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Kings Park

Dina Stramara addresses the board. Photo by Barbara Donlon

With less than one month until the New York State testing begins in grades three to eight, parents in Kings Park are vocalizing their right to opt out and say they want the board of education to do the same.

At a meeting earlier in the month, several parents asked the board to craft a resolution on standardized testing. Then they started a petition through their group, Kings Park Advocates for Education, to establish a unified voice.

The petition highlighted three items the parents would like the board to support. It said they want support for their right to opt their child out of the high stakes testing, support for alternate activities for their child during the test, and easier options when it comes to opting out.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board opened up as a whole for the first time, as President Tom LoCascio read a statement on the board’s behalf.

“We believe the decision of whether to participate in or to refuse to take a state assessment is a personal decision and ultimately a parent’s choice and in either case a decision that should be afforded mutual respect,” LoCascio said.

The statement went on to say the board believes in public education, that every student in the district deserves an opportunity to succeed and that they believe teachers should be evaluated using multiple forms of assessment.

It also said that as a board, they recognize Gov. Andrew Cuomo and certain interests have politicized many educational issues and that they are concerned how this will impact the district.

“We will continue to work to advance our adopted board goals, prevent the erosion of local control and fight to ensure that educators and those elected by our community have the final decision in how our schools are run,” LoCascio said.

Parents said the statement still did not impress them.

“This community is asking the board of education to step up, pick a strong stand,” parent Shala Pascucci said during the meeting’s public comment forum. “That was a step in the right direction, but if you read the resolution from other neighboring districts, you will know that resolution is not as strong as it could be.”

Pascucci went on to say the board statement is not specific enough, but did acknowledge it’s a step in the right direction. Board member Pam DeFord also acknowledged the statement and said she agreed with parents.

“You’re right, it’s a small step, and we will continue to work on it,” DeFord said.

Parents also said they were upset about the process that will take place in the classroom the morning of the assessment. Parent Dina Stramara quoted from the test refusal question-and-answer section on the board’s website, visibly upset by what her child will go through.

According to the document, children will be seated in assigned seats and a proctor will pass out the documents. They will know ahead of time which students are refusing the assessment, but children must verbally confirm it.

“In the most non-judgmental, non-confrontational, and delicate manner possible, the proctor will verbally confirm with each individual child that he/she is refusing the assessment, those exam materials will be collected, and the child will be permitted to read quietly,” the document said.

Stramara said there is nothing non-judgmental and delicate about putting a child in an awkward position. She said they are not adults and parents should make the decision for them. She also asked why the district would still put the test in front of them if they know they are refusing ahead of time.

“Asking [a young child] to verbalize this is absolutely ludicrous,” Stramara said to the board. “I implore you to please reconsider this procedure. It is not our children’s fault that the state and the district are failing them by making them pawns in this ridiculousness.”

Schools Superintendent Timothy Eagen said this was not a district procedure but one from the New York State Education Department.

“According to the state education department, an activity that is acceptable for students who finish the test early or refuse to take the test is simply to read something,” Eagen said in an interview after the meeting.

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Linda Ventura, center, holds up a picture of her son Thomas, who overdosed on heroine three years ago. She will be one of the many speakers at a Kings Park drug forum in March. File photo

By Jenni Culkin

A forum will be held at William T. Rogers Middle School, 97 Old Dock Road, Kings Park, on Wednesday, March 4, at 7 p.m., with the hope of keeping the next generation of Kings Park residents safe and informed, event organizers said.

The event is going to be geared toward middle school students and their parents, making a point to intervene while the middle school students of Kings Park are still young and impressionable.

“The best way to stop addiction is through prevention,” says Kimberly Revere, president of Kings Park In The kNOw.

Attendees can expect Kym Laube, the executive director for Human Understanding & Growth Services, to speak to the parents about understanding trends in addiction and other decisions that have potentially destructive outcomes. She will also be discussing the role that parents play in their teenagers’ attitudes and provide them with the tools and information that they need to navigate the challenges of their children’s teen years.

“Parents are still the number one influence on their teenagers,” Laube said.

There’s also going to be a speaker for the adolescent attendees. Linda Ventura, a mother who lost her son to an overdose. She will be sharing the journey that she and her family went through.

Suffolk County Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) will also be speaking. All of the attendees will listen to a brief overview of laws like the Social Host Law and the 911 Good Samaritan Law that affect those who are involved with, or know somebody who is involved with, drugs and alcohol. Trotta is a retired Suffolk County police detective who was assigned to the FBI’s Violent Crime Task Force for over 10 years.

In The kNOw’s goal is for each of the communities in the state to take care of itself in order to take care of the overall problem.

Even those who have no substance abuse are still affected, and they are advised to attend to learn about what the community can do to prevent any possible damage.

“We are facing an opiate epidemic in this country,” Revere said. “Something has to be done.”

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Linda Ventura memorializes her late son Thomas by putting her face at the forefront of the ongoing battle to curb illegal drug use and its unintended consequences. Photo from Linda Ventura
Linda Ventura memorializes her late son Thomas by putting her face at the forefront of the ongoing battle to curb illegal drug use and its unintended consequences. Photo from Linda Ventura

By Chris Mellides

The legislative office building in Albany hums with activity as concerned Long Island parents and members of the addiction treatment community prepare to convene with state assemblymen and insurance company executives for a roundtable discussion.

King’s Park residents Linda Ventura and Maureen Rossi, who both endured the long drive to the state capital the previous night, break away from their group moments before the meeting and casually walk to the nearest bathroom.

Inside the brightly lit lavatory, where toilet paper lines the old tiled floor, Ventura reaches into her purse and retrieves a piece of Tupperware, like she has many times before, and together with Rossi the two of them pray.

Ventura, a mother of three, watched helplessly as her eldest son Thomas succumbed to his heroin addiction two years ago. And now his ashes, tucked neatly inside that plastic container, serve as a reminder of why she tirelessly works toward spreading opiate awareness and tirelessly lobbies for political change. For such efforts Linda Ventura has been selected as one of the People of the Year by this paper.

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive officer of the Family and Children’s Association, was among those concerned parents and addiction treatment advocates who joined the dozens of insurance executives at the round table meeting.

He recalls the tension choking the room and the moment a state legislator asked Ventura to make her case for why she thinks insurance companies are handling treatment coverage poorly.

“Linda opened her purse, took out a Tupperware, put it on the table and said, ‘This is my son Thomas. This is what outpatient treatment looks like.’ And the room was stunned,” said Reynolds. “You know I’ve seen it all and done it all and heard it all, and it left me and everybody else in the room speechless.”

Reynolds says that he met Ventura roughly two years ago through a mutual contact and that his work with her became much more focused when they started their legislative push.

“She has been at the forefront of our push for a number of bills in Albany. The thing about Linda is that addiction messed with the wrong mom,” Reynolds said.

Ventura, 54, was born and raised in Oceanside and moved to Kings Park in 1993, where she’s continued her work as a financial advisor.

In March 2012, her son Thomas died from a heroin overdose. He was 21. In the years leading up to his death, Ventura says that a tumultuous family life had put stress on her children.

“My mom and dad passed and my ex-husband’s mom passed. Every year we lost one of them and him and I were going through a divorce,” Ventura said. “So there was a lot of loss, tremendous loss in the family and Thomas was especially sensitive.”

At 15 years old, Thomas began smoking marijuana and drinking beer, and by his senior year of high school Ventura recognized that her son had a problem with prescription painkillers. During the fall after his graduation, Thomas went to his first rehab.

That’s when Ventura said she realized how difficult it was to get insurance coverage for her son’s treatment.

“While he was covered under his dad’s policy, the family as a whole was entitled to one stay at a rehab. So we used that the first time that he went. It was then covered under me,” Ventura said. “We heard things through the next few years and [were told] that he’s not high enough for treatment, which still boggles my mind.”

In order to receive continued coverage for treatment services, Thomas had to continually fail at outpatient services before he could be approved for more comprehensive residential treatment, according to Ventura, who claims that this rule was “insane.”

After her son’s fatal overdose, Ventura said she knew that she needed to bring awareness to the opiate problem affecting Long Islanders, and help to change how insurance providers offer coverage to families seeking help for their sons and daughters struggling with addiction.

On the one-year anniversary of her son’s death, she launched Thomas’ Hope, a nonprofit foundation that promotes drug awareness, prevention and advocacy. Through this effort, Ventura has spoken at numerous events to raise awareness and has raised money to assist families battling with substance abuse.

During a Thomas’ Hope fundraiser Ventura met Maureen Rossi, chairperson of Kings Park in the kNOw (KPITK), a grassroots nonprofit designed to help eradicate illegal drugs from the Kings
Park Community.

“From the first time I heard Linda speak, I knew she had the gift — she has an outstanding ability to reach people,” Rossi said. “I was impressed with her work and shortly after I hired her to speak at our annual Preventing Destructive Decisions event. Linda’s actions and words move mountains.”

Together, Ventura and Rossi joined parents and community leaders in what would be several legislative visits to Albany.

Late this spring, they pushed for passage of Senate Bill S4623, which would reign in the insurance companies and force them to pay for treatment when it’s warranted. That bill and a number of others passed the state Senate and will go into effect April 1, 2015.

County Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) represents Suffolk’s 13th District, has followed Ventura’s work with KPITK and has recognized the impact she’s made on the local community and on New York state as a whole.

“She went up to Albany and she got 13 different pieces of legislation passed, and the most important one is that insurance companies will be paying for treatment programs,” Trotta. “She’s driven, she’s smart, capable and she knows what’s going on. She’s really led the charge.”

Ventura said she hopes to see a sober high school brought to Long Island this year that would serve as “a place kids can come back to and be treated differently when they come out of rehab.” She also said she plans to discuss prescription protocol and the need for better education among medical professionals who prescribe controlled substances when she returns to Albany.

When it comes to stomping out the heroin and opiate epidemic on Long Island Ventura said it’ll have to be done as a group effort.

“New York and Long Island is the epicenter of the epidemic, which is something we should not be proud of,” Ventura said. “We can’t legislate ourselves out of it and we can’t police our way out of it. Those things are important measures to take, but everybody’s got to step up to the plate.”

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