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Uniondale students put focus on policing at forum

Uniondale High School students stage a die-in during

Uniondale High School students stage a die-in during a forum titled "Ferguson, Missouri & Uniondale, New York: Reflecting Upon The Outspoken & The Silent," at their school on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. Credit: Barry Sloan

Eighteen students, their lips sealed with duct tape, held their hands up shoulder-high as they walked into the little theater of Uniondale High School Wednesday morning.

They lay on the floor for four minutes in a gesture symbolizing the four hours that the body of teenager Michael Brown was left on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, after he was shot and killed in August by Police Officer Darren Wilson.

About 200 students watched in silence at the start of the two-hour school forum to discuss race and policing as part of their government and history classes. The "Policing in America" event was proposed by students, said social studies teacher Adeola Tella-Williams.

Students "know about the injustices, but they don't know which side to take . . . or if they should be on any side at all," she said, so the forum was a chance to think through those issues in a high school where 56 percent of students are black and 42 percent are Hispanic.

"We are not here today to disrespect the police," Tatiana Hollingsworth, a 12th-grader, told the crowd.

Jonathan Dossows, another senior who spoke to the crowd, explained: "We are doing this to let everyone know that black lives matter."

Juniors and seniors heard a panel of school staff and advocates who said tensions about police incidents in minority communities are not just remote occurrences in Ferguson and Staten Island, where Eric Garner died in July after he was put in an apparent chokehold by a New York City police officer. Students need to work toward change in their own neighborhoods, panelists said.

"They are learning skills now, how to voice their opinion in an organized and structured way," said Keith Saunders, the high school's academic services dean. "Understand, they get stopped by police, like everybody else, and they complain about getting stopped and some of them feel it's unjust why they get stopped."

Activist Sergio Argueta, a school social worker, told the students he is "extremely hopeful that change is possible" because "the solutions are right here in this room."

By going to school each morning, he said, "you are breaking that stereotype, that curse that you feel has been bestowed upon you."

Justin Williams, a teacher, told students of being "pulled over and stopped 20 times" by police when in his 20s "for no reason that I could determine other than I had darker skin."

He encouraged the students to learn their history to know "your ancestors did beautiful and powerful things" that they should consider a source of pride and inspiration.

John Sheik, an NYPD officer who graduated from Uniondale High School, cautioned the students to avoid escalating any dispute with police.

"All cops, we are not perfect," Sheik said. "Even if you don't agree with the officer when the officer stops you . . . I'm going to tell you this, please listen to him in the streets" instead of arguing. "I promise you will have your day in court."

A representative of the Nassau County Police Department was not part of the forum. Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki said later that his officers have worked to build strong community relations through meetings with civic associations, resource officers in the schools and the outreach of the agency's police youth academy, which has held events with Uniondale and other schools.

The students "are obviously impacted by the media coverage of the national scene and clearly there are issues of concern . . . that may not reside here in Nassau County," where he said the police are "a nonthreatening department that's not out there harassing them."

Students such as Dossows, who is black, see both sides of the issue.

He is only 17 but said he has been stopped twice by police while walking home -- once being told he fit the description of a robber and another time asked if he was selling drugs.

He felt "ashamed" by those encounters, he said, but it did not change his desire to take the test to become a Nassau police officer after he finishes high school.

"I hope I can make a difference," Dossows said. "I would help the community become better, because I wouldn't judge as much as other officers do."

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