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Jade Pinkenburg

Mount Sinai senior Damian Di Marco and Rocky Point senior Jade Pinkenburg show off certificates of congratulations from Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro after receiving $500 scholarships. Photo from Brookhaven Town

Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) awarded two local seniors with $500 scholarships from the highway superintendents association.

Mount Sinai High School senior Damian DiMarco and Rocky Point High School senior Jade Pinkenburg were selected from dozens of applicants.

“While all of the applicants were admirable, I was extremely impressed with both Damian’s and Jade’s transcripts, including the challenging class schedules they sustain while maintaining exceptional grades,” Losquadro said. “Both possess creativity and curiosity — qualities which will be very helpful as they pursue careers in engineering.”

Rocky Point students were give one day of in-school suspension for walking out. The students attended the March 19 board of education meeting to debate the decision. File photo by Kevin Reding

They were articulate. They were passionate. And they wanted answers. A week after they walked out and were punished by the district for it, a group of Rocky Point students stood before their administrators and spoke up.

About a dozen of the high schoolers who lined up to address the board of education March 19 were among the more than 30 district students who participated in the national school walkout five days earlier. The students, many of them AP scholars, student council members and star athletes, had each been issued one day of in-school suspension, and were banned from extracurricular activities for three days following their choice to stand behind the front gates of the high school for 17 minutes March 14. Those middle school and high school students joined young people across the country in holding up signs and demanding stricter gun legislation to help put an end to school violence, one month after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that left 17 dead.

Rocky Point students who both did and didn’t walk out March 14 attended the March 19 board of education meeting supporting those who did. Photo by Kevin Redding

While the students said during the meeting they anticipated and accepted consequences, based on a letter the district sent to parents a week prior to the protest declaring that all participants would be “subject to administrative action,” they told board members they found the ruling of suspension to be “unnecessarily harsh” and a violation of the district’s own code of conduct as well as New York state law.

Many cited Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) March 15 letter defending all students’ rights to peacefully express their views on controversial issues, stating that “any attempts to stifle this speech violates the constitutional rights of students and faculty to free speech.”

“By suspending any student who participated in this peaceful nationwide movement, the administration is effectively discouraging students to have their voices heard in society,” said senior Jade Pinkenburg, who helped organized the March 14 gathering. “This is an overreaction, and we need to find a more suitable compromise … Although I believe that students should not be punished for speaking their minds in a peaceful, nondisruptive protest, we would all have happily accepted three days of detention as a consequence for cutting class [as dictated in the code of conduct] … we didn’t walk out to just flout the school’s policies or denounce the administration, but we did this because it’s our lives on the line.”

Sophomore Emily Farrell reminded board members that many schools across the country and on Long Island, including Ward Melville and Mount Sinai, ultimately did not punish students for walking out, even after forbidding students from exiting school buildings.

“So why couldn’t you support us?” Farrell asked. “All that needed to be done was to send out an adult to escort the students and provide them appropriate permission to temporarily walk outside the school building — not leave school grounds, but just go outside. The students that walked out are good kids. … It’s disappointing that our administration suppressed our First Amendment rights by not supporting the walkout.”

“The students that walked out are good kids. … It’s disappointing that our administration suppressed our First Amendment rights.”

— Emily Farrell

One student called the district’s handling of the walkout “unpatriotic” and another asked, “At what point does our educational curriculum tell us that peaceful protest is wrong?”

Senior Nicki Tavares, a national honor society member, stepped up to the microphone to address the punishment.

“This is a blatant overextension of power that disregards rules and regulations set forth by the administration themselves,” he said.

Another senior, Jo Herman, urged administrators to remove the suspensions from their school records permanently.

“Our punishment contradicted the code of conduct,” Herman said. “When we got suspended we were informed that as long as there were no further disciplinary actions against us, they wouldn’t go on our records.”

According to the students, nowhere in the district’s code of conduct, which was officially adopted in 2011, does it state any specific way to handle a situation like this, suggesting that administrators “took matters into their own hands” and enforced a rule that didn’t exist. Students called into question why a “peaceful” protest warranted a suspension, which is considered “a severe penalty” in the code — imposed on those who are “insubordinate, disorderly, violent or disruptive, or whose conduct otherwise endangers the safety, morals, health or welfare of others.”

In the code of conduct it is stated under “prohibited student conduct” that “Students may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including suspension from school, when they … engage in any willful act that disrupts the normal operation of the school community” and “The superintendent retains his/her authority to suspend students, but places primary responsibility for the suspension of students with the building principal.”

Pinkenburg said the students had done none of the prohibited actions in the code.

Students like sophomore Emily Farrell addressed the administrator’s mishandling of the event. Photo by Kevin Redding

“While the school claims that the walkout endangered the safety of those involved, we have not compromised the safety of other students, not ourselves, and we understood the risk involved,” he said. “We [also] did not disrupt the day at all, as all the students were watching tribute videos in the auditorium and gymnasium.”

According to the code of conduct, a student is to be given “due process” before a suspension is authorized. And, for any short-term suspension, as mandated by New York State Education Department policy section 3214 (3)(b), the school must notify parents in writing within 24 hours of their child’s suspension via “personal delivery, express mail delivery or some other means that is reasonably calculated to assure receipt of the notice within 24 hours of the decision to propose suspension at the last known address for the parents.” An opportunity for an informal conference is also encouraged.

But none of these procedures took place, according to the students and their parents.

“I have seen these students’ reputations be dragged through the mud for no other reason than they felt strongly about doing something about the ongoing violence and bullying here, and in schools across the nation,” said Brian Botticelli, whose daughter in the middle school was issued her unexpected suspension, as well as some hate texts from her peers because of her involvement. “It is my opinion that [Superintendent Michael Ring] overstepped his authority by issuing arbitrary and extreme punishments based on his ideological opinion instead of what is best for the student body … I ask that the board conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations that this was negligently mishandled.”

Botticelli explained that the students who walked out scheduled a meeting with Ring to better understand the penalties of their involvement March 13, which turned out to be a snow day. The parent said the meeting was canceled by Ring and never rescheduled.

In response to this, Ring said, “The students did send an email that evening [Tuesday, March 13], but we didn’t get it until the following morning … I was not available then. But it was my intention for that meeting to take place.”

Nicolette Green, a senior, said while she didn’t participate in the walkout, she still stands for those who did, and encouraged administrators to do the same.

“I have seen these students’ reputations be dragged through the mud for no other reason than they felt strongly about doing something about the ongoing violence and bullying here.”

— Brian Botticelli

“It is our right as students to speak about problems we have — not only within our schools but within our country,” she said. “Fighting against gun violence shouldn’t just be a student cause and, as members of the school, you should stand with us. We are calling for change.”

Green also addressed the district’s “heightened interest of safety and security,” as stated in the letter sent to parents as the main reason the walkout was prohibited and “not a viable option for our schools.” But, she said, that was proven to not be the case last week, referring to a PTA meeting in the school district March 14 in which a man pulled out a closed pocketknife while face-to-face with Pinkenburg, making a point that security is needed in rapidly escalating situations. Green said, although a security guard was present during that meeting, nothing was done to stop the man in an urgent manner. (See story on page A6.)

“This behavior should not be tolerated, and the event should not have happened,” Green said. “This man was told to leave by other parents, but he was not escorted out of the building. How was I or anyone else in that room supposed to blindly trust this guy? I don’t know this man or his background. Something should have been done.”

Ring interjected, assuring Green and the rest of the room that the district has since banned that individual from school property.

But not all speakers were against the district’s handling of the walkout.

“I would like to say that what the school district did with the walkout was appropriate,” eighth-grader Quentin Palifka said. “There was an email that was sent, and it did say that we were allowed to write letters to Congress, Senate and the Parkland victims … if you wanted to be heard, I think that you should’ve written a letter.”

Board Trustee Ed Casswell, who remembered being a history teacher the day the Columbine shootings occurred and how “numb” it left him, thanked all the students for weighing in.

“Someone said you’re all good students … you’re not good students, you’re great students,” Casswell said, turning his attention to parents in the room. “There have been 24 shootings in a K-12 institute since 1999, 10 since Sandy Hook. When is it going to be enough? We’re all united under the umbrella of health and safety for our kids. What I ask is rather than turn on each other, that we move forward locking arms.”

Rocky Point High School students walk out March 14 to join in the national protest against gun violence in schools. Photo from Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

“Books not bullets!” “We want change!”

A group of nearly 30 students shouted these words from behind the front gates of Rocky Point High School between 10 a.m. and 10:17 a.m. March 14, demanding stricter gun legislation to help put an end to school violence one month after the Parkland, Florida, shooting left 17 students and faculty members dead.

Rocky Point High School students walk out March 14 to join in the national protest against gun violence in schools. Photo from Kevin Redding

The Rocky Point high schoolers were among thousands across the country who took part in the school walkout demonstration during the time frame.

The district issued a letter to parents last week that any student who chooses to participate in the movement via exiting the high school will be “subject to administrative action.” Requests for what the repercussions might be were not immediately returned.

Students waved signs that read “Our voices deserve to be heard,” “I will not be a statistic” and “School is for learning, not target practice” as passing cars honked in support.

“We want legislators to take action against all assault weapons,” said senior Jade Pinkenburg, one of the organizers of the event. “We don’t want guns in our schools and want to feel safe within our schools. That’s what we’re doing this for.”

Rocky Point High School students walk out March 14 to join in the national protest against gun violence in schools. Photo from Kevin Redding

Senior Bernard Sanchez said students should be allowed to have more of a voice.

“You can’t sacrifice the First Amendment to try to protect the Second,” Sanchez said. “Court cases have proven time and time again that we don’t give away every choice we have when we enter a school.”

Jade Pinkenburg’s father Chris said that the students involved in the protest attempted to meet with Superintendent Michael Ring at the start of the week but “nothing happened.”

“No Rocky Point student will be permitted to leave the premises as part of any of these upcoming events or otherwise, without appropriate permission, whether on March 14 or at any time during school hours throughout the school year,” Ring wrote in last week’s letter.

Chris Pinkenburg stood by and said he supports the students despite the district’s disapproval.

“I think it’s a very good thing,” his father said. “Obviously the adults don’t have any solutions, so I hope this will bring about great change. It’s time.”

Members of the Rocky Point robotics team GearHeadz, Clayton Mackay, Rex Alex, Jade Pinkenburg, Julius Condemi and Jen Bradley with their first completed FRC robot at the North Shore Youth Council. Photo from Chris Pinkenburg

After building a robot for six weeks, all the GearHeadz wanted to do was sleep.

The Rocky Point-based robotics team had finished building its first machine used to compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition, and the teammates admit moving up from the FIRST Tech Challenge league was more work than even they imagined, but the team is ready for competition.

“Looking at the FTC robots we built compared to the FRC robot, it’s not even close to being the same,” said programmer Jade Pinkenburg, a junior at Rocky Point High School. “The only similarity is the aluminum plate base. Everything else we had to learn ourselves. It was complicated, but really enjoyable learning all the new elements.”

“It’s really professional-grade robotics. The control modules and modems — it’s not toys anymore.”

—Chris Pinkenburg

His father, Chris Pinkenburg, the team’s coach, said he’s thrilled to compete at Hofstra University March 31 after 42 days of hard work learning and building from 6 to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 3 to 7 p.m. on weekends — especially because the league change has been six years in the making.

“It’s been an interesting road so far,” he said. “We were a small team with a lot to do. It was six long weeks, but I’m really proud of the kids. They really pulled their weight and everybody contributed. It was a great experience, and the kids learned a lot.”

Upon receiving the kit with materials weeks ago from FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, an international robotics competition sanctioning body, the head coach said it was like Christmas, looking at all of the new material they were to use for their machine. But the team quickly realized that a lot of ingenuity and creativity was going to be needed to build a robot from all of the foreign parts it began to categorize.

The three challenges this year, with the theme of steamworks, are to collect fuel represented by green balls and use pressure to propel them to a target, retrieve and deliver gears to a rotor, and climb a rope.

The team prioritized their focus based on difficulty and point value.

“At first we thought we knew what we were doing, but it turns out we had no idea what we were doing,” Jade Pinkenburg said laughing. He explained how he and his teammates had to put in a lot of time teaching themselves a new code language and how to use the parts to design the robot to do what they wanted it to. “It was six weeks of day after day designing, building and coding, plus homework, so it was a lot of work, but we prioritized to get it done. I’m proud of what we’ve done as a team.”

He said he was also inspired by the challenges brought on by the new league.

Other members of the Rocky Point GearHeadz Alek Zahradka, Travis Ferrie and Julia Jacobellis. Photos from Chris Pinkenburg

“There’s more stuff to do and things that are interesting and applicable to the real world,” he said. “It builds on concepts we learn in school in physics and seeing how it works in the real world is interesting.”

Scoring a 1570 out of 1600 on the SATs and a perfect 36 on the ACTs, it’s no wonder he was able to combat the problems the team continued to face. But to the student, it’s all about staying interested and motivated.

“My quick learning helped, but it’s more about the motivation,” Pinkenburg said. “If you want to be successful, you can be.”

His teammate Jen Bradley, a sophomore, said the six weeks to build the 120-pound robot were intense, but a great experience.

“I think it’s good to have a general knowledge of simple machines, basic physics and mathematics and programming because in this day and age everything is becoming modernized,” she said. “Having this knowledge will help up, but it’s also just interesting and it’s fun for us.”

The GearHeadz continued to solve problem after problem. First, Rocky Point sophomore Alek Zahradka and junior Travis Ferrie got to work building the robot and its attachments. Unlike in the FIRST LEGO league, FLL, another league the team took part in last year, where you can only use parts made by Lego, in FRC you can use any part that’s available to the public as long as it’s not dangerous, which Bradley said made the process more exciting.

The team used rubber surgical tubes to sling around an axel and pull balls into the shooter. Two wheels accelerate the balls toward the target. It will be 10 feet high, and although Chris Pinkenburg said it is unclear if they can reach the mark, building the robot in a space in Yaphank and testing it inside the basement of the North Shore Public Library, he’s confident in his team’s capabilities.

“We can hit the ceiling in the library in the meantime,” he said, laughing.

“I say it’s the hardest fun you’ll ever have…We’re not engineers, but we built something.”

—Jade Pinkenburg

Rocky Point freshman Julius Condemi then worked on getting the gears moving. With 1 minute, 45 seconds to complete the tasks, Pinkenburg said he was impressed seeing his team member placing five or six gears on the peg.

“Julius must play a lot of video games, which helps,” he said. “He’s a great driver, and the robot is very agile. In the end we managed to hang the gears and climb the rope.”

The robot is now sealed in a bag inside Pinkenburg’s living room, but the GearHeadz are allowed to continue working on the attachments. The coach said it couldn’t have been made possible without the support of the community. Most team meetings were held at the North Shore Youth Council but also the Rocky Point VFW, Rocky Point Civic Association and local residents offered assistance. He said with the help and his team’s dedication, the rookie robot is comparable to many others in the league — even with eight members, compared to other teams like Longwood, that has 60 kids on the team. Rocky Point senior Clayton Mackay and freshmen Rex Alex and Julia Jacobellis round out the roster.

“The kids really focused, worked well under pressure and got the job done,” the coach said. “It’s really professional-grade robotics. The control modules and modems — it’s not toys anymore. This stuff is used in the industry to build robots. It’s on another level.”

His son said he can’t wait to show off what the GearHeadz have produced at the competition.

“It’s been an incredible experience unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” he said. “I say it’s the hardest fun you’ll ever have, and it’ll be cool to show what we’ve done in front of such a large audience. It’s crazy to see a bunch of teenagers with free time on the weekends building an inspiring and massive robot. We’re not engineers, but we built something.”

North Atlantic Industries in Bohemia and a Rookie grant from the Argosy Foundation made the team’s competition this season possible. For more information about the team, to join or to donate, visit the team’s website at www.rockypointroboticsclub.com.

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