The Huntington School District is reviewing its relationship with the Suffolk County Police Department after a published story about a school-based police resource officer program and the immigration detention of a student.
The New York Times story published Dec. 27 was a collaboration between the Times and the nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica.
The story reported a former Huntington High School student, identified as Alex, was suspended from school and eventually arrested and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after he was questioned by security guards and the school principal about alleged gang-related actions, such as writing the Honduran telephone country code “504” on a calculator case, wearing blue sneakers and drawing a "devil with horns."
According to the story, school security guards told Alex the blue of the shoes was the color of MS-13. Alex said in the story that the shoes had been a gift from his mother, "504" was "about being proud of your country," and the devil was the school mascot.
Alex was among about a dozen Huntington High students arrested under Operation Matador, a program to promote information-sharing between police departments and ICE, the story says.
According to the story, Alex said that after his June 2017 arrest, an ICE agent told him the government was detaining him because of a report “from the school that you were a gang member.”
Alex, who was legally seeking asylum, was eventually deported to his native Honduras, the story said.
Police stationed in schools, known as resource officers, collect tips and information and share it with their department, which can pass it on to immigration agents, according to the story.
A letter posted on the school district website Friday night above the names of Schools Superintendent James W. Polansky and the seven school trustees calls for a memorandum of understanding to “establish formal procedural guidelines associated with the SRO position, as well as with information flow and restrictions.” The letter also says “systems and processes at the high school will be reviewed thoroughly in an effort to maintain a safe haven.” Polansky said in an email Saturday night that “under no circumstances do I feel it is appropriate for information to be shared by a school resource officer with ICE.”
Polansky declined to go into detail. Referring to resource officers, he wrote that “there should be a clearly delineated outline regarding how anecdotal information is obtained, used and shared such that it ensures the civil rights of all students and staff are protected."
He proposed the “development of a ‘roles and responsibilities’ statement for SROs” between Suffolk County and school districts.
Suffolk police said in emails responding to questions that the department is reviewing the district letter.
According to the department, “SCPD has a strong relationship with the school districts it serves and …we consider the wishes of the districts as paramount to maintaining these relationships."
The emails stated “School Resource Officers are only provided to a school district upon their request … The department will continue to utilize this program and other tools at its disposal to eradicate violent gangs such as MS-13 and ensure the safety of all students.”
Police said that “the department only inputs information that appears credible.”
Police believe “several” MS-13 members have attended Huntington High in recent years, according to the emails. Polansky did not respond to a question as to whether MS-13 members attend district schools.
Suffolk police supplied unredacted “documentation when requested on known MS-13 gang members” to the Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part, the email says. But after police learned “in late summer 2017” that the information was being used in civil proceedings, the department began reviewing and redacting such documentation, and required that a commanding officer sign off on any release to Homeland Security.
The Friday school district letter states that “While it would be simple to argue statements and context in numerous places within the article, it does not change the fact that the events, as presented, are beyond upsetting.”
ProPublica president Richard Tofel said in a prepared statement Saturday that “we’re very pleased that our story has apparently convinced the Huntington School District of the need to reform its procedures. With respect to the story, the school district has not indicated that there are any inaccuracies at all, and we are aware of none.”