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Claims district violated his First Amendment rights

Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano, second from left, was punished for ad-libbing a line during the school’s variety show last month. Photo by Barbara Donlon

A Miller Place High School student is suing the district for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights after he was punished for making an ad-libbed remark about the superintendent’s salary during a variety show.

At the Thursday, March 26 variety show, Kyle Vetrano, senior class president, appeared in a skit poking fun at the high school’s new bathroom policy, which allows one student at a time to use the bathroom in an effort to combat drug use and sales. According to the senior, he improvised the line that later got him into trouble.

“Is this what our superintendent gets paid all that money for? To write bathroom policy,” Vetrano said in the skit.

Following the remark, Vetrano said school administrators told him that he was not allowed to participate in the Friday night performance and was banned from school grounds during the show, as the line was not included in the pre-approved script.

“Kyle exercised his political speech rights, which are not to be violated by any government agency what so ever, including his own school,” Vetrano’s attorney John Ray, of Miller Place, said at a press conference held outside the high school on Thursday.

Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano’s supporters rally on his behalf. Photo by Barbara Donlon
Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano’s supporters rally on his behalf. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Vetrano’s mom, Christine, said the district is bullying her son, which is why they decided to take a stand and file the lawsuit.

The high school senior said he told a harmless joke with no malicious intent and was singled out by the district because it was the superintendent he made the remark about. He claims other students also veered off script, but were not reprimanded or punished.

Vetrano said he apologized to Superintendent Marianne Higuera numerous times, but was allegedly told that if he continued to bring up the situation, his senior prom, awards night and graduation privileges could be revoked.

“I think as an American in this country we have a right to freedom of speech and I’m just embarrassed that the district I have been a part of my entire life completely violated my first amendment rights,” Vetrano said.

When reached for comment, the district’s public relations firm, Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc. referred to a letter from Higuera posted on the district’s website.

According to the March 31 letter, students were made aware of the consequences for breaking the rules, which have been consistent year-after-year. Higuera said she was not present at the performance, but was advised of the ad-libbed line.

“This current ad-libbing situation is simply an issue of rules and consequences and not about me as the superintendent,” Higuera stated in the letter.

According to Higuera’s letter, the district will continue to discuss the “one-person at a time” bathroom policy.

About 50 people rallied at the press conference. They marched and held signs in support of the senior.

“What do we want? Free speech!” the crowd shouted as they marched up to the district office.

The family is suing for monetary damages, but has yet to decide on an amount, according to Ray.

“I was the only one who ad-libbed about the superintendent, but my comments were not with any mal-intent,” Vetrano said. “They didn’t call her out by name and they were part of a skit that was completely satirical and comedic in nature.”

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Men’s coach continues to push program to new heights

Will Brown coaches Hooley on the sideline during a game. Photo from the University at Albany

By Clayton Collier

The University at Albany Great Danes have only been a Division I men’s basketball program since 1999, but their accomplishments in the past decade are not short-lived.

Miller Place native Will Brown Jr., who recently completed his 14th season at the helm of the men’s hoops team, has taken the program from a team initially accustomed to the lower portion of the America East standings, to one with three-straight NCAA Tournament berths and five within the last decade — the most recent of which came on the strength of a miracle, last-second 3-pointer by junior guard Peter Hooley to punch the Great Danes’ ticket to the Big Dance.

Becoming a regular in March Madness is no small task for a mid-major program like Albany, but then again, Brown is not one to balk in the face of a challenge.

Before Brown was a coach, the 43-year-old was a standout basketball player at Miller Place High School. Coached by his father, Bill Sr., Brown was never mistaken for getting preferential treatment. In fact, it was made clear that Brown was to be held to a higher standard than his teammates.

“It’s hard when you’re in tenth grade and your dad kicks you out of practice and you have to call your mom to pick you up,” Brown said.

The coach said it wasn’t until he began leading his own team that he fully understood that his father was pushing him in order to reach his max potential.

“Bill Brown was an amazing coach,” Miller Place athletic director Lisa Lally, who coached girls’ basketball while Bill Brown was the boys’ head coach, and taught Will Brown when he attended the school, said. “He knew what his son was capable of, what potential he had, and I think he pushed Will. I think there were probably some very interesting times around that dinner table after practice.”

To prevent such interesting times, Brown’s mother Diane implemented a house policy: leave the arguments from practice in the gym.

“We weren’t allowed to talk hoops, that was mom’s rule,” Brown said. “But very rarely did we pay attention to that rule.”

Will Brown discusses plays with his Great Danes during a timeout. Photos from the University at Albany
Will Brown discusses plays with his Great Danes during a timeout. Photos from the University at Albany

As Brown progressed in high school, he began to see recruiting interest from major college programs like the University of Notre Dame and Seton Hall University. At the end of his sophomore year however, Brown found himself laboring more and more to continue to complete practices that once came easier to him. He began losing weight dramatically — something was wrong.

Brown was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the beginning of his junior year of high school, at one point causing him to miss six or seven weeks of school. The fluctuation in weight wreaked havoc on Brown’s energy level and subsequently, his ability to practice.

Per doctor’s orders, Brown sat out of soccer season for his junior and senior years and committed himself to getting his weight up in order to be able to participate in basketball.

Brown Sr. said he found himself in a difficult situation, as he was hesitant to push his son, given his condition.

“It’s almost like you’re walking on eggshells; it was hard as a parent,” Brown Sr. said. “You want to push him, but you don’t want to push him. I had to use him as a guide. I listened to what he told me.”

Brown told his father he wanted to get to work.

“When he said ‘dad can we go up to the gym?’ that’s when we went. I would never say ‘Hey Will, let’s go and work out;’ I let him come to me,” Brown Sr. said. “I would say ‘let’s call it quits’ and he would say ‘no, let’s do a little more.’”

Brown committed to the University of Pennsylvania to play basketball, but transferred to Dowling College to be closer to home after another bout with Crohn’s disease. Brown continued to work diligently to maintain his weight and finished his collegiate career with more than 1,000 points and 500 assists.

Upon graduation, Brown’s parents assumed he would get a regular, nine-to-five job. Instead, Brown followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the world of coaching, and shot rapidly up the ranks. Beginning as an assistant coach at the College of Saint Rose, Brown moved on to his first head coaching job at Sullivan County Community College, where he compiled a 90-10 record in three seasons.

Soon thereafter, Brown was hired as an assistant on Scott Beeten’s coaching staff at Albany. Beeten would be reassigned from the head coaching position just before conference play in December of 2001. The University named Brown, at just 29 years old, interim head coach for the remainder of the season.

“I thought I had it all figured out, I never understood why coaches weren’t successful,” he said. “I quickly learned when you’re an assistant, it’s easy to make suggestions. When you move one seat over, you have to make the decisions.”

Now, 14 seasons later, Brown has made Albany a nationally recognized name. Five NCAA tournament berths and 215 wins later, Brown has taken his “baby” to never before seen heights.

This past season was one to remember, in particular, for Brown’s Great Danes. Conference season began with the tragic news that Peter Hooley’s mother, Sue, had taken a turn for the worse in her battle with cancer.
Hooley flew home to his native Australia to be with his mother in her final moments, missing nearly a month of the basketball season. Upon his return following her passing, coach Brown found himself experiencing a similar dilemma to his father many years ago, although his and Hooley’s situations were vastly different, in terms of reintroducing a star player back into basketball following hardship.

“The tough part for me was that I like to ride my captains and my better players pretty hard. I get after them; I challenge them. Peter is no different,” Brown said. “But I did find myself kind of trying to lay off Peter a little bit, give him some space and some time.”

Hooley said Brown allowing him to work at his own pace was helpful in allowing him to get himself refocused on basketball.

“He’s been a father figure over here in every way,” he said. “I think coming in he knew what I was dealing with back home and he checked in on me every single day. He almost knows what it is like to be in that situation. It certainly helps me to keep going.”

Albany went 8-0 in Hooley’s absence. In the conference tournament, with Hooley back on the court, the Great Danes found themselves in a familiar location — the America East championship game against Stony Brook University.

Down by two with seconds to go and Stony Brook out of timeouts, the Great Danes had the ball. Hooley drained a 3-point basket to win the game for Albany, 51-50, off an offensive rebound, and punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Hooley, who pointed to the sky after the buzzer sounded, said he had his mother to thank for the ball reaching the net in the final moments.

“That ball shouldn’t have been kicked to me,” he said. “There’s no way that that should’ve fell to me; there’s no way they should have had no time-outs; there’s no way that ball should have made it to me to get a shot off. Everything was set up perfectly and what mum would’ve wanted.”

With their season completed following a 69-60  loss to the University of Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Brown and the Great Danes set their sights on next year. With so much success, one could see Brown as a larger than life figure, but his father still fondly remembers those early days in the gym.

“Just to be there when these arenas are owned with 15-20,000 people, and you have all the glitz and the glamour, and you have all the national news there,” Brown Sr. said of seeing his son coach in the Big Dance. “As a father you sit back, and to this day, I look down, I see Will, and I still see a kid from Miller Place.”

Steven Leventhal, attorney to the ethics board, spearheads a work session this week. Photo by Rohma Abbas

Huntington Town officials took steps to strengthen the town’s ethics code by discussing various revisions during a work session Tuesday.

Mulling nearly a dozen residents’ suggestions at its annual meeting in March, Huntington Town’s Board of Ethics & Financial Disclosure discussed topics ranging from campaign finance disclosures, prices of penalties for ethics code violations and how frequently the board should meet during the year.

Training town employees and officials in the town’s ethics code and creating a “plain language” guide to the code are some suggestions board members said they are considering.

Chairman Howard Glickstein and members Lois C. England and Ralph Crafa attended the work session at Huntington Town Hall, as did Steven G. Leventhal, of Leventhal, Cursio, Mullaney & Spector, LLP — the board’s counsel.

Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) listened on in the audience.

Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) directed Edwards to spearhead ethics code revisions. She said she plans to have a proposal for town ethics code tweaks in place at the April 21 town board meeting.

Board members said they agreed that creating what Leventhal termed a “plain language” guide to ethics was a good idea. Leventhal noted that the guide, which could be distributed as a small booklet handout to town employees and officials, would have both a simple, clear explanation of what’s right and wrong under the town’s code, and would, in the back, include the actual town ethics code. Ethics board members said they liked the suggestion.

“In my view it’s a great valuable service to the town workforce, to prepare and distribute a plain language guide that helps them interpret the language of the law itself,” Leventhal said. “The plain language guide does not replace the law and must, of course, remind readers that it is the law itself that controls, but that the plain language guide was developed to assist them in interpreting the law and to encourage them to bring any questions to the board of ethics.”

Ethics training of town employees and officials also earned consensus from board members.

“I regard it really as one of the most important functions of the board of ethics,” Leventhal said.
Board members also said they’d be in favor of increasing the penalty for an ethics violation, which is currently $5,000. Residents asked the board to consider holding meetings quarterly instead of annually. Leventhal said as the board’s work increases — possibly through increased ethics training of employees and officials — the board would meet more frequently.

Tom McNally, who spoke on behalf of the Huntington Republican Committee, called for mandatory training in ethics code for all town officials and employees. He also said all ethics complaints filed with the town clerk should be made public, as well as all decisions of the ethics board, how they voted and whether any ethics board members recused themselves from a vote.

“That was very, very well put together,”  board member England reflected.

Leventhal did, however, take issue with making all ethic complaints public, noting that in the early stages of an ethics investigation it “may be premature and ultimately unjust” to publicize the complaint. Many times, complaints are not actual violations — a complainant may allege someone was rude to him or her — but while “rudeness is bad,” it’s not a violation of the code, he said.

Edwards commended the board’s work in an interview after the meeting, saying she was “really pleased with what we heard.”

Highway Superintendent Glenn Jorgensen patches a pothole in the Town of Smithtown as another highway department staffer looks on. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Smithtown Highway Superintendent Glenn Jorgensen pleaded not guilty Wednesday to felony charges accusing him of tampering with public records for a town paving project, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said.

Jorgensen, 63, of St. James, was directed to appear in First District Court in Central Islip for his arraignment, where he faced several charges, including tampering with public records, falsifying business records, filing false records, official misconduct and grand larceny, relating to incidents dating back to Nov. 18, 2014.

The district attorney alleged that Jorgensen directed a highway foreman to alter road construction reports to conceal that he had approved a contractor, Suffolk Asphalt Corporation of Selden, to pave at least eight Smithtown streets in freezing temperatures in November. The altered records misrepresented the weather conditions during the repaving work, Spota said.

Jorgensen’s misdemeanor grand larceny charge also accused him of stealing a public work order for the improper repaving and taking the official document home. District attorney detectives found the records in Jorgensen’s Hope Place residence, under his bed, Spota said.

“State department of transportation construction standards dictate asphalt must not be applied to a road surface in freezing temperatures and, in fact, the town’s own engineer has said repaving in freezing weather would result in the asphalt falling apart,” Spota said. “The repaving of a residential street doesn’t happen that often and when it does, residents are paying for a job done correctly, not a faulty repaving that will soon need pothole repair work.”

Both Jorgensen and Anthony M. La Pinta, a Hauppauge-based attorney representing him, did not return calls seeking comment.

Jorgensen has authority over 142 employees with a $30 million annual operating budget to pay for snow removal and the paving, drainage and maintenance of roughly 450 miles of roads and curbs in the town. He was first elected in 2010 to serve as superintendent, but has worked in the department for 37 years in various capacities, including as a foreman. He left retirement in 2009 when he was elected superintendent and was re-elected in 2013.

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio declined to comment on the district attorney’s charges against the highway superintendent.

Suffolk County police car. File photo

Police say a man dressed in women’s clothing robbed a Smithtown bank on April Fool’s Day.

The man entered the TD Bank on Nesconset Highway around 4 p.m. on Wednesday and displayed a note that said he had a gun and demanded cash, the Suffolk County Police Department said. The teller gave the man an undetermined amount of cash.

The suspect fled west from the bank, police said, possibly in a light-colored vehicle.

Detectives from the SCPD’s Pattern Crime Unit are investigating the robbery. Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 800-220-TIPS. All calls will be kept confidential.

‘Frozen’ sing along edition and ‘Cars’ are just two of the Disney movies to be screened next week in Smithtown. Image from SCPA

There’s no better way to spend a week off from school than watching some of the best Disney movies around on the big screen.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts is hosting a Disney classic movie week that takes place during many districts’ spring breaks April 4 to 12. Each day, a different movie that caters to both boys and girls will be shown.

“The kids are off from school [and] we always try to do something for when kids are off from school,” owner Ken Washington said.

The movies include “Frozen” (sing along version) on April 4, “Wreck-It Ralph” on April 6, “Tangled” on April 7, “Cars” on April 8, “Sleeping Beauty” on April 9, “Brave” on April 10 and “Toy Story” on April 12.
“The biggest response so far has to be Disney’s ‘Frozen,’” Washington said.

Each movie starts at 1:30 p.m. and tickets are $5 each. Advance tickets are on sale now.

But it’s not just Disney the center is celebrating. On select dates through October, classic movies are being shown at the theater. Coming up in April is “A League of Their Own,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Sting,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “As Good As It Gets.”

Since bringing the classic movies back to the theater in November 2014, the theater has experienced a very positive response, Washington said.

In June, the theater will be showing “E.T.” and “Jaws,” which Washington expects to be the biggest movies of the season.

Washington had a hand at picking all the classic movies that will play and he worked hard to find movies that everyone would like. “I kind of picked the whole roster,” Washington said. “I started at the top 100 films of all time.”

Another big weekend at the theater will be superhero weekend in May, where movie lovers can see “The Amazing Spiderman” 1 and 2, “Superman” 1 and 2, “Batman” and “Batman Begins” as well as “Ironman” 1 and 2. The theater will also host a Lord of the Ring trilogy, which is expected to be a 12-hour adventure.

Part of the reason the theater is taking part in the movie events is because the town is celebrating its 350th anniversary and Washington wanted the theater to be a part of that.

“I think it’s been enough of a response that we are looking to continue [the classic movie series] next year,” Washington said.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts is located at 2 E. Main St., Smithtown. For more information on the theater’s classic movies, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org/show-schedule/movie-nights.

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