Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday that 10 state troopers will immediately be deployed to 10 of the “highest-risk” schools in Suffolk County to stop gangs from recruiting students.
Marking the anniversary of the slayings of Brentwood teens Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, by MS-13 members, Cuomo said the Gang Prevention Unit would educate teachers on how to identify early signs of gang activity and serve as a resource for students and parents seeking help.
“In this multipronged attack, the breeding ground is the school. And it’s back-to-school time and schools are where a lot of these gangs actually operate. That’s where they recruit, that’s where they intimidate, that’s where they meet,” Cuomo said at Central Islip High School’s auditorium with a dozen local police, elected and school officials on hand.
“I want MS-13 to know the pressure is not going to ease. The pressure and the resources are going to grow,” Cuomo said.
Police have attributed 17 slayings to the gang — Cuomo called them “domestic terrorists” — in Suffolk since Jan. 1, 2016.
The officers will be deployed at the schools in six school districts, all in Suffolk County, that have the “highest incidents of gang-related activity,” he said.
The 10 schools are: Brentwood High School, the Freshman Center and West Middle School, all in the Brentwood district; Central Islip High School and Ralph G. Reed Middle School, both in the Central Islip district; Huntington High School in the Huntington district; Longwood Senior High School and Longwood Junior High School, both in the Longwood district; Bellport High School in the South Country district; and Wyandanch Memorial High School in the Wyandanch district.
Immigration advocates condemned Cuomo’s announcement, saying it will increase fears of deportations under President Donald Trump’s administration.
A statement from Make the Road New York, a nonprofit advocacy group, called it “Cuomo’s new deportation force.”
“We are disheartened to hear the Governor has decided to implement a School to Deportation Pipeline that will ultimately make all youth and communities less safe,” Rahsmia Zatar, executive director of STRONG YOUTH, a gang violence prevention group based in Uniondale, said in a statement. “The governor is inciting a war against gangs that can only lead to further marginalizing our vulnerable youth, making them prime targets for recruitment.”
Civil libertarians also raised concerns.
“This deployment must not result in teachers being pressured to view students with needless suspicion or result in greater law enforcement involvement in school discipline,” said Irma Solis, chapter director of the NYCLU in Suffolk County, which is advocating for immigrant high school students who say they were falsely accused of gang affiliations. “Flimsy allegations of gang involvement by Suffolk County schools and police have led to kids being detained and placed at risk of deportation without investigation. Kids deserve a fairer shake than that.”
Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer said the state does not inquire about immigration status. “The central goal of this educational and outreach initiative is to protect our students from gang violence and stop recruitment efforts before they start, period.”
Many school officials welcomed the additional law enforcement resources, though others worried it exaggerates the gang problems in their schools.
Mary Jones, superintendent of Wyandanch schools, told Newsday that the trooper would add to the district’s existing programs that deal with student conduct.
She said incidents of school gang activity, while they exist, are “not on a very large scale. At any rate, we welcome the governor’s assistance, because we need prevention. We can’t wait until the problem becomes intense before we address it.”
Central Islip schools Superintendent Howard M. Koenig said the additional help would supplement the Suffolk police officer already assigned to the school, one of 19 “school resource officers” that the department deploys at schools throughout the county.
The state trooper would be “another set of hands, another mouth available to talk to my students and my staff,” Koenig said after the news conference.
Jim Polansky, superintendent of the 4,600-student Huntington district, who was not able to attend, said he was open to programs that would benefit the schools but was looking for more details.
“While we can all acknowledge that there have been incidents in communities, this insinuates a problem at our high school that doesn’t exist. And I would invite anyone with interest in our high school to confirm that for themselves,” he said.
Fashouer, in response, said the schools were selected based on intelligence from multiple law enforcement agencies. The program is meant to “stop the spread of gang violence before it starts,” she said in a statement. “These schools are not the target, but our students are — and we look forward to working with all Suffolk superintendents to combat this senseless violence.”
In April, Cuomo expanded state patrols in Brentwood and Central Islip with an additional 25 state troopers and added six investigators to the Long Island Gang Task Force.
Since the killings of Cuevas and Mickens, Suffolk police have made 270 arrests of 190 suspected MS-13 gang members since Sept. 13, 2016, according to Assistant Police Commissioner Justin Meyers.
More than a half-dozen members of MS-13 were indicted in the slayings of the two, officials said.
Additionally, Suffolk police have detained more than 75 individuals it says are “confirmed” MS-13 gang members in the United States illegally, and those individuals have been placed into deportation proceedings, Meyers said.
Cuomo was joined Wednesday by local and state officials, including Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood).
Cuevas’ mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, attended the news conference and told reporters afterward that she likes the idea of the officers in schools.
“It’s long-term. It’s a long road ahead,” she said.
Cuomo and Flanagan said they will introduce a comprehensive package of legislation to address MS-13 when state lawmakers meet in January. Ramos thanked Cuomo for the approach. “We can’t arrest our way out of it,” Ramos said.
Bellone said the Suffolk Police Department “cannot meet this challenge alone.”
“We need to undermine MS-13’s ability to target and recruit our kids,” he said.
With John Hildebrand and Víctor Manuel Ramos
State troopers in LI schools
Schools that will get state troopers in an effort to stem gang violence are:
Brentwood school district
Brentwood High School
West Middle School
Central Islip school district
Central Islip High School
Ralph G. Reed Middle School
Huntington school district
Huntington High School
Longwood school district
Longwood Senior High School
Longwood Junior High School
South Country school district
Bellport High School
Wyandanch school district
Wyandanch Memorial High School
Source: Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo