Hundreds of residents packed a sometimes-emotional Huntington school board meeting Monday night to discuss the role of police officers in school and other issues, in the wake of an article about how a local student ended up deported to Honduras.
The ProPublica article, published with The New York Times, detailed how the immigrant student known publicly as Alex, was swept up by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement after he came to their attention through a Suffolk police officer based at Huntington High School. Among his actions that drew attention were his doodling of the school’s Blue Devils mascot, scribbling 504, the Honduran calling code, and wearing blue shoes. Those observations of his behavior, enough to suspect gang involvement, made their way into a police database where ICE had access, and led to his arrest and ultimately his deportation.
Teachers, administrators and members of the public spoke in one of two public portions at the meeting, with school officials, noting they could not publicly comment on a particular student, in some cases defending their overall work while expressing concern about what happened to Alex.
Superintendent James W. Polansky said that while he disagreed with aspects of the article, “Regardless, a family has been shattered. I can say without any doubt there is no intent on anyone’s part that is not in support of a child.” He said the district would pursue a clarification of the role of police officers in schools, through a memo of understanding that could become a template for other school districts in Suffolk County.
Board president Jennifer Hebert said that without a formal agreement, she would oppose the continued use of police in Huntington’s schools. “We need clarity and guidelines, and if we can’t get those, I’m not comfortable having officers in our building going forward. And many of these trustees feel similarly,” she said.
Pride in the district, as well as fear and heartbreak. were some of the emotions expressed by numerous speakers.
Board member Xavier Palacios, said, “What has occurred to Alex is very upsetting. I speak as a father, and a former ESL student in the district. This is an unfortunate series of events. I don’t believe anyone set out to harm him, not the SRO (school resource officer) and certainly not the principal. The truth is our procedures have failed Alex and perhaps others. In all cases, where students were adversely affected, we must expunge the suspension and above all apologize to the families. And as much as we want to review the SRO policy, we must review our own district’s policies. We have to find a solution and denial is not an option. The schools should be safe for all students AND their parents. We cannot on one hand say we have no issues and then suspend a child.“
Brendan Cusack, a Huntington High School principal whose actions were detailed in the story, criticized the article and said it had mischaracterized him and the district. “The story as published is not the whole story,” he said during the public comment portion of the meeting, drawing sustained applause. “It is hard, however, to read a piece and for your students, your faculty, your community and your family to read a piece which puts you in a way that is exactly the opposite of what you stand for and believe in.”
Paul Caleca, high school dean of students, turned to address the crowd, and spoke up on Cusack’s behalf, saying the principal is “one of the most outstanding, not only principals, but men that I have ever met.”
James Graber, who is president of the teachers union, said, “I, like many, was heartbroken that a young man may have been unjustly deported. I realize this article cannot portray the entire truth,” and added, “I have never witnessed anything that approached the intentional mistreatment of students,” and he spoke up for the need for school security.
But numerous residents, including parents of current and former students, and several recent graduates, as well as members of the Latino community, spoke up in the second public portion and were more critical of what had happened. In the crowd was the brother of Alex, the deported student.
A group of recent alumni, including at least three valedictorians, insisted that the district help clarify exactly what student actions would or should be reported by police; that lesser infractions be handled by school administrators, not police, and asked whether the behavior of other students, not only immigrant students, would draw official law-enforcement attention. Fourteen of the alumni, calling themselves Concerned Alumni for Protecting Our Classmates, submitted a letter listing ideas to ensure the safety of immigrant students.
Aidan Forbes, from the class of 2018, said, “This student (Alex) was suspected and charged on the most cursory of evidence. When it comes to gang associates, the lines have been blurred. No doubt MS-13 is a threat. So was communism. McCarthyism taught us then what over–zealousness can bring. That is precisely what happened here.”
A Salvadoran teen who spoke said that when he read the article, “I was literally crying; i came here five years ago, not speaking English. When I came to this community I felt welcomed by everyone. I thought, ‘what if i was the student in that article?’ We must not succumb to hysteria. We came because we were in danger. That article took part of my American dream. I know this community is better than that. We are all made from immigrants. We also have to be safe. No matter what color, we are the future of this country.”
Resident David Saginaw said, “I am of the belief that the board is committed and sincere about moving forward. but make yourselves perfectly clear. Is this a sanctuary or is it not? We live in an environment where there are agents who do not represent the values that are being talked about tonight. We need to be increasing vigilance to not let things happen on our watch.
“I don’t accept that it’s a series of unfortunate events. Every event is someone’s responsibility. The way to solve it is an open and not vindictively ask everyone who had a hand in this, ask yourself why. and when you reach an answer, ask again.”
Some students expressed surprise at learning that the police officer they respected while in school was feared by their immigrant peers. Others raised issues about minority students in general and their perceptions of the school.
Alex was in the country legally, as an unaccompanied minor, and was trying to adjust his status when he was swept up in the ICE program known as Operation Matador. After his deportation, the Times article said, Alex attempted to cross back into the US in the fall of 2018 but was caught. Now 19, he is barred from returning to the country for 20 years. His family lives in Huntington and there is a GoFundMe campaign to help them.