Riverhead Central School District Board of Education Vice President Laurie...

Riverhead Central School District Board of Education Vice President Laurie Downs at a Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force panel discussion honoring Women's History Month at Riverhead Public Library on March 11. Credit: Morgan Campbell

A Riverhead school board member has apologized for comments she made saying that she was fearful of the district "becoming a Brentwood" because of Latino students and gang violence — remarks critics said stigmatize groups of people and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

“I sincerely apologize to the Brentwood community, the respective Latino communities of Brentwood and Riverhead and the Latino community as a whole,” Laurie Downs, vice president of the Riverhead school board, wrote in a statement Monday to Newsday.

“I did not mean harm, but unfortunately my words did just that,” the statement continued. “My statements were derogatory, and should never have been spoken. Violence has no color or community.”

Downs’ apology came the day after the District 1 Youth Advisory Board, a community group founded in 2022 to elevate youth voices from Brentwood, Central Islip and North Bay Shore, created an online petition to call on the school board member to retract her remarks. Downs made the comments March 18 at a Heart of Riverhead Civic Association meeting and in a follow-up interview with Denise Civiletti, editor and publisher of news website RiverheadLOCAL.

“I’m afraid,” Downs told Civiletti. “Look, we got a lot of Latino kids. We do have those gangs in our school. They haven’t started up yet. But if they do, as I said at the meeting, I don’t want us becoming a Brentwood,” Downs said, who added she was concerned about MS-13 gang violence.

In her statement Monday, Downs said she was speaking as a resident and not for the Riverhead Board of Education. She noted she has reached out to the Town of Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force and asked for guidance “to educate myself so I may expand my knowledge and grow.”

Joshua Chan, a Brentwood High School graduate who is the chair of District 1 Youth Advisory Board, said the earlier comments made last week left him angry and shaken.

“My heart hurt,” said Chan, 20, who attends the University at Albany. “It's really quite infuriating because I think it's misguided and mis-educated. And it comes from a place of misunderstanding of who we actually are.”

Chan said Monday he appreciated the apology after a Newsday reporter read him Downs’ statement.

“I think she does need to take steps further to educate herself going forward because not only she's spreading this information to her school and her community but the communities around it,” he said. “We have to end that stereotype for Brentwood.”

In a separate statement Monday, the other Riverhead school board members said Downs’ comments did not represent the board, its members or the school district.

“To attribute gang violence to one ethnic group is dangerous, discriminatory and marginalizes communities whose makeup is largely Latino,” according to the statement. “ … While we agree gang violence is an issue that needs to be addressed, in no way can it be used to denigrate or give credence to false and harmful stereotypes that inhibit our ability to move forward in positive and meaningful ways.”

The statement was issued by school board president Brian Connelly and board members Christopher Dorr, Virginia Healy, Colin Palmer, Matthew Wallace and Therese Zuhoski.

Alisha Arshad, 16, a Brentwood high school junior, said she hopes Downs will honor her commitment.

“I'm glad that she recognized her mistakes,” Arshad said. “I also hope that there's truth to her words that, as she said, she's willing to seek help.”

Andres Rodriguez, 15, from the same high school, said it all comes down to respect.

“I think that we have to think before we act,” the 10th-grader said. “We should all respect one another.”

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