Times of Huntington-Northport

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivers his State of the County address May 24 at Newfield High School in Selden. Photo by Alex Petroski

By David Luces

Suffolk County has been working towards reducing inmate populations through programs to give people who have been incarcerated a new lease on life.

On Jan. 2 county officials announced the completion of the Suffolk Fresh Start program which has helped assist more than 100 formerly incarcerated individuals find employment after their release.

Over the past two years, after applying and receiving a $489,901 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Suffolk County Department of Labor has administered Suffolk’s Fresh Start program with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office and Eastern Suffolk BOCES. Its main goal was to try and provide employable skills and vocational training to incarcerated individuals.

‘Having gainful employment is one of the factors that can reduce recidivism.’

— Errol Toulon

Bellone said in a press release Suffolk County has created a successful criminal justice model to reduce recidivism and protect taxpayers. 

“This program is giving people a second chance to become productive members of society, strengthening families and saving Suffolk taxpayers millions,” he said.

Over 350 individuals were enrolled in the Fresh Start program where they were given resources and training to address any possible barriers to employment. They were also registered with the county’s One-Stop Employment Center in Hauppauge.  

The One-Stop Employment Center supplies job seeking individuals with the tools necessary for a self-directed or staff-assisted job search. There they can receive help with creating or editing their resume, navigate the Internet for potential jobs and be interviewed by prospective employers on-site. 

“The program has changed people’s lives,” said Suffolk County spokesperson Derek Poppe. 

Since 1999, New York State’s prison population has declined by 35 percent, according to a report from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision released Jan. 1. The reports said since 2011, the state has eliminated 5,500 prison beds and closed a total of 13 corrections facilities. The number of male inmates in maximum and medium security prisons has been reduced from 24,151 in 2009 to 20,173 in 2019.

Suffolk County has two jail facilities. One is the Riverhead facility which can hold 529 inmates in maximum security cells and 240 in medium security cells, according to a 2008 Suffolk County report. The facilities in Yaphank include a minimum-security jail that has cell space for 504 inmates, and a DWI Alternative facility that holds 54 inmates. 

Since 2010 the jail population in Suffolk County has decreased drastically. Newsday’s data on Long Island’s jail population has dropped from 1,609 in 2010 to 1,157 in 2016. Most of these has been a decrease in inmates at the Riverhead facility.

Poppe said Bellone was against the construction of a new jail facility, and programs like Fresh Start work to keep them from committing further crimes. 

“Many of these individuals were able to find work in the construction, manufacture and telemarketing field,” the Bellone spokesperson said. 

Even though the grant from the Department of the Labor expired in December 2018, Poppe said there are plans in place to continue the programs through internal county funds and possibly funds from the federal government. 

‘This program is giving people a second chance to become productive members of society, strengthening families and saving Suffolk taxpayers millions.’

— Steve Bellone

The number of people in jail in Suffolk County is strained by a lack of corrections officers in both Riverhead and Yaphank. Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. told TBR News Media in July 2018 the county was dealing with a large amount of correction officer vacancies, saying at the time there were 76 positions left unfilled with 30 new officers being added as early as August that same year. 

The sheriff said in a press release that Fresh Start gives county inmates opportunity and hope following incarceration. 

“Having gainful employment is one of the factors that can reduce recidivism, and we are fortunate to have Department of Labor staff working with us to improve outcomes for those transitioning from jail to our communities,” Toulon said. 

By repurposing existing internal funds Poppe said the county plans on having Department of Labor staffers work in conjunction with the Yaphank Correctional Facility in the future, adding “We want to continue to run this successful program.”

From left, Ramon Arevalo Lopez, Oscar Canales Molina, and Nobeli Montes Zuniga. Photos from SCDA.

Three men arrested for allegedly stabbing a Huntington High School student last week are known MS-13 gang members, who entered the country illegally and are Huntington High School students, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D).

Ramon Arevalo Lopez, 19; Oscar Canales Molina, 17; and Nobeli Montes Zuniga, 20, were arrested by Suffolk County police Jan. 9 shortly after a 16-year-old male was stabbed during a large fight behind Burger King, located on New York Avenue in Huntington Station. Each of the defendants is charged with one count of second-degree assault, a class D felony.

“While it is unclear what the groups were fighting about, one thing is clear: everyone arrested are confirmed members of MS-13.”

— Geraldine Hart

“While it is unclear what the groups were fighting about, one thing is clear: everyone arrested are confirmed members of MS-13,” Geraldine Hart, Suffolk County police commissioner said. “This incident is a reminder of the gang’s violent ways.”

Suffolk county police officers responded to a 911 call reporting a large fight involving approximately 15 high school-aged students in the rear parking lot of Burger King at approximately 3:30 p.m.

Sini said a group of Huntington High School students went to the fast-food restaurant after school let out and saw six Hispanic males staring at them in a ‘menacing way.’ The teens reportedly felt uncomfortable and left the store but were followed by the group of men that included the defendants. The group allegedly charged and attacked the students while wielding bats and knives, according to Sini, stabbing one teen through the back and injuring a second individual.

The 16-year-old male, whose identity was not released by police, was transported to Good Samaritan Hospital where he was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

Witnesses reported allegedly seeing the three defendants fleeing the scene in a black 2007 Toyota Scion with a large rear spoiler. Officers Guido, Indelicato and Rodriguez located a matching vehicle nearby shortly afterwards, according to Hart, that contained Lopez, Canales Molina and Zuniga.

The three defendants had blood on their clothing and hands, as well as the vehicle, according to police. Sini said Arevalo Lopez made an admission to the arresting officers that he stabbed the teen, while Canales Molina and Montes Zuniga both allegedly admitted to police they were involved in the fight. Canales Molina had two knives on him at the time of his arrest, including a small one covered in blood found concealed in his boot, according the district attorney. Each of the three defendants have been previously confirmed as MS-13 members by Suffolk County Police Department, according to Sini, and had records in the county’s gang database.

“Just because [Lopez]’s been ‘confirmed’ as a member in an ill-conceived Suffolk County Police Department database isn’t proof of anything. He is innocent of the charges that have been leveled against him.”

—Jason Bassett

“What we know about MS-13 is that they use violence to — in their minds — ensure that they are given respect,” he said. “Certainly, this type of incident fits within the modus operandi of MS-13, which is essentially random and seemingly senseless acts of violence.

Lopez’s attorney, Jason Bassett of Hauppauge, strongly refuted all charges and district attorney’s allegations that his client is or has been involved in gang activity.

“[Lopez] is not an MS-13 gang member,” Bassett said. “Just because he’s been ‘confirmed’ as a member in an ill-conceived Suffolk County Police Department database isn’t proof of anything. He is innocent of the charges that have been leveled against him.”

Montes Zuniga’s defense attorney, Morley Castaneda, declined to give any statement regarding the incident or his possible gang affiliation. Canales Molina’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

All three defendants were arraigned Jan. 10 in Central Islip court before Suffolk County Judge Gaetan Lozito who set bai for each at $35,000 cash or $75,000 bond. No one had posted bail as of Jan. 15.

The incident occurred two days after hundreds of concerned citizens attended Huntington school district’s board of education meeting to address concerns about a New York Times Magazine piece that chronicled the story of an immigrant teen, Alex, who was accused of being associated with MS-13 in some part based on his interactions with the school resource officer and, as a result, deported in July 2018.

Sini said all three defendants are currently enrolled as students at Huntington High School after having allegedly entered the country illegally. The district attorney said his records show Canales Molina was detained by U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement in July 2017 and released from custody by a federal judge in November 2017. Similarly, Lopez was detained by ICE in October 2017, and was released from custody by a federal judge in June 2018.

“Even though we’ve had a lot of success the last couple of years in combating MS-13, it’s important that we remain vigilant.”

— Tim Sini

Huntington Superintendent James Polansky requested additional police presence at the high school the day following the stabbing, according to the police commissioner, and additional officers and resources will be provided as necessary.

Despite this incident and recent media attention, Sini said he remains optimistic about the county’s efforts to crackdown on MS-13 is paying off.

“That’s why you see historic crime reduction in Suffolk County, that’s why you see MS-13 incidents are down significantly when compared to 2015-16,” the district attorney said. “Even though we’ve had a lot of success the last couple of years in combating MS-13, it’s important that we remain vigilant.”

The police investigation into the incident is ongoing and there is the possibility of additional charges being added, according to Sini. The case is being prosecuted by the Enhanced Prosecution Bureau’s Gang Unit.

By Bill Landon

Harborfields boys basketball team took an early lead and never looked back besting Rocky Point, 65-45, at the Tornadoes’ home  Jan. 10.

Harborfields senior forward Mike McDermott had the hot hand for the Tornadoes netting seven field goals and a pair of free throws to lead his team in scoring with 16 points. Tornadoes senior forward Joey Mitchell followed with a field goal, a pair of treys and 5 points from the line for 13 points while guard Jordan Robinson banked 10 points.

Rocky Point junior John Henry Dyroff led scoring for the Eagles with a pair of field goals, a triple and swished 7 from the charity stripe netting a total of 14 points.  Eagles junior Gavin DaVanzo sank 3 field goals and 2 triples to put up 12 points.

Both teams retake the court Jan. 15 with the Tornadoes traveling to take on West Babylon and the Eagles at home against Half Hollow Hills West. Both games tip-off at 5:45 p.m.

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By Bill Landon

The Lady Tigers made short work of visiting Lindenhurst in a League II matchup winning, 66-34, Jan. 7.

Northport girls varsity basketball team broke out to a double-digit lead early in the opening quarter and never looked back. Junior guard Danielle Pavinelli led the way for Northport banking seven field goals and two free throws for a total of 16 points. Co-captain senior Hannah Stockman nailed three triples and a pair of field goals netting 13 points, followed by junior guard Kelly McLaughlin who hit four field goals along with one from the charity strip for nine points.

With the win Northport improves to 4-1 in league (7-2 overall). The Lady Tigers will compete next at home against Smithtown West Bulls Jan. 11 at 6 p.m.

Northport resident Jim Gaughran celebrated two milestones in his hometown this past weekend.

Gaughran was sworn in as New York State senator representing the 5th District at the John W. Engeman Theater Jan. 6, the day after his birthday. He will be one of six Democrats who travel to Albany to represent Long Island’s interest in the state Senate as it kicks off its 2019 session.

“I am humble and honored to represent our district in the state Senate,” Gaughran said. “I am excited for the opportunity to help end the dysfunction in Albany and finally pass critical legislation that New Yorkers have been demanding.”

The newly elected senator upset longtime incumbent Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) in November winning by more than 12,000 votes, according to New York State Board of Elections. While this is Gaughran’s first state office, he is no stranger to politics.

“Jim has been a leader here in this town, county and on Long Island for decades now,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said. “He was a pioneer in Democratic politics when he was the youngest town board member elected in Huntington in 1983.”

The attorney has previous served terms as a Huntington Town councilman and in Suffolk County Legislature. He focused on ethic reforms, campaign finance, criminal justice and public safety issues while serving Suffolk, according to Bellone, in the 1980s and early ’90s. Gaughran has been serving as the chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority.

“Jim has got the experience, he’s got the intelligence and he’s got the disposition to be a fantastic senator,” Nassau County Executive Laura Curran (D) said.

‘You will see a state government that will deliver more for Long Island than New York City has ever delivered for Long Island.’

— Andrew Cuomo

As Gaughran takes office, he will serve as chair of the Senate Local Government Committee. As representative of the 5th District, he will have to juggle representing the interests of constituents in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, covering the North Shore from Glen Cove to Commack.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) administered the oath of office to Gaughran as he stood alongside his wife, Carol, and son, Michael.

Cuomo, who said he’s known Gaughran for more than 30 years, assured those attending the swearing-in ceremony that their new representative will stand strong and not be pushed around by his Democratic colleagues from New York City.

“You are going to have the strongest delegation you will ever have,” the governor said. “You will see a state government that will deliver more for Long Island than New York City has ever delivered for Long Island.”

As the Legislature convenes Jan. 9, Cuomo said top priorities on his agenda will including passing the Reproductive Health Act to ensure women’s health care rights, legislation to create early voting in New York, campaign finance reform, more funding for environmental protection, and increasing government transparency through the Freedom of Information Act for state government
and Legislature.

Gaughran said he supports the governor’s initiatives and hopes to focus on criminal justice reform, ensuring health care for all and improving the performance of the Long Island Rail Road.

He made a specific promise to Dix Hills residents Linda Beigel Schulman and Michael Schulman, whose son, Scott Beigel, was killed in the Parkland, Florida high school shooting.

“I want to tell Linda and Michael, in honor of Scott, if we get nothing else done, we’re going to pass the red flag law,” Gaughran said, drowned out by thunderous applause. “Never again, never again.”

The proposed red flag bill would increase gun control by permitting police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to others or themselves.

Jason Sheltzer. Photo by ©Gina Motisi, 2018/CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

A diagnosis of cancer brings uncertainty and anxiety, as a patient and his or her family confront a new reality. But not all cancers are the same and not all patients are the same, making it difficult to know the severity of the disease.

As doctors increasingly focus on individual patient care, researchers are looking to use a wealth of information available through new technology to assist with everything from determining cancer risks, to making early diagnoses, to providing treatment and aftercare.

Jason Sheltzer, a fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and his partner Joan Smith, a senior software engineer at Google, have sought to use the genetic fingerprints of cancer to determine the likely course of the disease.

By looking at genes from 20,000 cancer patients, Sheltzer and Smith found that a phenomenon called copy number variation, in which genes add copies of specific long or short sequences, is often a good indicator of the aggressiveness of the cancer. Those cancers that have higher copy number variation are also likely to be the most aggressive. They recently published their research in the journal eLife.

While the investigation, which involved work over the course of four years, is in a preliminary stage, this kind of prognostic biomarker could offer doctors and patients more information from which to make decisions about treatment. It could also provide a better understanding of the course of a disease, as copy number variation changes as cancer progresses.

“The main finding is simply that copy number variation is a much more potent prognostic biomarker than people had realized,” Sheltzer said. “It appears to be more informative than mutations in most single genes.”

Additionally, despite having data from those thousands of patients, Sheltzer and Smith don’t yet know if there’s a tipping point, beyond which a cancer reaches a critical threshold.

Some copy number changes also were more problematic than others. “Our analysis suggested that copy number alterations affecting a few key oncogenes and tumor suppressors seemed to be particularly bad news for patient prognosis,” Sheltzer said, adding that they weren’t able to do a clinical follow-up to determine how genes changed as the cancer progressed. 

“Hopefully, we can follow up this study, where we can do a longitudinal analysis,” he said.

Joan Smith. Photo by Seo-young Silvia Kim

Smith, who has written computer code for Twitter, Oracle and now Google, wrote code that’s specific to this project. “The analysis we’ve done here is new and is on a much more significant scale than the analysis we did in the past,” she said.

Within the paper, Smith was able to reuse parts of code that were necessary for different related experiments. Some of the reusable code cleaned up the data and provided a useful format, while some of the code searched for genetic patterns.

“There is considerable refinement that went into writing this code, and into writing code in general,” she explained in an email.

Smith has a full-time job at Google, where she has to clear any work she does with Sheltzer with the search engine. Before publication, she sent the paper to Google for approval. She works with Sheltzer “on her personal time,” and her efforts have “nothing to do with Google or Google Tools.”

The search engine company “tends to be supportive of employees doing interesting and valuable external work, as long as it doesn’t make use of any Google confidential information or Google owned resources,” including equipment supplies or facilities, she explained in an email.

The phenomenon of copy number variation occurs frequently in people in somatic cells, including those who aren’t battling a deadly disease Sheltzer said. “People in general harbor a lot of normal copy number variation,” he added.

Indeed, other types of repetitive changes in the genome have played a role in various conditions.

Some copy number variations, coupled with deletions, can be especially problematic. A tumor suppressor gene called P53, which is widely studied in research labs around the world, can accumulate copy number variations.

“Patients who have deletions in P53 tend to accumulate more copy number alterations than patients who don’t,” Sheltzer said. “A surprising result from our paper is that copy number variation goes above and beyond P53 mutations. You can control for P53 status and still find copy number variations that act as significant prognostic biomarkers.”

The copy number variations Sheltzer and Smith were examining were affecting whole genes, of about 10,000 bases or longer.

“We think that is because cancers are Darwinian,” explained Sheltzer. “The cells are competing against one another to grow the fastest and be the most aggressive. If a cancer amplifies one potent oncogene, it’s good for the cancer. If the cancer amplifies 200 others, it conveys a fitness penalty in the context of cancer.”

Smith is incredibly pleased to have the opportunity to contribute her informatics expertise to Sheltzer’s research, bringing together skill sets that are becoming increasingly important to link as technology makes it possible to accumulate a wealth of data in a much shorter term and at considerably lower expense.

Smith has a physics degree from MIT and has been in the technology world ever since.

“It’s been super wonderful and inspiring to get to do both” technology work and cancer research, she said.

The dynamic scientific duo live in Mineola. They chose the location because it’s equidistant between their two commutes, which are about 35 minutes. When they are not working, the couple, who have been together for eight years and have been collaborating in their research for almost all of them, enjoy biking, usually between 30 to 60 miles at a time.

Sheltzer greatly appreciates Smith’s expertise in using computer programs to mine through enormous amounts of data.

They are working on the next steps in exploring patient data.

Huntington High School graduate Landary Rivas Argueta steps forward to speak about the GoFundMe for Alex at the Jan. 7 meeting. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Among the outpouring of emotions by Huntington residents Monday night, were tears and calls on the community to come to the aid of Alex, the Huntington High School student who was deported to his native Honduras in July 2018.

Landary Rivas Argueta, a 2016 graduate of Huntington High School, said he and his fellow Latino community members made a GoFundMe account titled “Justice for Alex” after reading the New York Times Magazine article published Dec. 27.

“I’ve been working closely with Alex’s family and brother, as me and my friends have made a GoFundMe to help the family given everything that’s happened,” he said.

This family is very hard working and have done all they can to try to protect their son.”

—Justice for Alex GoFundMe page

Alex’s family has racked up approximately $25,000 in bills since their son’s plight began between legal fees, transportation costs, loss of wages and providing for him while living in Honduras, according to the GoFundMe site.

“This family is very hard working and have done all they can to try to protect their son,” the GoFundMe page read.

While admitting he didn’t know Alex when he was living in Huntington, Rivas Argueta said he’s gotten involved simply as it’s the right thing to do.

Several other Huntington residents pleaded with Huntington school district administrators to take what actions they can to help Alex.

“Huntington High School must get rid of Operation Matador, reunite Alex with his family, close the detention centers and treat all people of color  with respect,” Huntington resident Susan Widerman said.

Huntington board of education trustee Xavier Palacios said he’s received dozens of emails, phone calls and text messages from alumni ranging from San Diego to New Jersey  asking how they can be of help.

“Few times do I see the outpouring of compassion that I’ve seen in Alex’s case,” he said.

The GoFundMe has raised $1,500 of its $10,000 goal as of 8 p.m. Jan. 8. The page can be found at www.gofundme.com/rehbs-justice-for-alex. Social media updates are being posted under #justiceforalex and #justiciaparaalex.d

Huntington High School. File Photo

An outpouring of anger, tears and frustration rocked Huntington Monday night as hundreds of residents expressed concern about an article published by The New York Times Magazine during the school’s holiday break.

There was standing-room only inside the auditorium of Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School Jan. 7 as parents, teachers and students lined up to address Huntington school district’s board of education in reaction to the Dec. 27 publication of the article, “How a crackdown on MS-13 caught up innocent high school students,” written by ProPublica reporter Hannah Dreier.

The Times article focused on the experience of an immigrant teenager at Huntington High School, named Alex, who was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in June 2017 for suspected MS-13 gang affiliation. The story alleges Huntington school district’s school resource officer, Suffolk County police officer Andrew Fiorello, provided information and school documents to ICE that led to the student’s deportation in July 2018.

“The issue is very clear: Our classmates are being accused of participating in gang activity on evidence that does not prove their involvement beyond a reasonable doubt,” Steve Yeh, Huntington’s Class of 2017 valedictorian said. “Our school failed to protect our classmate.”

The facts questioned

Brenden Cusack, principal of Huntington High School, was the first to step forward Monday night to refute the magazine piece he claims “mischaracterizes” events portrayed.

“It is a clear misrepresentation of our school and of me, both personally and professionally,” he said. “The story as published is not the full story.”

In the article, Cusack reportedly wrote up Alex for allegedly defacing school property — a calculator — with gang symbols. The article states he informed the student it would be reported to the school resource officer.

Huntington parents and community members give a standing ovation after high school Principal Brendan Cusack’s speech. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

The high school principal did not address the facts behind the immigrant teen’s case before the crowd gathered, citing student privacy laws.

“While it would be simple to argue statements and context in numerous places within the article, it does not change the fact that the events, as presented, are beyond upsetting,” read a Dec. 28 letter issued by the school district in response to the article. “We deeply regret the harm faced by any family in our community who has been separated from a child.”

This sentiment was echoed again by Huntington’s Superintendent of Schools James Polansky Monday night.

“There are many things about it that are deeply upsetting,” he said.

Huntington school district’s staff is not the only source used in the magazine article upset with the portrayals in the piece. Joanne Adam, director of Huntington Public Library, said the article claims its head of security banned students who have been suspended from school for suspected gang activity is untrue.

“It’s not our policy to ban people simply because they might be suspected of being in a gang,” Adam said.

Both library branches, Huntington and Huntington Station, are staffed by in-house security personnel and do not have any specific policies with regards to handling gang violence, according to Adam. In the last four years, she said she could not recall any incidents where Suffolk County Police Department was contacted for any related gang activity.

“If someone is suspected of being in a gang and using the library, they are just as welcome to use it as the next person,” Adam said. “So long as they are coming in and using a library as they should be.”

 

Immigrant students voice fears

Huntington High School students decried the current atmosphere and actions they’ve seen made by school officials in their interactions with immigrants and students of racial minorities.

“I know what it’s like to be a Latino in Huntington,” Landary Rivas Argueta, a 2016 Huntington graduate said. “It’s not welcoming, it’s not safe, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”

More than a dozen recent high school graduates, collaborating as the Concerned Alumni for Protecting Our Classmates, say regardless of the factual truths in the Times article they have concerns over the adequacy of services provided for immigrant students and the district’s treatment of racial minorities.

“I know what it’s like to be a Latino in Huntington. It’s not welcoming, it’s not safe, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”

—Landary Rivas Argueta

“We believe the school administration is responsible for providing a safe environment for all students to learn and grown,” read a Jan. 7 written statement to Huntington’s school board. “We were appalled to discover that not all of our peers felt a shared sense of safety.”

Savannah Richardson is a 2016 graduate who was enrolled in the district’s dual-language program as a Mexican immigrant whose picture hangs on a banner over Jack Abram’s auditorium.

“For years, I believed the [school resource officer] was placed there to protect us,” Richardson said. “I was never aware information shared with the SRO would end up in the hands of ICE.”

Xavier Palacios, a Huntington school trustee who privately practices as an immigration attorney, was quoted in the Times article. He said the information sharing was between the district’s school resource officer and ICE was not done with purposeful intent to harm.

“What happened to Alex was an unfortunate series of events of unintended consequences — I don’t think anyone meant to harm him,” Palacios said. “The truth is procedures failed Alex and possibly other students and we must change that.”

But Huntington parent Josh Dubnau said he first reached out to Huntington’s administration via email with concerns about the relationship between Suffolk’s school resource officer program and ICE over the summer, following a PBS “Frontline” documentary titled “The Gang Crackdown,” regarding treatment of immigrants and suspected MS-13 members, that ran in February 2018.

After several email exchanges with Polansky, Dubnau said he was reassured the district’s students safety was protected without a loss of rights.

“My trust in you [Polansky] at that time is something I deeply regret,” Dubnau said. “This school board and administration needs to re-earn our trust and it will be a challenge for you to do so.”

 

Suffolk’s SRO program

Polansky said Huntington school district has been involved in the county police department’s school resource officer program for more than 15 years. The program places uniformed police officers inside public school buildings to serve as points of contact between the school district, its staff and students, and other law enforcement officials in order to increase school safety.

“I think the role of law enforcement in schools in today’s political climate is open to considerable debate.”

— James Polansky

“I think the role of law enforcement in schools in today’s political climate is open to considerable debate,” the superintendent said.

Polansky sits on the executive board of Suffolk County Schools Superintendents Association, an organization of school administrators representing the county’s 69 school districts. The association has repeatedly called on the police department to further expand the SRO program, most recently as part of its blueprint for enhancing school safety.

“Part of our mission is to keep schools and campuses safe,” Elwood Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said in a phone interview. Bossert is president of the county schools superintendents association. “Having a strong collaborative relationship with the police force and having officers present in the building who are familiar with the campus, familiar with emergency response plans, familiar with faculty and students, go a long way to ensure the safety of our students.”

School resource officers are employees of the police department, not the school district, and there is no formal agreement as to the position’s duties and responsibilities, according to Bossert.

“I think those folks who right now have some real concerns about the presence of police officers don’t necessarily have an understanding of that job,” he said. “If they did have a better understanding of the role and responsibilities of an SRO it would help alleviate some of the concerns being expressed in my neighboring community.”

The superintendents association has called for formal written document of an SRO officer’s “role and responsibility” dating back to a May 2018 letter sent out to Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) and the police department. Still, nothing concrete has been developed as to date.

“We need clarity and guidelines. If we can’t get those, I am not comfortable having those officers in our buildings going forward.”

— Jennifer Hebert

“We need clarity and guidelines,” Huntington trustee Jennifer Hebert said. “If we can’t get those, I am not comfortable having those officers in our buildings going forward.”

There is no law mandating that school districts participate in the SRO program, according to Bossert, but he is not aware of any district that has voiced opposition to being a participant.

“I urge this board to carefully consider any decisions and weigh the long-term consequences  against the perceived short-term benefits,” said James Graber, president of the Associated Teachers of Huntington. “A year ago, there were calls for more security in this school district because of the incident in Parkland [Florida]. To move in the other direction would be a mistake.”

 

Future of SRO program in Huntington

Huntington school administrators said they’ve seen the immediate need to review its existing policies and procedures, particularly when it comes to the role of its school
resource officer.

“In light of current national and local concerns, however, we believe that we must advocate for an additional layer of organization addressing the relationship between school districts and the police department,” read the Dec. 28 letter to the community. “This can be accomplished through formulation of a memorandum of understanding.”

Huntington parents and community members came to the meeting Jan. 7 armed with a detailed list of suggestions of what should be in the proposed agreement between the school district and Suffolk’s police department.

Diana Weaving, of Huntington, presented school trustees with detailed suggestions from a concerned citizens group regarding the treatment of immigrant students and the duties of the SRO officers. It suggested the memorandum of understanding includes extensive data collection including the number of times law enforcement is called to Huntington schools, number of arrests, which arrests were school-related offense, the location and date of offense and note of the involved student’s age, race, ethnicity, gender and English language learner status.

In light of current national and local concerns, however, we believe that we must advocate for an additional layer of organization addressing the relationship between school districts and the police department.”

— Huntington school district Dec. 28 letter

Weaving requested the district provides SROs, security guards and school staff with more extensive training in cultural competency, racial bias and prejudice, and restorative justice.

Aidan Forbes, Huntington’s Class of 2018 valedictorian and member of Concerned Alumni for Protecting Our Classmates, called for more in-depth investigation of a student’s character before they are reported to an SRO along with changes to the district’s suspension policies. Zach McGinniss, also a 2018 graduate, demanded more cultural training for SROs and issued a request the school district not share student’s information with third parties — including ICE — without court order or consent of a student’s parents.

All involved called for a written contract, or memorandum of understanding, to be drafted as soon as possible. The superintendent said it will necessitate a process involving community input to draft an agreement, and it will require both Suffolk police department and the school district to come to the table. He cited some Nassau County school districts which have documents that can be used as examples, but each must be uniquely catered to each individual district.

Polansky said he envisions the proposed document could be used as a template that could be used by other Suffolk schools. Trustee Hebert agreed, saying Huntington must make every possible effort to transform the SRO system into a better program.

“I see us as being given the mandate of having to figure this out for everyone else,” Hebert said. “And we will.”

Huntington school board will further discuss the SCPD’s SRO program at their upcoming February meeting.

County Executive Steve Bellone, center, SCPD Commissioner Geraldine Hart, left, and Chief of Department Stuart Cameron, right, present common phone scams.

By David Luces

Suffolk County police and elected representatives are saying if you think the person on the other end of a phone call may be a scam, hang up as quickly as possible and call the authorities.

According to Suffolk County officials, 2018 has seen a steady increase of telephone and digital scams, especially those targeting the elderly and non-English speakers. In 2018, there were 68 incidents reported, and the largest amount of money taken was $800,000 between 2017 and 2018. Of the 68 victims, 40 were elderly. 

“Simply put, this is the 21st century definition of highway robbery.”

— Steve Bellone

In 2019, nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be scammers looking to fraudulent gain access to financial information, according to a report from telecommunications firm First Orion.

At a press conference Jan. 4, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said the trend is alarming.

“Simply put, this is the 21st century definition of highway robbery,” Bellone said. “These scammers are targeting a vulnerable group of people.”

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the median loss people experienced from a phone-based scam in 2017 was $720. 

Bellone said thieves will sometimes call victims using an automated message to demand money or threaten to call the local authorities. 

“Our message to the public is to not give personal financial information when someone is calling you over the phone,” Bellone said. 

Suffolk County Police Department chief  Stuart Cameron said these scammers call threatening to stop certain utilities, claiming bills were unpaid. With tax season close by, Cameron cautioned the public to be on the lookout for scams mentioning the IRS as well.  

“They also call claiming a relative is seriously injured or in danger,” the chief said.

It is difficult to hold these scammers accountable because most are either out of state or out of the country and are using technology to mask their identity. 

Cameron said payment is usually requested through gift cards. 

“No government agencies are going to ask for gift cards,” Cameron said. “If you get a call like this, call law enforcement.”

Bellone mentioned that many of these crimes go unreported because victims feel embarrassed or simply ignore the calls. 

“We are trying to do everything we can to protect residents from these scams,” the county executive said. 

“In every case we are going to tell people if they are utilizing an app like LetGo to please do it in a public place, meet in daylight hours and don’t go by yourself.”

— Geraldine Hart

At the press conference Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart also informed the public on five robberies — one as recent as New Year’s Eve — involving the LetGo app, a digital marketplace that allows users to buy and sells items locally on their phones. 

Four out of the five robberies involved meeting up to purchase an iPhone, according to Hart. 

“In every case we are going to tell people if they are utilizing an app like LetGo to please do it in a public place, meet in daylight hours and don’t go by yourself,” Hart said. “Make sure you can verify the seller.”

A majority of the robberies occurred in the Mastic Beach area beginning in August 2018. During that month, a victim arranged to sell a cellphone to someone outside a home in Mastic Beach at 10 p.m. The suspect took the phone and told the victim he would return. The suspect fled into the backyard and never returned with the money.

On Nov. 30, a suspect and a victim agreed to meet to sell an iPhone. The suspect showed an iPhone in a box and the victim gave him $400. The suspect told the victim he had to get a SIM card and fled through a backyard and onto an adjacent street. 

The most recent incident occurred at the Mastic-Shirley train station. The victim gave the suspect money and was pushed to the ground. When the victim attempted to follow the suspect, a second man threatened to shoot him.  

 “Thankfully no one was seriously injured,” Hart said. 

The suspects involved appear to be connected to all five robberies and got away with several thousand dollars. 

Officials said if residents have information on phone scams and the robberies to call 800-220-TIPS (8477). 

Pilar Moya, center, stands to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration laws at a Huntington rally this June. Photo by Eve Krief

Generous, warm and intelligent are a few of the adjectives Huntington residents use to describe one Huntington Station resident.

Pilar Moya — also known as Moya-Mancera — has dedicated her life to community activism, in particular aiding Town of Huntington residents and its Latino communities.

“I’ve always been a public servant, always,” Moya said. “That’s my passion, my love.”

“[Pilar Moya] is always standing up for what is right.”

— Eve Krief

During the day, Moya works as executive director of Greenlawn-based nonprofit Housing Help, a certified housing counseling agency that has served town residents for more than 30 years. She helps ensure the organization provides housing counseling, financial literacy, and credit and debit education for residents of Long Island. Her clients often include first-time home buyers, seniors, low-income families and people suffering with student loan debt.

Since taking leadership of the nonprofit in 2017, Moya has initiated several affordable housing counseling and advocacy programs.

“I call my agency tiny but mighty,” Moya said.

Housing Help was able to assist more than a thousand clients last fiscal year.

“That’s for the entire Suffolk County,” she said. “Our impact for the Town of Huntington was 702 clients.”

Moya brings fresh ideas, a positive spirit and drive to the agency.

“She jumps in with both feet at all times,” said Michele Martines, of Huntington. “Whatever she’s interested in or feels like is worthwhile.”

When she’s not working at Housing Help, Moya created the nonprofit Latinos Unidos en Long Island, an organization that aids Latino immigrants by assisting in obtaining and providing legal aid, support and housing help. The organization started in Huntington and rapidly expanded across Long Island.

“She is always standing up for what is right,” said Dr. Eve Krief, a Huntington pediatrician and founder of the Long Island Inclusive Communities Against Hate advocacy group.

I’ve always been a public servant, always. That’s my passion, my love.”

— Pilar Moya

Moya partnered with Krief to assist with the Families Belong Together rallies in Huntington, to protest against the immigration policies of President Donald Trump (R), including the separation of children from their mother at the border.

At the second rally held June 30, nearly 50 organizations and close to 1,000 people attended, according to Krief.

“We hope our rally displays the love and compassion we hope that America can represent as well as the hopeful and powerful nature of our democracy,” Moya said at the event. “Our message to the families separated at the border is, ‘You matter — and our voices are our extensions of yours.’”

Krief shared that she can always count on Moya for help even when she’s “doing a thousand other things.”

In addition to Housing Help and Latinos Unidos, Moya participates in many different local organizations including co-chairing the Hispanic Task Force, Suffolk County Hispanic Advisory Board, serving as a steering committee member of Huntington Township Housing Coalition, and as a member of the town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“I guess I have been blessed that I am able to do this work because I have a good team of leaders that work side by side with me,” Moya said.

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