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Ward Melville High School

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Ward Melville High School. File photo by Greg Catalano

Two students in Three Village Central School District were schooled on what not to post online.

On the morning of March 14, before high school students staged a walkout joining teens across the nation to demand stricter gun legislation, the administrative staff at Ward Melville High School was notified of a social media posting allegedly made by a student. The posting was a cause for concern, according to an email to parents from Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich. The student was removed from school and the Suffolk County Police Department was notified.

Later that afternoon, parents received another email from Pedisich. The superintendent said in the message the SCPD closed the investigation after concluding “the posting was a foolish decision and a lack of proper judgment by the individual.”

The school district sent a message once again the morning of March 15. The administrative staff was notified of another concerning post allegedly made by a student. Later in the day, Pedisich notified parents that the SCPD determined there was no credible threat to the safety or security of students and staff.

“As part of their investigation, the police were informed that the photo in question had originally been shared privately with another individual and subsequently posted publicly online by an additional third party,” Pedisich wrote in the email.

In the notification, the superintendent shared advice when it comes to posting on social media, asking parents to remind students to think twice when it comes to what they share digitally.

“In light of today’s and yesterday’s incidents, I cannot stress enough the importance of creating a heightened sense of awareness for the appropriate and proper use of social media and other communication devices,” Pedisich wrote. “Students need to understand that what is shared digitally — whether it be via text, Facebook, Instagram or any other medium — is not private. Those thoughts, photos and comments that are shared can be and are often seen, shared and interpreted by anyone, anywhere and at any time.”

The superintendent wrote that while it was disheartening to have to issue two concurrent messages about students’ inappropriate postings, she was grateful for those who brought the matters to the district’s attention.

“Our parents and all residents are an integral part in helping to ensure that our safety and security is not compromised,” she wrote, “I continue to encourage anyone who sees, hears or notices something suspicious to inform the district immediately.”

Ward Melville High School students walked out of classes March 14 as part of National Walkout Day to support gun legislation and remember the Parkland school shooting victims. Photo by Claire Miller

Ward Melville High School students were determined to make their voices heard.

Despite the Three Village school district’s official decision March 9 to not allow students to stage a walkout March 14, approximately 250 of them did so anyway. The walkout was held in conjunction with events across the nation honoring the 17 victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting Feb. 14 to call for stricter gun control laws. Parents and students were told it was a joint decision by the board of education, principal and district’s lawyer to not encourage the walkout.

The students walked out of the gym entrance and headed toward Old Town Road so they could be seen by drivers passing by. Across the street two dozen parents and residents stood, some with signs, to support the teens.

A student holds up a sign during the March 14 walkout. Photo by Claire Miller

During the walkout, the students chanted “enough is enough,” and stopped for a moment of silence. Bennett Owens, a Ward Melville student and one of the walkout organizers, delivered a speech.

“We, the students of Ward Melville High School, along with hundreds of thousands of students across the nation have had enough,” Owens said. “We’ve had enough of gun violence. We’ve had enough of Congress’ inaction while nearly 1,300 kids are slaughtered each year as a result of gun violence. We’ve had enough of the [National Rifle Association] buying our representatives with their blood-soaked money. We’ve had enough of the argument that since we’re kids, we can’t change anything. We’ve had enough of adults telling us we can’t.”

Owens said asking Congress to introduce or support legislation that bans assault weapons, like the AR-15, was part of the students’ goal. Parents standing across the street from the walkout said they were proud of their children and their friends. Caren Johnson, whose daughter is in 10th grade, said she had tears in her eyes watching the students march out.

“This is really the first movement my daughter has been politically active in and I’m here to show her support,” Johnson said.

Osbert Orduña, a parent of a 11th-grader, said he believes it’s important for parents to come out to support the social activism of their children, especially when it comes to protesting assault weapons and discussions like school staff members being armed. Orduña held a sign that said he was a Republican and veteran who is against the NRA and assault weapons in the hands of everyday people.

“The kids are out here, and they are doing the right thing by voicing their opinions and voicing their displeasure with our elected officials,” Orduña said.

A parent shows her support for students during the March 14 walkout. Photo by Rita J. Egan

At the end of the school day March 9, the school district released a letter from Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich and board of education President William Connors explaining the district’s position on the matter. Various discussions were held with students and staff to find the best way for students to participate in what has been called the #Enough movement, according to the letter.

“As a result of these discussions and with the guidance of our legal counsel, our district will not be encouraging or condoning a walkout involving students exiting the building or leaving campus,” the letter read. “We feel that this type of demonstration would not only disrupt the educational program but would severely compromise our mission to ensure building security and student safety.”

In the letter, the district also informed parents that any student who leaves the building without authorization will be asked to return to class. Parents will be contacted if their children disregard the direction, and students who are disrespectful or disorderly will be subjected to the district’s code of conduct. The district could not be reached by deadline to confirm if any parents were called or any students were disrespectful or disorderly.

As an alternate to the March 14 walkout, the district offered voluntary activities for high school and junior high school students, according to the school district. A moment of silence was held at the high school and both junior high schools. A forum moderated by instructional staff and supervised by administrators was held in the Ward Melville auditorium for interested students to discuss issues connected to the #Enough movement. R.C. Murphy Junior High School students had the opportunity to write letters to Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, and P.J. Gelinas junior high schoolers gathered in the gymnasium during fourth period to hear student government leaders read memoriam notes and listen to a brief music interlude.

The decision came a week after students interested in participating in a walkout sat with Principal Alan Baum to discuss their plans at a March 2 meeting. Both Owens and fellow organizers were optimistic after the meeting, but despite the students’ optimism, the district released a statement that read no plans were final after thatß meeting.

Students display the signs they created for National Walkout Day. Photo by Hannah Fondacaro

After the walkout, senior Hannah Fondacaro said it was energizing to participate in a peaceful protest.

“It felt amazing knowing that we are letting the MSD students know they’re not alone,” Fondacaro.

Samantha Restucci, 16, said she felt great after participating in the walkout. She said if adults refuse to fix the gun violence situation then it was up to young people to take action.

“It felt like I was a part of something — like I could do something important,” Restucci said. “It brought out a variety of emotions. I was angry for what happened but hopeful for what is to come. I hope this walkout wakes people up, and I hope that we are taken seriously.”

The morning of the walkout, parents received a message from Pedisich saying the administrative staff at the high school was notified about a social media posting that was a cause of concern. The student in question was immediately identified, removed from the school and the incident was reported to the Suffolk County Police Department, according to Pedisich’s message. It is unclear if the threat was related to the walkout.

“Please know that the district takes these matters very seriously and will investigate any suspicious act to the fullest extent possible,” Pedisich said. “I encourage you to take this opportunity to remind your child(ren) to be mindful when posting to social media. It is important that they understand a posting that they may make to be humorous can be viewed vastly different by another individual and/or misinterpreted to be dangerous.”

Ward Melville students are planning a walkout March 14 to remember the Parkland, Florida, shooting victims and to support new gun laws. Photo by Greg Catalano

Local students are planning to join others across the nation to ensure the voices of young people are heard when it comes to protesting gun violence in America and advocating for gun control.

Ward Melville High School students hope to participate in the March 14 walkout at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes to remember the 17 victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The event would be held in conjunction with similar walkouts taking place in schools all over the United States.

“I believe it’s very important to be able to contribute to society because although we may not be able to vote until we’re 18, it’s still our country, and it’s still our future at stake. Students aren’t powerless, and we need to show other students that.”

— Maya Peña-Lobel

One of the student organizers, Maya Peña-Lobel, said it is important to speak out about gun violence in America. She said it is outrageous nothing has been done about gun control after the shootings at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Orlando nightclub shooting.

“I believe it’s very important to be able to contribute to society because although we may not be able to vote until we’re 18, it’s still our country, and it’s still our future at stake,” Peña-Lobel said. “Students aren’t powerless, and we need to show other students that.”

Peña-Lobel along with fellow student organizers Bennett Owens, Haley Linden, Marielle Leiboff, Charlotte O’Dell and Noah Mond met with the high school’s Principal Alan Baum March 2 to discuss the walkout.

“It was a good meeting overall,” Owens said. “We planned originally on walking out of the front entrance but over safety concerns, [Baum] would rather us walk out of the north side entrance, which is the gym entrance. It wasn’t like his way was ridiculous in any way. Obviously, he had plans that we as students don’t, and he was looking out for our safety.”

Owens, a senior, said if plans were to be approved school security would also be on hand for the 17-minute event, and said he hopes students would not receive any disciplinary action for participating as long as they remain civil. Owens said he was working on inviting a speaker to address the crowd, and there will also be a moment of silence. Teachers who are unable to participate would be given orange ribbons to show their support.

“The district is working on a plan in concert with building administration and the board of education regarding this matter,” district spokeswoman Jessica Novins said in a statement March 5 when asked about the event. “Once finalized, the plans will be communicated to students and parents.”

Many parents in the district, like Mike Ferrara, are concerned about the walkout. He said he supports the students’ rights to peacefully assemble and their freedom of speech and believes it’s a teachable moment. But he said he also believes it should be done outside of school hours. The parent said he hopes the board of education will evaluate the decision and consider potential future ramifications.

“Where our responsibility lies as parents and school officials is to provide guidance as to when and where their protests occur and that they are respectfully executed.”

— Mike Ferrara

“Where our responsibility lies as parents and school officials is to provide guidance as to when and where their protests occur and that they are respectfully executed,” Ferrara said. “In my opinion, it is not appropriate that our children be allowed, even encouraged, to walk out during school hours. The impact of their statement will become divisive and disruptive if that is the case. It will also be viewed by many as an endorsement by our school district of a particular position on the issues. For example, if a group of students organized a walkout in support of restrictions on abortions, I believe it is highly unlikely that it would be allowed. Allowing walkouts to make political statements of any kind may open doors that can never be closed.”

Other parents, including local political activist Shoshana Hershkowitz, support the students in their decision.

“As a parent and educator, I think that the walkout is an excellent lesson for students about civil disobedience and the First Amendment,” she said. “This type of action is a cornerstone of the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage. The students are seeking change, and this is a way to express that desire. My hope for these students is that they will continue their quest for change with civic engagement.”

Peña-Lobel said the response so far from students has been positive. She said while many of her friends have similar beliefs to her, those with contrasting opinions on guns have been respectful of the participants planning to peacefully stand up for their beliefs.

Organizers have been sharing information on the Instagram account @wmhs_walkout. The account had more than 250 followers as of March 5. Peña-Lobel said it’s important for them to spread the word about the walkout and get as many supporters as possible.

“We want to be taken seriously,” Peña-Lobel said. “This isn’t a joke. This is a real thing about real people’s lives, and it could really happen anywhere and at any time.”

On March 8, students met with Baum once more to be told of the district’s decision. After administrators met with a lawyer, it was decided that students would not be allowed to participate in a walkout.

The Ward Melville High School Parent Teacher Student Association announced that its annual Senior Prom Fashion Show was a great success that will enable the organization to award more scholarships at the end of the school year than last year. The fundraiser was held Jan. 25 at the Watermill in Smithtown, where nearly 300 guests enjoyed the fashion show and basket raffles.

The fashion show featured 195 seniors from the high school who volunteered to model prom fashions loaned to them for the evening by Merrily Couture and Torontos Tuxedos, both of Mount Sinai. The girls had their hair styled by various local salons — Richard Salon of Smithtown, Tapestry Salon of Mount Sinai and Centereach, Symmetry Salon of Stony Brook, Sivana Salon of St. James and Finale Salon of Setauket.

During the evening, members of the WMHS Chamber Orchestra provided an eclectic mix of music. Seniors Ben Gitelson and Megan Kuhnel were the emcees for the evening. All monies raised at this event will go directly to PTSA Senior Scholarships. Last year, the PTSA was able to give out 44 scholarships to graduating seniors. This year they earned enough to award an unprecedented 73 scholarships. Scholarships will be presented by the PTSA at Senior Awards Night in June.

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Ward Melville High School. File photo by Greg Catalano

By Andrea Paldy

As the Three Village Central School District continues to see a decline in its enrollment, it can look to the performance of its students as a bright spot on the district’s annual report card.

At the district’s mid-October school board meeting, Kevin Scanlon, assistant superintendent for educational services, presented a snapshot of the state of the district.

Enrollment continued to decline, dropping about 3 percent from last year, to 6,264 students. With well over 600 students, the current senior class is the largest in the district, Scanlon said.

During his presentation, Scanlon also went over the results of state assessment and Regents examinations. He called the Regents scores “amazing,” saying that they were some of the highest in the state. Ninety-seven percent of the students who took the Regents English Language Arts and U.S. History and Government exams passed, and 93 percent passed the Global History and Geography Regents exam, he said.

On the Common Core-aligned math Regents exams, 95 percent passed the Algebra exam, while Geometry had an 89 percent passing rate, and 99 percent passed the
Algebra II exam. Seventy-one percent of the smaller group who took the old Algebra 2/Trigonometry exam passed.

Equally as “amazing” were the results from the science Regents, Scanlon said. At least 91 percent of students taking the four science exams — Earth Science, Living Environment, Chemistry and Physics —  passed, with the highest pass rate in Living Environment, at 97 percent.

Scanlon noted that Three Village students continue to perform above the state mean for SAT scores and had the highest scores for Suffolk County.

“I happen to attribute this to the students and the hard work of the teachers,” he said.

“All of the services that we’ve been putting into place are really coming to fruition.”

— Kevin Scanlon

He also pointed to the installation of the writing and math centers at all of the secondary schools.

“All of the services that we’ve been putting into place are really coming to fruition,” Scanlon said.

Additional numbers from the class of 2017 show a 96 percent graduation rate. The same percentage of students went on to two- and four-year colleges. The assistant superintendent also recognized the less than 1 percent of graduates who went directly into military service.

The report also covered the yearly state assessments for students in grades three through eight. Thirty-two percent of Three Village students took the English Language Arts (ELA) assessment — this is down 2 percent from the previous year. Additionally, 31 percent took the math assessment, which was up 1 percent from the previous year.

As in past years, Three Village students’ scores surpassed both the state and Nassau and Suffolk counties averages. The state average for the number of students who met or exceeded proficiency was 39.8 percent, while in Three Village, the number of students meeting or exceeding standards for each grade was 61 percent and above, Scanlon reported. In math, the state average was 40.2 percent. At least 73 percent of district test takers met or exceeded standards at each grade level, except in eighth grade. This was because the majority of district eighth-graders took the Algebra I Regents instead of the math assessment, Scanlon said.

He said that when compared to similar districts — Commack, Half Hollow Hills, Harborfields, Hauppauge, Northport, Port Jefferson and Smithtown — Three Village students outperformed those districts in all but two grades on the ELA and all but one grade in math.

Areas that the district continues to work on are elementary math and reading, Scanlon said.  In addition to the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for writing, previously introduced to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, the district recently introduced Units of Study for reading, he said, because “literacy is the most important key” to all subjects. He added that students are tested three times throughout the year in both math and reading to get a baseline for their progress. This allows teachers to begin intervention even earlier than before, the assistant superintendent said.

The landscape continues to change with New York State’s introduction of the new Social Studies standards last year and the new science standards that are being rolled out this year for kindergarten through second grade, Scanlon explained.

In the next few years, he said, students can expect to see significant changes as the state continues to adjust to new standards.   

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Independent filmmaker Tara Langton at her 1991 graduation from Ward Melville High School. Photo from Tara Langton

While many Long Islanders move away from home to pursue their dreams, one East Setauket native is returning to share her story.

On Oct. 27, Tara Langton, a Los Angeles-based writer and film producer, will meet with Ward Melville High School film students in teacher Stephanie DiLorenzo’s classes. During her visit, the 1991 Ward Melville graduate will discuss the ins and outs of independent filmmaking, show outtakes from her short films and answer students’ questions.

Langton during the filming of a short based on her children’s book ‘Travis Tinley and the Spirit of #22.’ Photo from Tara Langton

While she was a student at the high school, Langton said she took a film class called World of Cinema, and also participated in an acting class at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson when she was in 10th grade. Langton said she left Long Island for Los Angeles 20 years ago to pursue her dream of becoming a filmmaker. The road has been a long and tough one, but even with the tight budgets of independent filmmaking, it’s a journey she said she enjoys.

“I want to teach the students that you can make a film with virtually no budget if you have a dedicated cast and crew willing to put their heart and soul into the project,” she said. “Independent filmmaking is rarely glamorous but is truly a labor of love.”

Langton said another thing she would like to convey to the students is the importance of taking any role in filmmaking and learning from it. She said she gained a great deal of knowledge while she was a production assistant with a small acting part in the 2010 movie “Mineville” with Paul Sorvino and William Sadler. She said she asked tons of questions of those on the set while working on the film.

In 2017 she wrote and produced “Finding Anissa Jones” which was accepted into the Stella Adler Academy Short + Sweet Film Festival in Hollywood. In 2018, she plans to film “A Shortstop Away,” about a 14-year-old boy who shared a love of baseball with his father, who died from cancer. The full-length film is based on a children’s book and short film she wrote, “Travis Tinley and the Spirit of #22.” She said the story begins in Durango, Colorado, and the main character’s adventures take him to Long Island where he accepts a posthumous award for his deceased father.

Langton said in the story Travis begins to feel lost without his father, and it demonstrates that even when bad things happen to someone, there is still good in life.

“I try to write stuff that comes out of my heart, stuff that I would relate to when I was younger, and try to motivate kids to be good people.”

— Tara Langton

“I try to write stuff that comes out of my heart, stuff that I would relate to when I was younger, and try to motivate kids to be good people,” she said.

Langton said she would love to film part of the movie in the Three Village area. While interior shots will be done either in California or Pennsylvania, she said she hopes she can film some scenes at locations such as Ward Melville High School and Danfords in Port Jefferson. She said she is also hoping to find a local resident who would allow filming at their home.

The filmmaker hopes to cast a few local actors. Currently, former child actress Rachel Lindsay Greenbush, who is known for her role as Carrie Ingalls on the television show “Little House on the Prairie,” is signed to play one of the supporting characters in the film.

When it comes to her trip home, Langton, who visits Long Island twice a year to see friends, said she is looking forward to walking the halls of Ward Melville once again.

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to come back to the Three Village area and share my film experience with the students and faculty at my alma mater,” she said.

Members of Ward Melville's Iron Patriots introduce one of their robots at the Oct. 3 Three Village school board meeting. Photo by Andrea Paldy

High school isn’t just for kids these days.

In attendance at the most recent Three Village school board meeting was a student-built robot and some of the Ward Melville High School students who built it.

What began as an extracurricular offering in 2005, has evolved into a yearlong, honors robotics course at the high school. The Ward Melville Iron Patriots —  robotics students and teachers Steve Rogers, John Williams and Mark Suesser — presented their work to the school board after the course’s inaugural year.

Rogers said students in the robotics class built two robots. The first is a generic one built from a kit and programmed to complete various tasks. The second robot is one that students design and build from scratch to solve a specific problem.

Last spring the Iron Patriots took part in the FIRST Robotics Competition at Hofstra University, where they competed against 55 other teams from Long Island and around the world. With a 13th place overall finish, the Ward Melville team brought home the highest rookie seed award for having the highest ranking of a first-year team. The district’s young engineers are no strangers to competition; the club team won the regional Botball championships in 2014 and 2015.

A robot built by the Ward Melville Iron Patriots in their robotics class. Photo by Andrea Paldy

The Botball robot competition requires that the robots  pick up ping pong balls, transport them and then hit a target. For the FIRST Robotics Competition, which Rogers calls “a football game on steroids,” larger robots have to complete even more specialized tasks. Designed and built from scratch in six weeks, these 150-pound robot contestants must pick up gears and place them on propellers, among other challenges.

In addition to the work of building and programming the robots, members of the team also work on fundraising and build websites to get the word out about their project. They also take part in community outreach visits to elementary schools to introduce students to robotics and to local organizations such as the Disabled American Veterans.

Students who attended the meeting spoke of their interests and how the class offered the opportunity to apply certain scientific principles, develop problem-solving skills and explore interests in aerospace and mechanical engineering.

Noor Kamal, a student with an interest in math and computer science, said she went into the class not having much building experience.

“Those six weeks every single day after school designing the robot from scratch and building it exposed me to all these different things I want to do in the future,” she said.

Rogers said with the expanded role that robots will have in the future, “Our work force now has to retool to train to be able to run the robots and program the robots.”

The Three Village school district will hire an additional guidance counselor at Ward Melville High School, above, as well as a psychologist to administer tests throughout the district. Photo by Greg Catalano

By Donna Newman

At a recent meeting of the Three Village Drug & Alcohol Awareness Program — a support group that seeks to educate all and assist parents and family members of teens and young adults battling substance abuse —  I spoke with a young mother of elementary-school-age children. She was there to learn about this growing danger that has taken so many lives in Suffolk County. She is afraid for her children. They are growing up in a society where drug overdose deaths have become routine. She wants to protect her children from becoming victims of substance abuse.

This mom has been on a crusade to make parents aware of the dangers, knowing that this is a Three Village problem and it will take community awareness and extensive effort to combat it. So she speaks to parents of young children wherever she finds them to encourage them to be part of the solution. She told me the majority response from parents is: “Not my kid. She’s an A student.” Or, “Not my kid, he’s an athlete.” Or simply, “My child would never get involved in that.”

I’m here to tell you that you need to take your head out of the sand.

The significant drug problem at Ward Melville High School when my sons were in attendance in the 1990s was not publicly acknowledged by the school district — or anyone else other than the parents whose children “got into trouble.” Mine did not. They were honor grads, heavily involved in extracurricular activities.

However, in a conversation with one of my sons, years after graduation, I learned he had used drugs with some regularity while in high school. It turned out I had been one of those clueless parents. But I was one of the lucky ones.

Lucky, because back then, when a teenager bought marijuana, it was just pot. It was not the cannabis of today, which may be laced with illicit and scary drugs by dealers seeking to hook kids on stronger stuff. Lucky, because he did not have a propensity, and his “recreational” use never rose to the level of addiction.

Full disclosure: As a college student in the 1960s I experimented with marijuana as well. My equally clueless mother discovered a small baggie of weed in my room. She trashed it, never saying a word to me. In that era, just knowing she knew was enough to get me to stop.

The school district has finally acknowledged the fact that addiction is a disease requiring treatment, not a moral lapse requiring punishment.

According to “School district welcomes new drug and alcohol counselor” in the  July 20 edition of The Village Times Herald, the district has hired a substance abuse counselor. Heather Reilly, certified social worker, will be tasked with rotating through the secondary schools one day each week (including the Three Village Academy alternative high school program), providing substance abuse counseling, educating faculty about warning signs and drug lingo, and creating educational curriculum for sixth-graders in collaboration with elementary health teachers. She will also be available to work directly with families.

While this is a laudable first step, it’s not nearly enough. Change will not happen without a concerted community effort. Parents need to accept the fact that this is a real problem affecting Three Villagers across the cultural and economic spectrum. Yes, it could even be your child.

Folks must come to grips with the fact that chemical dependency is a potentially fatal illness and that 90 percent of sufferers go untreated. They need to acknowledge that kids who are addicted to alcohol and/or opioid drugs are not “bad” kids. They are youngsters whose brains are not fully developed, who made bad choices that led to a tragic outcome. It’s time for all of us to learn all we can about prevention and to come together to end this plague.

There’s a lot you can do. For starters, attend the monthly meetings at the Bates House in Setauket. Dates and times are listed on Facebook on the Three Village Drug & Alcohol Awareness Parent Group page — along with other helpful information. Learn when and how to begin to talk to your child about the dangers of alcohol and drugs and your family’s rules concerning underage drinking and substance abuse. A good place to begin is at New York State’s online site www.talk2prevent.ny.gov.

The next meeting at the Bates House, located at 1 Bates Road in Setauket, will be held Sept. 24 at 7 p.m.

Donna Newman, a freelance writer, is a former editor of The Village Times Herald.

Under sunny skies, children filed off buses at Setauket Elementary School Sept. 5 ready to start a new school year. Many children could be seen smiling as they greeted friends and teachers they hadn’t seen all summer, and a few younger students were teary-eyed as they took in their new surroundings.

The air of excitement extended throughout the Three Village Central School District as students anticipated embarking on new adventures.

“I’m looking forward to seeing all my friends who I didn’t see over the summer, and meeting my new teacher,” said Jordyn Zezelic, a fifth-grader at Nassakeag Elementary School.

Allie Konsevitch, a seventh-grader at R.C. Murphy Junior High School, said she was happy about starting her first year at the intermediate school and changing classes.

Sophia Kornreich, an eighth-grader at Murphy who tested out of Spanish I, said she was looking forward to the challenge of Spanish II.

“I love Murphy because something about the building is very warm, and it feels like one really big family,” Sophia said.

Her sister Athena, who goes to Nassakeag, said she was excited about starting sixth grade, meeting her new teacher Ms. Safranek and taking part in upcoming activities.

“I’m very eager for the Halloween dance, car wash, buddies [program] and graduation,” Athena said. “I am thrilled to move on to sixth grade.”

A week before the beginning of the school year, the district conducted orientation programs for incoming seventh- and 10th-grade students of Ward Melville High School and R.C. Murphy and P.J. Gelinas junior high schools. Students were able to ask questions of administration members and upperclassmen were in attendance to help new students locate their lockers and classrooms.

Rachael Catalano, a sophomore at Ward Melville, said she is excited about “making many new friends and seeing the multiple opportunities that the high school has to offer to get involved in.”

Former Stony Brook resident Chris Cantwell sprays mace in a man’s face during the protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo from Chris Cantwell’s Facebook

By Rita J. Egan

When Vice News premiered a documentary on HBO about the recent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the story took a local twist when it featured former Stony Brook resident Christopher Cantwell.

Cantwell, who currently lives in Keene, New Hampshire, is a white supremacist who hosts an alternative right call-in show, “Radical Agenda,” which is live streamed through Facebook and UStream. In the Vice documentary, he can be seen with other marchers holding torches and chanting: “Jews will not replace us” and “White lives matter.” During the filming, after being sprayed with mace in his eyes, he said he was attacked by counter-protesters and called them “communists.”

Cantwell did not respond to multiple different requests for comment. Calls to a residence connected to him on Skylark Lane in Stony Brook were not answered, and when a News 12 Long Island reporter approached a man in the driveway of the home, the man denied knowing Cantwell. It was seen on his website in recent days that Cantwell now fears for his life.

Vice documentary

After seeing the Vice documentary, one of Cantwell’s childhood friends, who declined to be interviewed, reacted on Facebook.

“I remember five years ago when I removed him from my page when he started spewing hate speech,” he said. “I may not agree with our government, but I’ll be dead before I align myself with people like this. All of this makes it too real, too close to home and too sad to even comprehend. I feel bad for them really, to live life based solely on hatred of people for a reason based solely in their minds.”

The last mention of a Cantwell in the Ward Melville High School yearbooks was in 1997. He was listed as a camera-shy sophomore.

His website provides insight into his white supremacist beliefs and why he participated in protesting the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park.

Cantwell during the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. Screenshot from HBO’s Vice News documentary

“Here at the Radical Agenda, we’ve made no secret of our utter contempt for the subhuman filth commonly referred to as the Left,” he wrote Aug. 7. “Their Marxist, anti-human war on reality is an ideological contaminant that makes HIV look appealing by comparison. So, we’ve literally made a career out of producing war propaganda against them.”

On Aug. 10, before the rally that resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, he posted a message on his website that could only be seen in its entirety if the reader was an existing paying member to his site. He had disabled new membership sign-ups.

“I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia for the Unite the Right Rally this coming Saturday,” he said in a preview of the post. “Since we have been meeting so much opposition from both the criminal elements and the municipal government alike, we’ve had to exercise a great deal of caution in terms of operational security.”

Cantwell said he was with a reporter, Elle Reeve from Vice, who was covering the rally.

After the documentary aired on HBO, a photo surfaced of Cantwell attacking someone with pepper spray. In an Aug. 17 post on his website he referenced the photo. He said the man was coming directly for him and another person was approaching him from his left, and believed his safety was being threatened.

“I sprayed in self-defense, while holding a flashlight in my left hand,” he said. “In my mind, this was the minimal level of force I could use to deter this threat.”

He posted a YouTube video saying he feared he would be arrested, and appeared on the verge of tears. In the Aug. 17 website post, he said he was preparing to turn himself over to University of Virginia police. Calls to the police department to confirm warrants were issued were not returned. Although the Vice film showed him unloading guns strapped to his waist and legs onto the bed of a hotel room, he said he did not bring his guns to the rally.

Cantwell living locally

Cantwell is no stranger to run-ins with the law, according to Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, a watch group dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry. In 2000, Cantwell pleaded guilty to fifth-degree criminal possession of stolen property, fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon and driving while intoxicated in Suffolk County. He served four months of a six-month jail sentence. During a failed attempt to run to represent New York’s 1st Congressional District in 2009 as a Libertarian candidate, he was arrested a second time for DWI. He faced up to two years in prison. He eventually took a deal and served 28 days of a 45-day plea bargain.

Cantwell admitted to his DWI arrests in a speech he gave at a Suffolk/Nassau Libertarian Party Convention June 14, 2014. He said at the age of 19 he became very drunk and while driving his car realized he was too drunk to drive and parked his car to sleep. He said the next day he woke up in jail. Nine years later, he said he was out on a date and said he was careful with the amount of drinking he was doing. He was pulled over for speeding in East Hampton. His blood alcohol limit was measured at .01 over the legal limit. In the speech, Cantwell said before the trial his vehicle was seized and his driver’s license suspended. Due to paying thousands in bail and attorney fees, he lost his job and apartment.

“New York is a hopeless cesspool of government violence and corruption.”

— Christopher Cantwell

He began to study government, and said he started to “figure out that government is a violent, evil monster portraying itself as a peacemaker and savior.”

“That far from being that which brings order to society, it is responsible for more carnage and misery than any other institution in the history of mankind,” he said.

During the convention speech, Cantwell said he was leaving New York.

“New York is a hopeless cesspool of government violence and corruption,” he said.

In another Aug. 17 post, Cantwell said he was blocked by PayPal, Venmo, Facebook,
Instagram, Twitter, and MailChimp. He discovered his online dating profiles at OKCupid, Match and Tinder were disabled — sites he said he used for the pursuit of romance.

East Setauket’s Stefanie Werner, although hoping that others don’t associate white
supremacy with the Three Villages, can see how a mindset like Cantwell’s develops.

“The news about a white supremacist with roots in the Three Village area, although disturbing, should not be altogether shocking,” she said. “I have lived here all of my life and began my teaching career at Ward Melville. Walking the halls of Ward Melville High School, or any other high school in the country, there exists a diverse set of personalities that have yet to fully develop. Adolescent ideals turn to adult ideologies, and it only takes one experience, positive or negative, to help mold these beliefs into a solid foundation. It is sad, and a tad frightening that this particular mindset developed in a community where many may turn a blind eye to the existence of this antithetical culture. However, the current political arena is nurturing this thought process, and this community needs to heighten its awareness of the clashing principles of the modern era.”


File photo of Ward Melville by Greg Catalano

Community reaction

Three Village residents and religious leaders were asked how they felt when they heard Christopher Cantwell was from Stony Brook.

Terry Shapiro: “As an American Jew, I am horrified. Anti-Semitism has a long history in Suffolk County. That is why it is so important to have a representative who speaks out firmly against bigotry in the White House. U.S. Rep Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) has not done so. He has not held Mr. Trump accountable. As long as we have a bigot in the White House and members of Congress who refuse to censure him, I fear that anti-Semitism will continue to resurface.”

Rabbi Steven A. Moss (chairperson of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission): “There’s no place on earth that is exempt from this kind of behavior. The question then becomes what do the rest of us do. Therefore what we try to do is model ourselves on the idea that evil occurs when good people do nothing. So we organize task forces and people. We need to speak out and make sure we condemn when appropriate this kind of behavior and speak out against it and not simply turn aside.”

Shoshana Hershkowitz: “Chris Cantwell is a reminder that hate exists in all communities. It is deeply upsetting to me that a young man who was raised in our area, was taught in our schools, came away with this frightening worldview and ideology. We need to examine the racism that exists where we live and confront it in our homes and schools. This must be our response to hate if we are to combat it effectively.”

Arnold Wishnia: “I learned that Cantwell came from Stony Brook from you. I Googled him and discovered that I had in fact seen the TV clip where this vile Nazi boasted about strengthening himself for violence, and said he would kill if he had to. Cantwell may be an extreme, but I am not shocked that violence-prone racists can be found in Stony Brook.  Suffolk County has a history of KKK and Nazi activity from the 1930s. My sons encountered this kind of unthinking, violence-threatening racism as students at Ward Melville High School, I am disturbed and disappointed to find out that anyone is a Nazi, but not surprised that Stony Brook has bred some.”

The Rev. Kate Jones Calone (director of Open Door Exchange at Setauket Presbyterian Church): “We cannot pretend that prejudice and racism do not exist in our area, whether explicit, subtle or unintentional. The question is how we address it. In my faith, God grieves over separation and longs for reconciliation. If we are to build a community grounded in equity and love, we need first to understand why things are not that way and take action to change it. This requires real commitment, hard work, humility and a willingness to confront what stands in the way. Starting in elementary school, schools, parents and adult leaders need to teach more than simple kindness; they need to teach kids to be affirmatively and actively inclusive and anti-racist. And we need to educate ourselves on why Long Island is among the top 10 most segregated places in the country.”

 

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