with some wisdom, I said absolutely not,” Wayne Colasanto said, laughing.

Zachary Colasanto wanted to do something special to show support for his brother, who was a four-year varsity baseball player for the Warriors, and started on varsity as an eighth-grader at The Stony Brook School. Colasanto also played football at Comsewogue, and is currently on the roster as a pitcher at The College of Saint Rose.

Zachary had T-shirts made at Port Jeff Sporting Goods, which have the hashtag #PrayforDan and the No. 42, Daniel’s jersey number, on the back. When Daniel’s eldest brother Michael went to pick up the 50 shirts that Port Jeff Sports helped design and make, they would not accept payment.

“I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude at the fact that Port Jeff Sports was generous enough to donate those shirts,” Zachary Colasanto said. “It is incredible to see the love and support the entire community has been sharing with my family during this very difficult time.”

Wayne Colasanto said Father’s Day was especially difficult, but added it was also a positive reminder.

Former Comsewogue baseball player Daniel Colasanto suffered head trauma after being hit by a car on Route 25A. Photo from Facebook
Former Comsewogue baseball player Daniel Colasanto suffered head trauma after being hit by a car on Route 25A. Photo from Facebook

“It was probably the toughest Father’s Day, but it’s the one that I feel the most blessed about, because of the unity of my family,” he said. “I had to fight his friends to go home on Saturday night before Father’s Day. They literally refused. I told them that they would not outwait me. And before noon, they were all back here the following morning.”

Other area businesses and community members continue to show support. A GoFundMe page was created by a friend, to help raise money for the family: www.gofundme.com/dancolasantosfight. Also, Sundaes in Port Jefferson Station, on Route 112, will be holding a fundraiser on Friday, July 1. The day happens to be Daniel’s 19th birthday. The fundraiser will be held from 5 to 8 p.m., and 20 percent of all sales will be donated.

That constant, and around-the-clock support has opened Wayne Colasanto’s eyes.

“I don’t mean to sound cynical, but it’s almost disbelief,” he said. “I’ve admittedly adopted a cynical look at people in general because of their abrasiveness at times, and after seeing the caring spirit in humanity, the general concern of people you don’t even know and how they have leaped into action in support, it’s humbling. I just feel rejuvenated in my own mind about people in general. I’ll never forget what people have done. You can’t put into words.”

To stay updated on Daniel’s condition, you can visit the Facebook page the family has created, called Daniel Colasanto’s Fight: www.facebook.com/danielcolasantosfight/.

Tracey Budd poses for a photo with her son Kevin Norris, who died of a heroin overdose in 2012. Photo from Tracey Budd

Tracey Budd’s son died of a heroin overdose in September 2012.

One year later, Budd, of Rocky Point, was asked to speak at the North Shore Youth Council. Since then, she’s ended up on a public service announcement, “Not My Child,” that’s shown in high schools and middle schools along the North Shore, aiding her in becoming an advocate for drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation. She also teamed up with another mother, Debbie Longo, of Miller Place, and the two have become advocates for prevention and rehabilitation along the North Shore.

It is because of their hard work and dedication to this issue on Long Island that they are 2015 Times Beacon Record Newspapers People of the Year.

“I made the decision not to be ashamed of how he passed away,” Budd said about her son. “Just from speaking that one time at North Shore Youth Council, it was so very healing for me, and so many things have come from that and taken me in a direction that I never thought I’d be in, but it seems like it’s my calling.”

Janene Gentile, a drug and alcohol counselor and executive director of the North Shore Youth Council, helped work on that PSA.

“It was very powerful,” she said. “It was walking her through her grief. She has a lot of courage.”

Budd, who is also a member of Families in Support of Treatment, pulled together as much information as she could, and this past October created a Facebook page — North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates — pooling together families from Rocky Point, Miller Place, Mount Sinai and Shoreham-Wading River to spread the word about the rising concern over dangerous drugs, like heroin, growing in popularity across the Island.

“It just seemed that so many people were inboxing me and asking me for help,” she said. “I created the page so we could have a centralized area where we share information, and organize meetings where the group could all meet up. I also organized meetings once a month so we could to teach people about advocacy.”

Having a 12-year-old daughter, Cristina Dimou attended the meetings to begin to gather information on the issue. About one week ago, someone Dimou knows suffered an unexpected overdose, she said. She immediately reached out to Budd asking for guidance.

Debbie Longo speaks at a Dan’s Foundation for Recovery event. Photo from Facebook
Debbie Longo speaks at a Dan’s Foundation for Recovery event. Photo from Facebook

“She gave me three phone numbers telling me who to call for what and even gave me websites of rehabilitation centers,” Dimou said about Budd. “She checks up on me every day, asking me if I’m okay and what’s going on. I don’t know her personally, but she had a sense of urgency and a willingness to help. I think that speaks volumes.”

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said with Budd’s outspokenness and Longo’s long-standing knowledge of the issue, they’ll be successful in their efforts.

“These women put their energy, their anger, their frustration, their sorrow into something that is helpful to the community,” she said. “I think they’re going to do amazing work.”

Longo has been involved in advocacy across the Island for the last five years, after her son suffered an overdose 10 years ago. Since then, her son has recovered, and currently lives in Del Ray, Florida as a director of marketing for a rehabilitation center called Insight to Recovery.

She said she found sending her son out of state helped him recover, because once he was done with his treatment, he wasn’t going back to seeing the same people he knew when he was using.

But she too has been involved in outreach and drug abuse prevention, aside from being to co-administrator of Budd’s Facebook page.

“I get a call just about every day from a parent saying they have a kid that’s addicted and they don’t know what to do,” she said. “We’re losing kids left and right. We’re losing a generation, is what we’re losing.”

Longo is a part of a 501(c)3 not-for-profit program, Steered Straight, which spreads prevention in schools. Recovered addict Michael DeLeon leads the program.

“You can hear a pin drop in the auditorium, that’s how dynamic of a speaker he is,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many kids come up to us at the end of the program and say, ‘I have a problem.’”

Longo was the chapter coordinator for New York State for a website called The Addict’s Mom, and is currently the head of Before the Petals Fall, Magnolia Addiction Support’s New York chapter. She is a 12-step yoga teacher to recovering addicts, and does post-traumatic stress disorder programs to help those dealing with grief.

After leaving nursing to go into medical marketing for hospitals, Longo said she thought she’d know where to turn when she found out her son was an addict, but said she really didn’t know what to do.

“There was such a bad stigma about addiction that you didn’t want to talk about it — you kind of suffered in silence,” she said. “If I was a nurse and had these contacts and didn’t know what to do, the average mother may have no idea. I’m trying to open the community up to what we have here on the North Shore.”

Tracey Budd holds a picture of her son, Kevin Norris, at a Walk for Hope event. Photo from Tracey Budd
Tracey Budd holds a picture of her son, Kevin Norris, at a Walk for Hope event. Photo from Tracey Budd

Longo has helped mothers like Sheila “Terry” Littler, of Rocky Point, whose son is a second-time recovering heroin addict. Currently, he is three months sober.

Knowing about treatment and where to get help, because it was something that started for her 13 years ago, Littler reached out to Longo for mental support.

“It was nice to have somebody else that’s gone through it to talk to, to know you’re not alone,” Littler said. “But at the same time, it’s sad that I’m not alone.”

When her son relapsed after being four and a half years sober, she reached out to Budd.

“It takes a lot of guts to come out in the open and do this and help people,” she said. “There are a lot of hurting people out there.”

She recently reached out to Longo about a friend of her son, who is a drug user, and the two were calling each other back and forth to find ways to overcome addiction.

“She cared to take the time to help me,” she said. “She spent a whole day doing that with me — that’s dedication right there.”

With the contacts Longo’s made with support centers and prevention agencies and Budd’s relationship with the county after creating the PSA, the two are teaming up to use their resources to form a coalition based on the Facebook page. It was also have the same name.

It’s in its early stages, but the hope is to help spread awareness about prevention through schools. As part of a coalition, Budd said, you can also apply for grants, which she hopes will help fund the spread of their advocacy.

“I felt Tracey was on the same path that I was on,” Longo said. “She is as tenacious as I am in what we’re trying to do.”

Longo said that she and Budd are trying to be vigilantes and have started Narcan training classes, like ones they’ve previously hosted in Miller Place and East Setauket, to continue to help fight the Island’s drug addiction problem. Narcan is a medication that stops opioid overdoses.

“I think together we’re a good team,” Budd said. “To me, you have a choice. You can either dig your head in the sand and be embarrassed that your child is an addict, or you can be proactive and say, ‘Enough of this, let’s help each other.’ When you speak to another parent that’s going through it, there’s a bond that you automatically create. In a way, I feel like my son is right there with me, helping these families. It’s very important to me, and I’m never going to stop doing it.”

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