Opinion: Don’t Let Forces Divide the Community

By Legislator William Spencer, MD

As a Suffolk County Legislator and member of the Public Safety Committee representing much of Huntington since 2012, I wish to extend my thoughts and prayers to the teenager who was the victim of a stabbing by gang members behind the a fast-food restaurant on New York Avenue on the evening of January 9th. I’m truly saddened by the misguided youth who committed this violent crime and am angry that a young person has been harmed. Gang violence is an attack not only on individuals, but on the entire community and is unacceptable.

A host of issues have been unfolding in our backyards, including federal politics and policies, social conditions influencing the demographics of the school district and misinformed depictions of Huntington and its members being conveyed in the press. The layers of pressures can push and pull us in multiple directions, but together we must remain composed and focus our energies on our number one priority; the safety of our youth.

As parents, educators, administrators, law enforcement and community members we can all agree that providing a safe and secure environment is the foundation of enabling our youth to develop and grow. In 2018, 92% of Huntington High School seniors earned Regents diplomas, 86% are headed to college and graduates captured over $12 million dollars in scholarships and grants. These indicators tell a powerful story that the Huntington School District has been committed to creating the right conditions for students to succeed academically in a district that celebrates and embraces diversity.

We have been shaken by crime in the past, and through it all we have successfully managed to restore safety by working collaboratively with our police department, school district, local leaders and residents. Thanks to those efforts, criminal activity has declined in the 2nd Precinct over the past several years, yet we have a lot of work to do to align our sense of security with our local crime statistics. The point here is that while we are in the midst of multiple pressures unfolding, let’s not lose sight that Huntington is proof that strong families and communities are key to violence prevention.

While we take pride in our strengths, we do share a genuine fear of the gang activity taking place in our neighborhood. Under no uncertain terms can we turn a blind-eye to this very real and destructive issue. It is our responsibility to leverage all resources to combat the forces of gang activity. Simultaneously, we must be understanding of law abiding students who have a real fear of being torn from their families and communities as they pursue the American dream. We have a daunting task to uphold the values of security and compassion while making difficult decisions and taking action.

To that end, I have been engaged in conversations with Suffolk County Police Commissioner Hart, Second Precinct Inspector Scrima, Superintendent Polansky and community leaders. Thoughtful and deliberate steps have been made to address the concerns raised by the New York Times article regarding the process of how information is exchanged between the school and the Police Department. This is imperative, if we are to re-establish the trust as we move forward. 

On Tuesday, a meeting between the Superintendents’ Association and the Police Commissioner took place to clearly define the role of the School Resource Officer program in our district and county-wide. Knowing the power of transparency in providing a path to healing, I plan to invite the Police Commissioner to present the outcome of those collaborative efforts to the entire community after discussions are settled.

It is important for me to inform my constituents that I fully support the continuation of the presence of a School Resource Officer at Huntington High School. The 14 years of exemplary service that Officer Drew Fiorillo brought to the school district cannot be underestimated. Officer Drew took great pride in his work and successfully built a bridge of trust between the Police Department and the youth in the community. So many share a deep gratitude for the lives he has positively influenced and the service he has brought to all of Huntington.

On Monday night, I attended the Coffee & Conversation hosted by the Huntington Council of PTA’s with Superintendent Polansky at the Jack Abrams STEM School. I witnessed and was inspired by a compassionate, intelligent and sensible Superintendent and an engaged community who are all up to address the challenges we are facing. At the meeting, Superintendent Polansky confirmed that the SRO program will continue at the Huntington High School.

The concern for the safety of our students did not begin the day the New York Times article was published. Through the years, our community has never shied away from confronting and overcoming negative forces. A clear example of that is the Tri-CYA mentorship program that formed back in 2010 following the shutdown of the Jack Abrams School. My predecessor, Legislator Jon Cooper, started the program to help address a surge in criminal activity. When I took office in 2012, I embraced his efforts and the program continues today serving at risk youth. I have been in communication with Supervisor Lupinacci to work together to improve safety measures at the center.

Through the years I have also worked with my legislative colleagues to allocate resources to the Tri CYA’s Communities and Schools Together (CAST) program which provides positive alternatives as well as intensive outreach and case management to at-risk youth in grades 5 through 9 and their families in the Town of Huntington. These are all valuable programs that provide meaningful alternatives, free of charge, to empower our youth to avoid derelict behaviors and have the added benefit of keeping us all safe.

As we navigate through this difficult time I am confident that we will not be defined by the forces of polarization that have attempted to prey on our vulnerabilities. As Huntington residents we can stand with pride knowing that what unites us is stronger than what divides us. I remain dedicated to representing everyone in our community. The door to my office is always open and I am a phone call away: 631-854-4500.   

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