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Long Islanders face consequences from inflammatory social media posts

Malverne Superintendent James Hunderfund said he was alerted

Malverne Superintendent James Hunderfund said he was alerted to a "distressing" social media post by a district employee calling for violence against New York City protesters. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Daniel Bubbeo, Denise M. Bonilla, Catherine Carrera, Daysi Calavia-Robertson, Roger Rubin and John Valenti. It was written by Carrera.

Long Islanders from across the region are facing consequences for posting inflammatory rhetoric on social media directed at protesters demonstrating against the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police.

A Malverne School District employee encouraged violence against protesters in New York City in a Facebook post. A real estate agent from Ronkonkoma who recorded himself on Snapchat threatening to shoot African Americans was fired, as was a chief executive of a North Amityville assisted living community who suggested running down protesters in Freeport in a Facebook post.

Students also were among those who allegedly posted derogatory remarks.

A local lacrosse player lost her college scholarship for allegedly making racially insensitive posts, while a Bay Shore High School student faced backlash from a Snapchat video of himself saying homophobic and racial slurs.

Social media users likely will continue to highlight racially insensitive posts and demand action from employers or schools, as discussions continue about "the experience of black people, particularly, police misconduct," said Alexis Hoag, lecturer in law at Columbia Law School.

"The First Amendment protects speech, but it doesn't prevent consequence," Hoag said. "The question becomes, would the entities that these people belong to want to be seen as supporting these types of views of racism, bigotry and violence?"

Schools also can limit speech of employees or students if it's disruptive to the educational process, promotes illegal activity, or is racist or offensive, Hoag said.

"These are all well-established Supreme Court cases that recognize and uphold the First Amendment, but balance it with the unique educational demands and needs of a public school," Hoag said. "These same legal concepts also enable private employers to fire an employee for inflammatory social media posts."

Social media is playing a key role in efforts to expose and fight racism in different areas of a community, from the police departments to schools, a local professor said.

“Social media fueled this movement — Black Lives Matter started as a hashtag on Twitter," said Zebulon Miletsky, professor of Africana Studies and history at Stony Brook University. "Screenshots and videos getting shared while calling out the racism that exists is part of the playbook of the modern day civil rights movement."

Jared Aversano, an agent from RE/MAX Eastern Properties in Ronkonkoma, posted a video on Twitter making threats while holding an assault rifle. The Suffolk County Police Department said it is investigating the threat.

The 14-second video, which since has been taken down, begins with Aversano, whose parents own the real estate office, stating: "My response to the looting and rioting that's going on … I wish a [N-word] would. I went out and spent $1,300 bucks on this [expletive, referring to the weapon]. Please, I want to use it."

RE/MAX said in a statement that Aversano was fired. "The video is contrary to our values and our stance against racism to say the least," RE/MAX said. The Long Island Board of Realtors said in a statement Friday that Aversano was expelled from the board's membership.

Aversano and his parents could not be reached for comment. But Rudy and Diane Aversano posted on the RE/MAX Eastern Properties Facebook page: "My husband and I are greatly troubled and personally hurt by the harmful words and actions of our son. The video he created is abhorrent and unacceptable." 

In Merrick, a retired Nassau County police officer, Edward Serrao, was captured on video saying the N-word. “I said we got [N-word] here now,” Serrao said in the video that was posted on Twitter. The user who posted the video said it was recorded in Merrick on Thursday.

The video "captured an unfortunate incident in which a former employee was disrespectful and antagonistic using a racial slur towards a protester," read a joint statement from Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder.

Serrao has been retired for two years, according to the statement.

"My 32 years of action should not be wiped out because my rage is just as strong as theirs," Serrao said Saturday, referring to the protesters. "My rage is about cops being betrayed as evil and about black people taking a license when stuff like this happens to go haywire."

Serrao said he does not apologize for what he said in the video. In a phone interview, he repeatedly used the N-word.

Paul Wasser, head of the nonprofit Dominican Village, an independent and assisted living community, was fired Thursday following a remark about protesters.

In a Facebook post featuring a photo of marchers in Freeport, Wasser allegedly commented that protesters should be physically harmed. Users began calling for his firing and for organizations to no longer rent hall space at Dominican Village. 

State, county and Babylon Town officials issued a joint statement seeking an apology from Wasser and his immediate termination.

“Sometimes you work with people but you don’t really know who they are,” said Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights), who said she and groups such as the NAACP hold regular events at the Dominican Village’s hall. 

Wasser, who declined to comment, was head of Dominican Village since 2015. He was placed on administrative leave, before the board of directors fired him.

The Sisters of St. Dominic, which established the 13-acre community in 1993, supported the decision. The National Center for Assisted Living and the New York State Center for Assisted Living also removed Wasser from their boards after learning about his comment.

Freeport restaurant owners Ivan Sayles and Jon Bracco also came under fire for allegedly criticizing protesters on social media, sparking a string of protests and a petition calling for the boycott of their grill and seafood restaurants on the Nautical Mile.

Sayles, who owns Nawlins Seafood Company and co-owns Rachel's Waterside Grill with Richard Venticinque, said he stood by his words. "The whole thing has been blown out of proportion," Sayles said. 

Bracco, who operates Bracco's Clam Bar and Captain Ben's, wrote an apology on his business Instagram account. "I'm very sorry for the hurt I've caused," he said in the post.

In Elmont, the Broadhollow Theatre Company faced fallout over a Facebook post that the company argued was a result of being hacked. The 18 cast members of the musical "Curtains" resigned from the show.

In local schools, Malverne Superintendent James Hunderfund said he was alerted to a "distressing" social media post by a district employee calling for violence against New York City protesters. The district did not name the employee. The post suggested physical harm to protesters in New York City. 

"The Board of Education and administration take this matter very seriously and it is under investigation and being addressed through the legal process," Hunderfund said. 

A recording of the Bay Shore student making derogatory remarks on Snapchat was shared on Twitter on Tuesday and garnered hundreds of shares.

"We are aware of a video that has been circulating on social media showing a young person using inappropriate and, quite frankly, offensive language," Superintendent Joseph Bond said. 

Bond declined to say if the student was disciplined, citing privacy laws. The student's father told Newsday that his son apologized for the video, which was originally made three months ago.

Marquette University said it has pulled offers of acceptance and an athletic scholarship from a first-year student because of several offensive posts, including one pertaining to Floyd's death. The student is a high school senior from Long Island who plays girls lacrosse, according to a source close to the situation.

Miletsky, the Africana studies and history professor at Stony Brook, said the social media posts can help continue a dialogue about how to address systemic racism in the country.

"What it all comes down to in the Long Island of today and the America of today is we all have to face and confront these things together," Miletsky said. "This is the society that we’ve inherited, and it’s up to us to change it."

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