Summer Meltdown 2011. Photo: Dakotah Rains.
The Hart District's decision to exclude the 9th Summer Meltdown Autism Awareness and Social Inclusion concert in May from district facilities has disappointed the students with and without disabilities in the local nonprofit Yes I Can program who produce the annual event, and angered their parents and other supporters of the program.
After eight years hosted in Golden Valley's High School's outdoor amphitheater, the concert can no longer be staged there or at any other Hart district facility in the future, a decision made public by a statement released by district officials and reported here  Wednesday.
While the district's decision does not kill the festival, it has forced the Yes I Can students and their advisor, district special-ed teacher Bret Lieberman, also a local concert promoter in real life, to scramble to seek another local venue for the first time, at a potential extra cost not known as of now.
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Wednesday's statement from the Hart district came via Gail Pinsker, its community liaison officer. It said, essentially, that while the district supports inclusion, and has hosted Summer Meltdown in the past, the decision was made to end that because the concert is not considered a district-sponsored event.
The statement added that district officials were concerned the festival would be too big this year for Hart facilities to handle, and that due to budget cuts, the district could not pay for staff or administration required for the additional security, supervision, monitoring and cleanup required.
"There's no truth to any of that. The Hart district does not pay a penny for this event, and if they have, I'd like them to produce the receipts that show that they have," said Robin Kovolsky, president of Yes I Can parent booster clubs at Canyon High and Golden Valley High since the program's inception in 2003-2004. She has been involved with Summer Meltdown's fundraising and expenditures from the start, and knows its financial history.
"We have raised all of the money to pay for everything that has gone down," Kovolsky said. "Either we've raised the money or people have donated money or they have donated the items (or services) that have been necessary. So, (the district) never had to pay any money out of their pocket. It's all been through fundraising for the program, and the kids seeking donations."
As the mother of two teenaged sons who've been through the Yes I Can programs at Golden Valley and Canyon High schools and participated in staging Summer Meltdown, Kovolsky said she thinks the Hart district's decision "is terribly wrong. It's very sad for all of the kids involved, whether they're the kids with autism or Asperger's, or the general-ed kids."
Festival is Part of Course Work
Lieberman and Kovolsky disagree with the district's assertion that producing Summer Meltdown is not part of the Yes I Can students' course work.
"It is," Lieberman said. "We tie it with lessons of self-esteem and tolerance. (The) Yes I Can (program) comes with 20 some-odd lessons, and you break them down how you will. Over the years, we've built up Yes I Can's curriculum. (A culminating event) is the end of all the lessons of self-esteem, tolerance. For students in the past with very low social skills, it was, 'I'm going to bring this cake,' or 'I'm going to order pizza.' We use social communication skills that way. As we've enhanced and we've grown, the students wanted to fit in with the rest of their population, and they wanted to throw a concert. And that was the birth of the Summer Meltdown."
"Summer Meltdown is the culminating event that the kids have worked on all year, and so when it comes time for the Meltdown," Kovolsky said. "Everything they've learned throughout the course of the semester is put to good use at the concert."
"My son's syllabus said that attendance at this is event is part of his final grade. It is the item that the class is based upon," said Noli Wiesen of Saugus, whose 16-year-old son has been in the Yes I Can program for four years. "In truth I view it as his final exam."
Lieberman explained that different Yes I Can programs throw different course-ending activities. "West Ranch's culminating activity is Wildcat Idol. Some of the others do talent shows. Ours is the Summer Meltdown. When I was at Golden Valley, Canyon and Golden Valley and students from West Ranch worked on it and produced the event. So, when (the district transferred Lieberman and his students) to Canyon last fall, we really expected to work with the amazing ASB over here and throw a beautiful Meltdown together. Students wanted to either throw it at Golden Valley or Canyon."
No Conflict, Just Contacts
While this was not raised by district officials, a few outside observers have preceived a possible conflict of interest because Lieberman co-owns a concert promotion and production company, and in his capacity as the Yes I Can program advisor he is also the de facto executive producer of Summer Meltdown.
"There's no conflict with anything that is connected with Higher Level Productions," said Lieberman, who has played that dual role since the first festival. "Everything we do is donated. If it's artists that we've worked with, sound equipment, lighting equipment, we donate it to the Meltdown. Our production crew just to assist the students, is donated as well. As far as finances, we don't receive any money. I don't receive any money, Higher Level doesn't receive any money. We don't even touch the money. The parents handle all the money."
How Yes I Can Students Benefit from the Festival
Producing Summer Meltdown provides substantial benefit to the students at no cost to the district other than providing the venue, Kovolsky noted.
The program and the event promote unity and acceptance among teens with special needs and teens in the general student populations by combining music and education.
"(Producing the concert) has incorporated a world of friendships and developed bonds and interest for a population of kids that had nothing but an interest in video games, and through music, they have learned how to be able to participate in the community and be accepted by their peers," Kovolsky said. "So, I think it's a very sad day to see that the Hart District will no longer sponsor it."
Wiesen echoed the thoughts of Kovolsky and other YIC parents: "I have seen first-hand how these kids' self-esteem has been improved by this program, my own 16-year-old included," she wrote in an email. Her son has been in the Saugus High Yes I Can club and has worked on Summer Meltdown for four years.
"I have seen the kids learn appropriate job-related skills and make connections through this program," Wiesen said. "Alumni return every year to help as a way of saying 'thank you.' These young adults have jobs and professions and pride. They feel accepted and find hope in the future job market. One boy at last year's Meltdown was put on the stage to fill in time and the artist after him asked him to stay onstage and help him out. This boy was then contacted by the artist to go DJ at a few concerts. He's already played one so far."
Wiesen said one parent had reportedly complained to district officials about an artist using foul language from the stage. "My reponse to that? Have you been on a high school campus and heard teenagers talk?" she asked.
Starting at the beginning of each school fall semester, the Yes I Can students ramp up preparation all school year for the May concert, near the end of the spring semester.
"The class emphasizes learning to socialize, communicate, to call acts, book food vendors, create promotions and posters, organize fundraisers to pay for everything," Wiesen said. "And in the process the kids learn job-related skills...in addition to the social skills that the program was created for, it teaches and encourages tolerance of people who are different. Like these poor kids who are so different and isolated that they go and shoot up their high school and college campuses — this program prevents that. These kids develop a solid self esteem as a by-product."
'Political Hooey in Disguise'
Wiesen characterized the district's reasons for escorting Summer Meltdown off its campuses as "a bunch of political hooey in disguise."
"There is no basis for NOT supporting this program," she said. "In fact, if you ask any student, alumni or parent of either what they think. I am pretty sure they will tell you this is one of the most amazing programs ever created. The effects on my kid will last his lifetime. The fact that the Hart district is alienating this population of students is so disappointing."
Kimberly Thanaet of Saugus, whose son was a Yes I Can student at Saugus High School's chapter until he graduated, is another mother who emailed a note to KHTS News Thursday responding to our original story.
"The Hart School District turning their back on the annual Summer Meltdown concert by denying them a venue speaks volumes to our community," Thanaet said.
"Students who participate in the Yes I Can program (sign up) voluntarily, giving their time to raise awareness, support and outreach," she said. "Surely, some compromise could be made by the district so the community could continue to be enriched by this program. If not, what a sad message we are sending to the Yes I Can Program, and our entire community. Shame on you, Hart district."
Yes I Can Students React
We also heard directly from a couple of Yes I Can students via email Thursday as they reacted to Wednesday's news.
"I can't believe the nerve of the school district — this is the one event we have to be proud of and call our own and they want to banish it," wrote J.J. Fairbanks, who's been in the Yes I Can program for eight years, first at La Mesa Junior High, and then at Golden Valley. "The meltdown is very close to me, and I have missed family trips and a family wedding to make sure I was at the Meltdown every year. I have watched it grow because of all our efforts. Shame on the school district."
"In Yes I Can one of the first lessons we learn is to use 'people-first language,' Out of respect for a person with special needs, you put the name before the disability," wrote Isreal Tovar, who's been in the program at Golden Valley for four years. "It is very sad that the district refers to us as autistic students and not students with autism. Maybe the district should come to a YIC class and learn about us."
"It's frustrating, because students with autism and Asperger's see in black and white — they don't see the gray," Lieberman said. "And I think all this seems to be more of a gray area. They would understand if we had a fight, or something out of control, that it would be canceled. But we did everything that the school had asked us to do.
"It's a beautiful event — we're a social inclusion program," he said. "The students really just want to be included just like everyone else... They're not on the sports teams. Summer Meltdown and Yes I Can are what they own, and the Summer Meltdown has led them to meeting people who have the same common interest of the love of music, and throwing a concert, and connecting over that."
Drawing teens from all over the Santa Clarita Valley was always a goal of Summer Meltdown, and the concert has grown each year, in terms of the number of bands playing, attendance, and the community awareness and support of and for the local Yes I Can program. It's gone from a half-dozen bands playing for audiences of a few hundred in 2004 to more than a dozen bands on two or three stages with professional sound and video playing for 2,000-2,500 fans.
"A big thing that's frustrating for the students is that they want to be able to promote to all of the schools," Lieberman said. "They want to be able to invite all of their friends, and when we have our event, it's not like you're a Centurion, you're a Grizzly or a Cowboy. Everyone comes together for the love of music. I've been to some of the (Yes I Can students') birthday parties where nobody comes. And to be able to throw an event and have a few hundred people, a thousand people or more come out to support their cause, that's the feeling of self-esteem and accomplishment — that's something they hold onto for the entire year, and it makes them work that much harder on the next year's event."
Lieberman also thought the district's concern the festival might be too big to handle this year is unfounded.
"I didn't have that conversation with anyone," he said. "After last year's (Meltdown), it was wonderful, we had a great time. Each year, we try to make the production a little more elaborate and add different pieces. Last year, the students contacted a laser light company from San Diego, and we were able to get them to come down and donate. And the students were able to find hotel rooms to accommodate them for the few days while they were here setting up the laser light show. So, every year, we try to improve and get better talent and whatnot. It's not like we're doing a presidential campaign or anything. I'm not quite sure where (that) information is coming from. If anyone has questions about the Meltdown, I would wish they would come talk to the source."
Adding to the confusion among Yes I Can supporters is the news that Hart High School students are campaigning to get Grammy-winning, multi-platinum-selling singer Katy Perry to perform at prom.
Kovolsky hopes the kids are successful, but "If the Hart district is going to allow that, then how could they block what we're doing and say they can't make it a Hart district event? Because maybe it's going to get bigger because we're looking at artists outside, big artists?" she said.
"They're assuming if we get a big artist, we wouldn't be able to accommodate it. But that's no different than bringing Katy Perry, who everybody in the world knows," she said. "The amount of security the Hart district is going to have to pay is going to be outrageous. They're not going to be able to just pay their typical security costs."
Kovolsky said that Hart's prom being held off Hart district property doesn't matter. "Whether it's happening on their campus or not on their campus, it still is a Hart district event. If anything were to happen, they're going to be liable."
Search For New Venue Intensifies
Bottom line: Without a venue solution and the funds to pay for it, and soon, the quality of festival talent will probably suffer because talent budget will have to go to pay production expenses, both Kovolsky and Lieberman said. The search is on.
Speaking of money, Kovolsky noted that donations from the students' monthly fundraisers at area restaurants and businesses were down this year, compounding their challenge in staging Summer Meltdown 2012.
"The whole point of the Meltdown is for the Yes I Can students with special needs to be included by their peers. To be able to throw an event where their peers come and go, 'Wow, look at these kids who are considered the odd ducks, who are fitting in just like us, these are the guys who brought us the party. These are the guys who are bringing in The Dirty Heads, Iration and Shwayze.' So that they can have pride. Really, I want them to be able to graduate (the program), have a huge celebration and go, 'Yeah, we produced that. We pulled it off."
Neither would go so far as to say this year's festival could be cancelled. The students and booster club are increasing their fundraising efforts and have posted a preview video  on YouTube, produced by Andy Ryan, 17 and a Yes I Can mentor for almost three years.