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Immigration case heightens concern about school officers

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart says the program that puts police in schools is "a huge, huge part of our bridge-building with our communities" and should expand.

Hundreds of community members turned out at a

Hundreds of community members turned out at a Huntington school board meeting on Monday night at Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School in Huntington Station, where many raised questions about a former Huntington High School student who was detained and later deported to Honduras. Photo Credit: Michael Owens

A program that puts police officers in schools is intended to strengthen ties with students, staff and their communities while allaying security concerns.

But the reach of school resource officers, as they are called, has become the focus of heightened concerns, particularly in Suffolk County, as published reports indicate that information-sharing about alleged gang affiliation has put some immigrant students on the road to deportation.

Amid backlash caused by the 2017 detention and 2018 deportation to Honduras of a former student at Huntington High School, the Suffolk County Police Department on Tuesday defended the role those officers play in safeguarding schools, improving community relations and helping students.

In the view of Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, the program needs to continue and grow.

“I can say unequivocally that our school resource officer program is a huge, huge part of our bridge-building with our communities,” Hart said.

She said the characterization of those officers as information-gatherers for immigration enforcement is “an extraordinary misrepresentation.” They are in the schools, she added, to address myriad issues and foster a safe environment for all students.

A Dec. 27 story in The New York Times Magazine, published in collaboration with ProPublica, reported that the 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 in school 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."

The Huntington case resulted from “substantiated information” that was considered by an immigration judge and reaffirmed on appeal, Hart said. “It was not any doodle, or any mascot drawing . . . that led to the deportation,” she said.

The commissioner plans to meet “in the near future” with superintendents from throughout the county to discuss the program as educators wrestle with the matter. The Nassau County Police Department also employs school resource officers, but its program has not attracted as much scrutiny for immigration cases.

Several hundred school district residents attended a Monday night meeting in Huntington, with many pressing for specific guidelines to limit the program’s scope. Dozens more raised questions at a Suffolk police Second Precinct meeting Tuesday morning.

Immigrant activists have been complaining about the dangers of entanglement of law enforcement and schools since the summer of 2017, soon after the launch of Operation Matador — an initiative of the federal Homeland Security Investigations, which operates under ICE to pursue gang members for removal from the country. The push followed a burst of violence by alleged members of the MS-13 gang, but advocates contend immigrant teens were wrongly accused of gang ties.

“They’re basically targeting Latino immigrant students,” said Osman Canales, a community organizer with the Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates. “The schools need rules, procedures and limits on their relations with the police and what information is being stored. It’s not only in Huntington.”

Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, also has called for strict limits to officers’ information-gathering and for “restricting the sharing of information directly or indirectly with immigration enforcement.”

Despite those concerns, school resource officers have been touted as a vital link between police and schools on Long Island, especially with reassessment of response to threats following the February 2018 school shooting that killed 17 students and staff in Parkland, Florida.

“We found tremendous benefit in the training and experience those officers have . . . and we feel not only that the continuation, but the extension of the program is essential,” said Elwood schools Superintendent Kenneth Bossert, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

The concerns of immigrant students are on the minds of educators as well, he said.

Bossert stated that “information-sharing should only take place as pertinent to maintaining the safety, health and welfare of students, faculty and staff,” He added: “I don’t believe a student’s citizenship or immigration status is a definition of a safety concern.”

In February 2017, the state attorney general and the state Education Department reminded school districts of their duty to educate all children meeting age and residency requirements and to protect their privacy, regardless of immigration status. The joint memorandum, citing federal and state law, reaffirmed “that our schools will remain safe havens where all students can learn.” That guidance remains in force.

Hart said procedures for school resource officers were tightened in September 2017 so that any intelligence gathered “will be reviewed by a second set of eyes” — a commanding officer in the Homeland Security section of the department — before a decision to share it is made.

She said the volume of the school officers' intelligence-gathering may have been overstated. The department has 14 school resource officers assigned to precincts and seven assigned to headquarters, and they have a presence in 46 Suffolk school districts, she said. Each officer accounts for 10 to 12 such intelligence debriefs over the year, out of more than 20,000 collected by the department in 2018.

“A minuscule piece of an school resource officer’s job is to collect intelligence,” Hart said. They’re busy countering opioid addiction, preparing schools to respond to emergencies and helping students who need to report crimes.

Nassau police didn’t specify the size of the county's program, but Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, a spokesman, said they are building relationships with students, not reporting them to immigration authorities. “In no way would the police department contact [Homeland Security Investigations] to report any activity in the schools as we would not want to place the school in a position that would compromise their relationship with their students or community,” LeBrun said.

There are as many as 15,000 school resource officers nationwide and the concept dates to the 1950s, said Baltimore County Police Officer Don Bridges, immediate past president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, based in Hoover, Alabama. Suffolk has had its program since January 1998.

The ideal model is when a school resource officer works collaboratively with the school administration, he said, but they are sworn officers who uphold the law.

If an officer has a valid cause to suspect gang activity or “any type of activity that jeopardizes the safety and security, then he has taken an oath and then he has to ensure the safety of . . . the entire community across the board,” Bridges said. “What I would never want to do is give someone that label if it is something they are not involved in.”

With Nicole Fuller, David Olson and Sandra Peddie

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