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New Canaan students speak out against TeenTalk cuts

Published 12:58 pm, Saturday, March 23, 2013
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For Haley Besser, 22, her education at New Canaan High School came with the bitter pain of enduring harsh social experiences.

"I was often bullied in school," said Besser, who was -- quite literally -- a "kid in crisis."

"The TeenTalk program with Ed Milton really helped me. ... Ed was the only person who fully understood me and always had something to say that lifted me back up," she said.

"If I didn't have Ed and the TeenTalk program during my time at New Canaan High School, I would have felt so lost," she said. "I didn't really belong and I was a very unhappy kid, but TeenTalk changed my life."

Besser is one of many New Canaan students who, over the past 14 years, proudly claim to have received invaluable help from Kids in Crisis' TeenTalk program, which Milton has run from the high school since 2006.

This year, however, the Human Services Department, which has consistently funded the program since 1999, decided to cut its $50,000 budget in half. Consequently, a number of residents and former New Canaan students have expressed their disappointment and concern regarding the future of the program, largely through an online petition.

According to Carol McDonald, director of human services, the reason for the cut is simple economics.

"Budget cuts straight across the board are very, very difficult things to make," she said, with her department also looking to create two new positions within the department.

"We think that the Kids in Crisis position is very valuable in the community, (but) we were looking to increase our staff here at Human Services and that's how it ended up playing out," she said.

"I'm hoping they will be able to utilize the $25,000 left in the budget for them in some way so they can continue to provide the services in the high school," she said.

Officials from Kids in Crisis -- a Greenwich-based nonprofit that offers 24-hour help for children and families in trouble, as well as various counseling services -- say they cannot offer the service without a full commitment from the town.

"This program has to be full-time at New Canaan High School," said Shari Shapiro, director. "It cannot be done in any other way because crisis doesn't make an appointment."

She said that in order to keep quality people, a commitment is required. Further, she said, TeenTalk has been created as a full-time program and that's the service that is being offered to the town.

Shapiro also said it was important that the program not be funded by the school system because this would radically change its requirements and could, therefore, impede its effectiveness.

"It's a question that a lot of people have asked over the years," she said.

"There are a lot of regulations that are tied to Board of Ed money and Board of Ed requirements," she said. "Having it be something that is not funded through the Board of Ed really makes a difference with confidentially issues."

Rather than falling under the auspices of education guidelines, she said TeenTalk -- and Milton -- are "tied to the regulations and requirements of a crisis organization."

"The separation is really important," she said, "so when a kid does come to a TeenTalk counselor, they know that the confidentiality is there."

She said, however, that the school system does support Milton "in all sorts of ways," including providing office space and more.

"We certainly support the program through in-kind support," said Superintendent of Schools Mary Kolek.

"It was purposefully established and funded through the municipal budget due to the nature of the service," she said. "I think the understanding of this is important as the town seeks to find solutions to the situation."

Kolek said the school system was "in close touch with Kids in Crisis leaders about this situation."

Michael DeMattia, who graduated the high school last year, was so disturbed by the news of the cut that he started an online petition from his college in New Orleans hoping to influence the situation.

Having worked on the Youth-Adult Partnership Board, he said he got to know Milton and the "unbelievable" work he did with students.

"For those students that are dealing with more challenges than the rest of us," DeMattia said, Milton's presence made significant difference.

"Especially at a time like this, when mental health is so important," he said, "it should be of the utmost priority ... Nothing should be more paramount than the mental health and well-being of the students."

As of Tuesday, DeMattia's petition had received 268 signatures and a variety of supportive comments.

It should be noted that at its budget meeting earlier this month, some Board of Finance members attempted to reinstate the $25,000 cut, but it was voted down 4-3. Concurring with First Selectman Robert Mallozzi, who chairs the board, financiers decided that if Human Services had already made the cut in its proposal, it wasn't their position to reinstate it.

Several people at that meeting spoke in favor of the program and Milton, including Principal Bryan Luizzi, and Kristine Goldhawk, a social studies teacher.

"(When) they don't feel comfortable going to the guidance counselor," Goldhawk said of students, "Ed is that stop gap."

"He's there before school, after school, in the evening," she said. "His hours exceed what we do as teachers."

On Tuesday morning, Shapiro and Kids in Crisis Managing Director Denise Qualey, made a pitch to the Board of Selectmen to reinstate the funding. The board recognized that the program is highly important and cautiously agreed to try to get it funded, perhaps through a special appropriation later in the year.

"I can't believe this has been cut out of the budget and we're going to try to make sure this stays in our school," Selectman Beth Jones said at the meeting.

"We would all be in favor of bringing this as a special appropriation," Mallozzi concurred.

Milton, who did not want to add much to the discussion, said the community support is "tremendous."

"I feel lucky to work in a town that is invested in its families and I am grateful for the many strong collaborative relationships with school and town."

"I am hopeful that this will be resolved based on New Canaan's long history of dedication to its students and their families," he said.

Jarret Liotta is a freelance writer.

Staff Writer Tyler Woods contributed to this article.