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

Riverhead Central School District Board of Education Vice President Laurie Downs resigned Tuesday. Credit: Morgan Campbell

A Riverhead school board member, who faced backlash for saying she feared her district would become like Brentwood because of its large Latino population and gang violence, resigned Tuesday.

Laurie Downs, vice president of the Riverhead school board, said her resignation is effective immediately after her March 18 comments sparked rebuke within the education community.

“I think this is an important first step in bringing about the healing of the pain my words have caused,” Downs said in a statement. “I don't want my behavior to further distract the leadership of these school districts from providing quality education to all students.”

The resignation came a day after Downs apologized for her remarks made at the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association and to Denise Civiletti, editor and publisher of the 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 response to her comments, a community group representing youth from Brentwood, Central Islip and North Bay Shore started an online petition calling on her to rescind her remarks.

Other members of the Riverhead school board said Monday that Downs’ comments weren’t representative of the district, noting that: “To attribute gang violence to one ethnic group is dangerous, discriminatory and marginalizes communities whose makeup is largely Latino.”

Brentwood High School sophomore Andres Rodriguez said Tuesday her resignation was the correct move.

“Hopefully, the future has something better for her and to treat people with kindness and respect,” said Rodriguez, 15.

Alisha Arshad, a 16-year-old junior at Brentwood High School, said Downs’ comments were hurtful because they diminished many of the achievements of the student body.

Seeing Downs’ resign is a step in taking accountability for her actions, she said.

Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, a Latino advocacy group, said this is an opportunity for school boards across Long Island to look at how they are serving students of color including making sure that there is representation on boards, bilingual services and efforts to improve parental engagement.

"So now's the moment to assess," she said. “Now's the moment to not just put everything on this one woman."

Laura Harding, president of Long Island-based civil rights organization ERASE Racism, echoed those sentiments, saying she’s hearing growing concern about school board members who aren’t embracing the burgeoning diversity of the region.

“Deliberate actions are needed to assess student perceptions of school culture and its inclusiveness, diversify teaching staffs and district leadership to reflect the student body, and build and maintain positive relationships within and across lines of difference,” she added.

With Dandan Zou

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