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In Oceanside tragedy, students did try to help

Oceanside High School on Wednesday.

Oceanside High School on Wednesday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

As the superintendent of the Oceanside school district, I’m compelled to speak out about the disturbing narrative portrayed in the media about an attack that led to the death of one of our students. Oceanside is devastated by Khaseen Morris’ death, and our hearts go out to his family and friends. Many of our young people, especially his friends and those who witnessed the brutal attack, are traumatized. 

Contrary to many headlines reporting that bystanders recorded video yet did not help, many of the teenagers present tried to render assistance. A store worker who was interviewed for one story said that some of the teenagers asked him to call 911. It was reported by some outlets that some witnesses asked store owners for paper towels and attempted to stanch  Khaseen’s wounds. A teenager reportedly ran to a nearby firehouse for help because 911 was backed up with calls and put him on hold. 

The assertion that no one helped unfairly paints the young people who were there and did help in a horrible light. When Nassau County police held a news conference to announce the first arrest in this case, the department asked for video of the attack. It’s not the first time police appealed for that type of evidence. Witnesses who were recording video may very well have been trying to help.

Our administrators and faculty have marshaled district resources to protect and comfort students. We hope to learn more about the details so we can inform our community and hopefully prevent such a tragedy from happening again. For now, we are all reeling. Our instinct as educators is to keep our community’s children safe, physically and emotionally. 

We might never have an accurate account of this awful incident because memory is fallible in the face of fast-moving and frightening circumstances. It will take time for the police to interview all witnesses and piece together as much of the story as possible. By that time, media attention may have waned,  but the stain on our young people and this community may remain. As an educator, an advocate for children and a representative of our school community, I will not stand for that. The implication that a rapidly unfolding and terrifying situation that would challenge adults should have been something that groups of teenagers on their way home from school could prevent is not reasonable. It’s an unforgiving and damaging presumption. We simply do not know the entire story and should not rush to judgment.

Our students are not perfect. We have many hardworking, kind and responsible young people in Oceanside. As in any community, there are some young people who don’t make wise decisions. On the whole, our students raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity, organize drives to donate thousands of pounds of food during the holidays, serve as Best Buddies to peers with special needs, and rally around peers and families in times of struggle. Oceanside is a close-knit community where kindness in tough times is the rule rather than the exception.

In the weeks and months ahead, I know that our students will support Khaseen’s family and one another. We will find a way as a community to heal from this senseless tragedy and to properly honor the memory of a young person who did not deserve his terrible fate. Khaseen deserves far better than to be the face of an incomplete narrative about his friends and fellow students.

Phyllis S. Harrington is superintendent of the Oceanside school district.