Bella Moscato couldn’t believe it when she saw the thick manila envelope addressed to her from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Lake Ronkonkoma sixth grader tore open the envelope to find a care package from the White House and a personal letter from President Donald Trump.
Last month, Bella, an 11-year-old at Samoset Middle School, picked the nation's 45th president as her hero for a class assignment. Then Bella says her English teacher instructed her to pick another hero, or one already chosen by another classmate, citing the president's behavior toward women. Sachem School District disputes Bella’s account.
Bella, who has admired Trump for years — she dressed up as the Queens businessman for a third grade project — said the letter from the president elevated her spirits.
“I was so happy that the president of the United States recognized me and sent me a letter,” said Bella, who has received words of encouragement from as far away as Australia. “I was so happy. I just can't believe it. It's so exciting for me.”
Trump's three paragraph typed letter thanked Bella for selecting him as her hero and credited her for standing up for herself.
“Everyone deserves to receive the same care and respect we give to ourselves,” the letter reads. “I encourage you to always be yourself and keep making your voice heard. There is no one else like you and our country’s bright future relies upon your leadership.”
The package also included pencils, pens, a ruler and a White House activity book.
Family members said Bella's father, Arthur Moscato, also received a phone call from the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., offering words of support.
In March, Bella's English teacher asked students to write about their heroes. Bella chose Trump for his policies on the economy but she says the teacher vetoed the idea in front of other students, telling her that the president “spreads negativity and says bad stuff about women.”
Bella told her mother, Valerie Moscato, who complained directly to the teacher about attempts to "indoctrinate" her daughter. The teacher, she said, did not deny Bella's account but attempted to defend her decision, citing lewd comments Trump made in 2005 to an "Access Hollywood" host that were reported during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I don’t care what my president did 20, 30, 40 years ago,” she said. “I care what he’s doing now as president,” Valerie Moscato said.
Moscato, who called the teacher’s actions “disheartening and disgusting,” then brought her concerns to the school district and Sachem School District Superintendent Kenneth Graham. Arthur Moscato also publicly criticized Graham at a Sachem school board meeting earlier this month.
“This is censoring of a child and shutting down her First Amendment rights,” said Valerie Moscato, 50, who wants the district to discipline the teacher. “It's not about left or right. It’s about right and wrong.”
Efforts to reach the teacher were not successful.
Graham initially called Bella’s account “inaccurate.” After the controversy erupted, he issued a follow-up statement.
"I wish to make it clear that the district does not endorse or condone any limitation or prohibition upon a student’s choice of the President of the United States of America as the subject of his or her 'Hero' report," Graham wrote. "We certainly regret that any student or parent may have been made to feel otherwise. As a district, we value and respect the rights of our students to speak their minds, and to express their views and opinions."
A school district spokeswoman said it stands by Graham's initial statement.
The controversy is the second in Suffolk involving a Trump supporter this month.
Earlier this month, a groundskeeper at Suffolk County Community College said the school infringed on his right to free speech by forbidding him to wear a Make America Great Again cap at his job at the Selden campus. The college said the MAGA hats, or caps of any kind, are not part of the groundskeeper uniform.
Bella, an aspiring actress who loves to cook and play soccer, ended up writing about Trump for her assignment and expects to receive a grade when she returns from spring break next week.
She said she's disappointed that the school district discounted her story and failed to provide her with support. "I never expected this," Bella said. "I thought the school district would have my back. That's not right."