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Public speaks out on role of school resource officer in Huntington district

The local community gives a standing ovation Monday

The local community gives a standing ovation Monday after the first speaker during a public session with the school board at Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School in Huntington Station. Photo Credit: Michael Owens

Emotions ran high at a packed Huntington school board meeting Monday  at which residents, administrators and board members spoke out about a New York Times article on the role of a school resource officer in the deportation of a Honduras native who attended the high school.

About 500 people crowded into Jack Abrams STEM Magnet Intermediate School, where the plight of a former student named Alex took center stage. He was arrested in 2017 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after  being questioned by a school resource officer and the school principal about alleged gang-related actions.

But Brenden Cusack, the principal, said Monday night that the Dec. 27 article was a misrepresentation of him and the school.

“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.”

Board member Xavier Palacios said, “What happened to Alex is an unfortunate series of events that resulted in unintended consequences. No one single person is to blame here, not the SRO and certainly not our school principal.”

Paul Caleca, dean of students at the high school, defended his colleague, saying Cusack is “one of the most outstanding, not only principals, but men that I have ever met.”

Superintendent James Polansky defended the school resource officer program that has been in the district for 15 years, adding that there were “many things that were upsetting” in the Times article. He said that the district had been portrayed “a place that I don’t really recognize. It’s not the school or the people in it that I have come to know in any way shape or form.”

According to the story, a school resource officer who worked for the police department told Alex the blue of  his shoes was the color of MS-13. Alex said the shoes had been a gift from his mother,  that "504" was "about being proud of your country," and the devil was the school mascot.

The teen 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.”

The teen, who was legally seeking asylum, was eventually deported to his native Honduras, the story said.

School resource officers collect tips and information and share it with their department, which can pass it on to immigration agents, according to the Times story.

Shortly after the story appeared, the district released a letter saying it was reviewing its relationship with the Suffolk County Police Department. Speakers at the meeting supported the idea of a more defined agreement with the department on the role of the school resource officer.

Diane Weaving, a resident with a group known as the Huntington School District Community, read part of a group statement saying the district should establish a memorandum of agreement that "must clearly delineate the relationship between school administrators and SROs."

She continued: "The SROs should not be requested to intervene in a situation that can be safely and appropriately handled by the school's code of conduct." Another group member, Lynn Geisler, said there should be no "school-to-deportation pipeline."

Susan Widerman Blog, another group member, said: “I ask this board and our community to get rid of Operation Matador, work to unite Alex with his family, close the detention centers and treat all people of color equally.”

No official from the Suffolk police department spoke during the public session. But in a prior email to Newsday, the department said it only provides a SRO if requested by the district and "we consider the wishes of the districts as paramount to maintaining these relationships." It said the officers are one of several tools to "eradicate violent gangs" such as MS-13.

Associated Teachers of Huntington president James Graber praised the longtime school resource officer, Andrew Fiorillo, saying he is “a fierce and vociferous advocate for all.”

The first name of Brenden Cusack, the principal of Huntington High School, was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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