Verdict rouses complex emotions for Patchogue students

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The conviction of Jeffrey Conroy Monday roused a complicated set of feelings for students at his former high school: sadness for the loss of life, a sense the killing could have been prevented, a deep disgust over the racial hatred underlying the crime, and sympathy for Conroy and his family.

"He was guilty, but now he's got to suffer the consequences," said Steve Burton, 16, a junior who was on the wrestling team with Conroy at Patchogue-Medford High and described him as "like my best friend." Burton, who is black, added later, "I feel sorry for him because he's behind bars."

Since the 2008 stabbing death of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, many students have "felt down about it," said Jonathan Smaldone, 16, a junior at the high school.

"I feel bad for the [Lucero] family, how they had to deal with something like that," Smaldone said. "I just hope people learn it's not right and to treat each other with equality."

Smaldone, who is on the school's robotics team, said he and his teammates have volunteered in the community and held fundraisers to show the school in a better light.

Mitch Wrobel, 14, a ninth-grader, said the killing was clearly wrong and the verdict correct. But he said he also feels sorry for Conroy and that he should be sent to a juvenile facility instead of prison.

"He's just a kid," Wrobel said. Conroy is 19.

Wrobel said he believes the killing could have been prevented if adults - teachers and parents - would speak out any time they hear of intolerance. And parents also need to be careful to keep from passing racism on to their children, he said.

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"In our school right now, every day you hear jokes about Jewish people and black people," Wrobel said.

Patchogue-Medford officials said there have been lessons in teaching tolerance. Within a week of Lucero's killing, high school social studies teachers were given supplementary lessons using themes of tolerance.

Among the topics: the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" from the musical "South Pacific" and its message that youthful bigotry is usually learned from adults, said Fred McKenna, administrative assistant to the superintendent.

The district, like others in the state, has long included lessons on the positive aspects of a multicultural society and the need for racial and ethnic tolerance in accordance with state guidelines. Beyond that, there has been an increase in discussion of these topics since the Lucero killing, McKenna said.

"Kids ask about this," he said.

But the focus should be on the parents, he said.

"Why is this such a major conversation about Patchogue-Medford schools when it didn't happen in Patchogue-Medford schools?" McKenna asked. "The school had no control over where these young men went at night. Their parents did. And I think that's where the focus should be."

With John Hildebrand

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