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Civil rights groups seek details on immigrant students’ suspensions

Two civil rights advocacy groups filed wide-ranging information requests Tuesday with the Suffolk police department and the South Country school district regarding the enforcement actions and suspensions of Bellport High School students accused of engaging in gang-related behavior. The allegations resulted in lengthy school suspensions for several immigrant teenagers for wearing banned clothing or flashing hand signs linked to the MS-13 gang. The NYCLU and Suffolk Police commissioner spoke about the case on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. (Credit: News 12 Long Island)

Two civil rights advocacy groups filed wide-ranging information requests Tuesday with the Suffolk County Police Department and the South Country school district regarding enforcement actions against and the suspensions of Bellport High School students accused of engaging in gang-related behavior.

The allegations resulted in lengthy school suspensions for several immigrant teenagers for wearing banned clothing or flashing hand signs linked to the MS-13 gang.

Those accusations surfaced between April and June as several communities were reeling from brutal killings, which included two former Bellport High students among four young men whose bodies were found in a Central Islip park. Law enforcement officials have attributed those slayings to suspected MS-13 members.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and LatinoJustice PRLDEF, both Manhattan-based organizations with Long Island offices, want to know how the school district decided that the students it suspended were gang members and to what extent the Suffolk police department was involved in making those calls.

“A school district’s disciplinary policies and practices must comport with the law,” said Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice. “Students, their parents and guardians must have adequate notice of such rules and are entitled to equal nondiscriminatory application and enforcement of the same policies.”

The requests filed under New York’s Freedom of Information Law seek, among other details, records from the district on suspensions linked to gangs and from the Suffolk police “any gang list” maintained by the department and instructions on “how to identify gang membership or gang activity.”

Officials with the South Country system and Suffolk police did not comment Tuesday. Both institutions previously have defended their policies: The district said it was enforcing disciplinary rules, and Suffolk police denied having a say in school matters.

Three immigrant high school students — ages 15, 16 and 18 — spoke in June to Newsday under condition of anonymity to say that they were falsely accused of gang affiliation, either because they wore banned clothing with the insignia of the Chicago Bulls basketball team or because they threw hand signs resembling the “devil horns” symbol, linked to the MS-13 gang.

The teens, and their parents, are challenging their suspensions.

One of those students, 16, was apprehended last month at his Bellport home by federal agents and is being held at a federal detention facility in Virginia, possibly awaiting deportation. The advocacy groups said a fourth teen, who has not spoken publicly, also is in immigration detention over related allegations.

Advocates are concerned about the cooperation between schools and police hurting vulnerable immigrants.

“No one should be subjected to suspension on a whim, especially when it can lead to immigration officials tearing you away from your home,” said Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU’s executive director. “Children deserve to be able to go to school in a safe environment, without having to worry that a basketball jersey could mean deportation. We demand answers.”

The South Country district had said its rules provide for “a range of possible disciplinary responses” against gang-related behavior. A Suffolk police spokesman had said the department “provides information regarding possible indications of public-safety issues . . . to school districts” but does not tell them what to do.

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