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Ward Melville High School

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 welcomed a new drug and alcohol counselor recently. File 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.”

 

Gerry Mackedon has become a swinging success, finishing qualifier nine strokes ahead of second

Gerry Mackedon swings away during a St. John’s University tournament. photo by Big East/Stephen B. Morton

By Desirée Keegan

Gerry Mackedon can be found swinging his golf club until the sun sets.

Once the Port Jefferson native’s shift is over at the local country club, the St. John’s University sophomore takes time to perfect his game.

“Gerry spends six or seven hours a day maintaining his game and training for his tournament schedule,” said his father Bill Mackedon, a Professional Golfers’ Association of America head golf professional at Port Jefferson Country Club. “During the summer months, unlike with most kids, there’s really been no taking the summer off. He’s very dedicated to giving himself the opportunity to, and improving, his skills to become the best golfer he can be.”

Gerry Mackedon competes for the Red Storm as a freshman. Photo from St. John’s Athletics Communications

Gerry Mackedon is coming off some recent successful tournaments, and is currently competing in the New York State Men’s Amateur Golf Championship at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course to prepare himself for the USGA U.S. Amateur golf tournament at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California, Aug. 14 to 20.

Last month he won the 2017 U.S. Amateur Championship sectional qualifying round at Huntington Country Club with a 131 36-hole performance — nine strokes under par and ahead of the second-place finishers at even par.

“I am deeply honored by this accomplishment and hope I can represent Port Jefferson Country Club by playing my best golf ever,” Mackedon said in a country club statement. “I am extremely thankful to all of the members who have shown me support in many ways during the last few weeks.”

Winning by that margin is something St. John’s University head coach, Mal Galletta, said is an impressive achievement.

“No matter what his score is in relation to par, to win anything by nine shots in golf shows tremendous ability to put yourself way ahead of the competition,” he said. “His ability to go low, too — it really shows that he’s not just comfortable with winning by one. Not many players can do that or have that mind-set, and I think that’s going to bode well for him in his future.”

Mackedon also placed first at the Michael Hebron championship, the Long Island Golf Association’s top amateur stroke play, Aug. 1 at Bethpage Black.

“It’s nice to play a tough golf course like that — Riviera is a tough golf course as well,” he said. “I still have a lot of work to do so playing well in that tournament gives me some confidence.”

“He was always a top player and he’s so focused and very dedicated to the game.”

— Bob Spira

Mackedon began swinging the club seriously at the age of 10, but was a tri-sport athlete at Ward Melville, playing baseball and basketball.

“I think children should play multiple sports,” the standout golfer’s father said. “It enhances their abilities in each. I think it helped in his development as a golfer.”

Although the swing for baseball is different than golf, the Ward Melville graduate tried out for the varsity golf team in seventh grade, and made the team.

“His stroke was good and he had a great straight ball — at that stage he just needed to work on his mental game,” Ward Melville head coach Bob Spira said. “He was always a top player and he’s so focused and very dedicated to the game.”

Mackedon captured the Suffolk County individual title by shooting a 145, three strokes over par, and also led Ward Melville to its second-straight Suffolk County team championship his senior year. He finished second in the state tournament — one stroke behind first.

He also competed in the renowned American Junior Golf Association circuit, where he shot an average of 77.3 per round, and placed first in both U.S. challenge cups — the Long Island and Northeast junior classics. He took second place in the 2015 Met PGA future series at Bethpage Red, finished third in the 2015 Met PGA future series at Eisenhower Park White and carded a 64 to post another first-place showing at the Met PGA junior event.

“He has a natural talent and that ability to make it look easy.”

— Mal Galletta

“Gerry’s ability to go low is very special,” said Jim White, a Port Jefferson Country Club member and former Long Island caddie scholarship winner. “To win U.S. Amateur sectional qualifying medalist honors by nine strokes is unheard of. He’s a great kid.”

Bill Mackedon said he and his son practiced on his short game for the first two years as the young golfer’s body changed month to month, before adding to his repertoire.

“The initial training and development was to make him an outstanding player around the greens,” the father said. “Then we worked on his full swing and training him to play at the highest level he could possibly play at.”

The head pro said his son’s determination never wavered.

“He stayed within the Mackedon realm when it comes to instruction, but he’s a student of the game,” he said. “He studies the swing — he does what he needs to do. In my opinion, he out trains and outthinks most athletes on the golf course and I think that’s why he’s been so successful.”

He learned from not only his father, who won numerous PGA section events and three player of the year awards while still holding three course records, but also from his grandfather, a head professional for more than 35 years.

Gerry Mackedon winning the 2017 U.S. Amateur Championship qualifier at Huntington Country Club. Photo from Bill Mackedon

Galletta said he sees the work put in, as his athlete came away with a one-hole playoff win for the Connecticut Cup Championship in October — just a month into his college career.

“He has a natural talent and that ability to make it look easy,” he said. “Besides his playing record, I was really impressed with the length he can hit the ball, even in high school. He’s committed to the team and wants the team to win just as much, if not more than he’d like to see himself win.”

His achievements have helped him proudly continue his family’s legacy.

“My wife Michele and I are very excited of this segue into possibly playing beyond college golf,” the college coach said. “I think it’s the beginning of a very bright future for Gerry.”

At the Riviera Country Club, he will be competing in the USGA championship won by the likes of Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

“I just hope Gerry enjoys the experience out there,” Galletta said. “Even people who are just part-time golfers, or even those who don’t know Bill or Gerry, should rally around him and be proud of that fact that someone is doing well enough at that age to compete on a national level. It’s a top-notch professional championship setup, and having competed in it myself I know it’s a different feeling than anything else he’s ever competed in. I hope he takes it all in and if he puts his head to the fact that he can do well, besides just thinking about the fantastic achievement of qualifying, I think big things are coming his way.”

File photo of Ward Melville by Greg Catalano

The Three Village Central School District is taking a proactive stance to battling drug and alcohol abuse in the community.

In May, residents approved the district’s $204.4 million budget for the 2017-18 academic year, which includes the addition of a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Heather Reilly accepted the position, and sat down with school administrators last week to discuss short-term and long-term plans that not only involve offering one-on-one counseling, but also educational programs in the schools and local area.

Catherine Taldone, director of school and community partnerships, said Reilly will spend one day a week at each of the two junior high schools, and split the rest of the week between Ward Melville High School and the district’s alternative high school, The Three Village Academy. The district is also developing a plan for the counselor to work in conjunction with health class teachers to create a program for sixth-grade students.

Taldone said the time had come to hire someone to address the growing problem.

“In order to help those students and recognize the problems we are seeing in our school district, as well as the problems that are being seen in every school district right now, we felt that it needed and required someone with a specific background and training to address those young people and work as well with families to see if we can make some changes and help some students get the help that they need,” she said in a phone interview.

Heather Reilly has accepted the position of drug and alcohol counselor in the Three Village Central School District. Photo from Heather Reilly

Reilly, a licensed social worker with a master’s degree in forensic psychology, said she has two years of substance abuse counseling, which will be her main focus in the district, along with prevention. She has worked with the Long Island-based nonprofit WellLife Network, which focuses on healthy recovery and wellness, and also has experience conducting screenings for mental health and drug courts. Children can come to the counselor even if a family member or friend is an alcoholic or addict. She said she is looking forward to reaching out to local agencies and developing a program rounded in research-based practices.

“It’s a very proactive approach as opposed to waiting for there to be an even bigger issue,” she said of the district’s decision to hire a counselor. “I’m very excited to be part of a new program — something that we can really get off the ground and really impact the community in a positive way.”

Reilly will also be available to families and faculty, and will be educating teachers, who she describes as “the first line of defense,” about the signs to look for and trends that sometimes include slang words to refer to drugs.

Reilly said treating children with substance abuse problems is different than working with adults, and it’s important for students to have someone they can trust and receive reliable information from.

“I think with children or adolescents, there’s less thought of the consequences in the future,” she said. “Their brains really aren’t developed in that way yet. It’s really important to come at students in a very nonjudgmental way. It’s normal to have these thoughts of curiosity and experimentation, but you really need to give them knowledge so they can make the most informed decisions. You’d be really surprised how little students know about the long-term consequences.”

The local problem with drugs is something Ward Melville High School Principal Alan Baum said he never shied away from. In 2014, he was trained to administer Narcan, a medicine used to reverse the effects of opioids. After his experience, he had the high school staff trained in its use. Now, all secondary school teachers and nurses in the district have also been trained. Three Village aims to have elementary school teachers qualified in the near future.

Baum said more than 10 years ago there was a substance counselor through BOCES, but the position was removed. He is pleased that the district has now hired someone that can focus on the drug and alcohol issues facing the community. Both Baum and Reilly said another problem is vaping, which is the practice of inhaling or exhaling vapors produced by an electronic cigarette, a device that can also hold marijuana.

Although the principal said he has not seen an increase in the number of kids addicted or seeking help, and has never had to have Narcan administered within the confines of the school buildings in the area, he thought the hiring of a counselor was still a necessary move.

“Just like any other suburban area, this is an unfortunate fact of life that exists no matter where you are,” Baum said. “It’s not unique to Three Village, it’s not unique to Suffolk County. This happens across the state and across the nation. We have a problem and I want to do whatever we can to help and tackle and address this issue.”

Cheryl Pedisich, the district’s superintendent, echoed Baum’s sentiments.

“The Three Village Central School District takes a proactive and steadfast approach to educating our students and residents about the dangers of drug and alcohol use, and has dedicated robust resources to both prevention and intervention services for students and their families,” she said in a statement. “This year, we are proud to expand upon past practices through the introduction of a certified drug and alcohol counselor and an enhanced preventive K-12 curriculum. We truly believe that it is through these initiatives and services that we are able to fulfill our mission of providing a well-rounded social, emotional and wellness program.”

Debuting gender-neutral green gowns, accented with gold stoles, Ward Melville High School’s graduating seniors took their places in front of the school’s clock tower Sunday.

A satisfying cap to the Three Village school district’s 50th year, more than 600 students received diplomas at the commencement ceremony.

Ward Melville’s principal Dr. Alan Baum reminded those in the class of 2017 that they come from a 50-year tradition of greatness and will continue the tradition because they are “unbounded and unlimited.”

Salutatorian Isabelle Scott and Valedictorian Kirti Nath celebrated the individual gifts of their classmates.

“There is no person here without accomplishment today,” Scott said. “Parents, faculty, our victory is yours, too.”

The salutatorian urged her classmates to be true to themselves.

“I hope, if nothing else, that you do the things to make yourself proud,” she said. “Your life deserves nothing less.”

Nath encouraged her classmates to look on their mistakes as opportunities to move forward or gain strength.

“We don’t have to pretend that everything in high school is easy, because that’s what makes today so uniquely special,” she said. “And even though you may not have realized it at the moment, every fall was indeed a fall forward, moving us closer to success — and, if not success, then strength.”

The class gift — additional picnic tables for the football field — was presented by Brandon Cea, student government president.

Three Village school board president, William F. Connors, had advice for the soon-to-be graduates.

“I urge you to work hard, work to your potential and believe in yourself,” Connors said.

Photo courtesy of Three Village School District

By Michael Tessler

Throughout our brief but impactful history, America’s protesters have accomplished quite a bit. From the Sons of Liberty dumping nearly $1.7 million worth of English tea into Boston Harbor (talk about destruction of property) to Dr. King sharing his dream during the March on Washington. Protests, petitions, walkouts and other acts of civil disobedience certainly have earned their chapter in the American story, not always for good reasons, unfortunately.

My first protest was back in 1999 at Scraggy Hill Elementary in Port Jefferson. Things, as you may remember, were a bit simpler back then. Before the advent of social media, before digital petitions and fake news blogs we were forced to have conversations with one another.

Esther Fusco, my former principal, had an office tucked away behind the school’s reception area. Inside she had an old-fashioned metal candy dispenser that only accepted pennies. Whenever you were called into her office, she made sure you got to crank out a handful of M&Ms. Between that and her famed “Star Assemblies,” there was a lot to love as a student.

Unfortunately, for reasons beyond the comprehension of a six-year-old, Dr. Fusco had her assignment changed by the school board and was no longer working in the school. When I heard she was gone, I went home and asked quite innocently, “Where’s Dr. Fusco?” That unknowingly became the rallying call for the first protest I ever participated in.

My mom, an impassioned activist for early childhood education, organized with other community members to picket, protest and attend meetings. This was an extraordinary lesson in civics for a little boy and one that I treasure to this day. You can imagine my excitement when almost 20 years later I hear about petitions circulating through Ward Melville High School. Young people were speaking up about an issue they were passionate about.

The new cap and gown style at Ward Melville High School. Photo from Three Village School District

To provide a bit of context, Ward Melville’s principal introduced a new uniformed graduation gown that combines the school’s signature green and gold. In the past, they had been separated by gender. However, with the school’s growing transgender and gender-fluid population, they wanted to adjust with the times. Naturally, there was pushback as it was altering a 50-year tradition.

What should have followed was a debate on the BEST method to preserve tradition while accommodating changing times and the needs of the student body. What actually transpired was unfortunately quite the opposite. Petitions began to grow and with them hateful comments about transgender and gay/lesbian individuals.

During a student walkout, several students held up signs saying “STRAIGHT LIVES MATTER” and imagery often associated with the former Confederate States. There’s a fundamental difference between fighting for tradition and using the guise of tradition as a means of marginalizing another group.

Here’s the unfortunate reality: 41 percent of transgender youth and 20 percent of gay/lesbian/bisexual youth will attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Just for perspective, 4.6 percent of the general population will attempt suicide. Words matter, and if you’re wondering how those numbers got to be so staggering, look no further than the comments on some of these petitions.

If someone is willing to keep something like that a secret for their whole life, if the pain of that secret is enough cause for them to take their own life, then who the heck am I to question who they are and why? We were not born wearing blue or pink. We were born human beings and being human isn’t always easy so let’s stop making it harder on each other.

Nonviolence and peaceful demonstrations remain the second greatest force of change in this country next to democracy itself. To my young friends at Ward Melville, on all sides, keep fighting for what you believe in. Do so however, while showing respect and civility. You are stewards not just of your own rights, but those of all Americans. Just remember, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

Seriously though, where is Dr. Fusco? If anyone sees her, please tell her Michael Tessler sends his regards. I’m 18 years overdue for some M&Ms!

Ward Melville's graduation ceremony will look a little different this year. File photo

Things will look a little different at Ward Melville High School’s graduation ceremony this year.

Gone now are the separate green and gold gowns for males and females. Replacing them, are gender-neutral green ones with gold stoles that feature the high school emblem, breaking the school’s half-century commencement tradition.

“This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Three Village Central School District, we are focusing on honoring the traditions of the past, while building new traditions for our future,” Ward Melville High School Principal Alan Baum wrote in a letter posted on the school district’s website March 2.

The letter came after nearly 100 students participated in a walkout March 1, protesting the news of even the possibility of a color change.

One of the factors considered in making the decision was to meet the concerns of transgender and gender-fluid students.

“In addition to creating a unified senior class, it is our hope that creating a unifying color scheme will eliminate the anxiety that is caused by forcing a young adult to wear a gown that labels them differently than how they identify,” Baum wrote in the letter. “This decision also reflects the progressive nature of our district, our high school and our community. Through the use of the unified gowns, we are no longer separating our students by gender; rather, we will be promoting a more inclusive practice at graduation.”

News of the gown change circulated on social media Feb. 28, prompting a number of students to start petitions and participate in the walkout.

Seniors Brianna LaSita, Charlotte Schmidt and Isabelle Antos were motivated to start a petition on Change.org to support same-colored gowns. The trio sent a joint statement to The Village Times Herald to explain their motive.

“We created our petition in response to the petition that was made in support of keeping the traditional colored gowns,” the three wrote. “As it gained supporters and hateful comments, we decided we needed to support our class and protect our LGBTQA+ peers from the hateful rhetoric featured on signs during the walkout.”

Some of the signs held by students had slogans like “Straight Lives Matter” and “Don’t Tread On Me.”

David Kilmnick, CEO of the LGBT Network, a Long Island-based nonprofit, said the organization heard about the debate after the walkout. He said a few students from the school emailed his group seeking help, claiming they heard anti-transgender rhetoric spewed from students and teachers.

“Through the use of the unified gowns, we are no longer separating our students by gender; rather, we will be promoting a more inclusive practice at graduation.”

— Principal Alan Baum

The CEO said the decision to have one gown color solves the issue of transgender children feeling a sense of anxiety when it comes to choosing a color. He said when making such a decision, most feel that if they choose the color that represents their true identity, they’ll risk harassment from their peers. If they don’t choose the color, they’re “not feeling whole in who they are.”

“This is not as simple as black and white, or even about green and gold anymore — this fair debate over tradition has devolved into an excuse to promote transphobic hate speech,” the petitioner organizers wrote. “That is not what our community is about.”

As of March 8, their petition to support the same colored gowns had almost 700 signatures. One petitioner wrote on the site: “I would be so grateful if we can all leave Ward Melville more loving and empathetic individuals, we should always be working to ensure that all of our class feels comfortable every day but especially a day as special as graduation.”

A senior at the high school, who asked to remain anonymous, said many students were disappointed by the color change, especially after having already had their senior portraits taken adhering to the now-former color tradition. The school rectified the problem by notifying parents March 7 that students could retake their graduation photos at no additional cost.

According to the student, it was felt the gown change was made by the administration after consulting with only a few students.

The senior wrote that even though a portion of the student body felt the change was only based on the needs of transgender students, those upset were not discriminating against anyone, but were just hoping to continue tradition.

“My issue, and the issue that my peers that participated in a walkout protest during class today share, is that a choice is being made that benefits a minute minority of people, not the majority,” the student said. “This is an underlying theme that is playing out across the country. Lawmakers, educators and school administrators are making changes based on what a small population wants, not what the majority of the school or state or the entire nation feels is right.”

Ward Melville’s old cap and gowns were green for boys and yellow for girls. File photo by Bob O’Rourk

Jennifer Segui, who is the mother of two children at W.S. Mount Elementary School, said she was disappointed when she read a number of negative reactions on social media after the decision.

“It would have been so beautiful if the idea of the new graduation gowns had been embraced by all students and parents from the beginning,” Segui said. “Sadly, that didn’t happen. Hopefully, people can learn and move forward.”

But the anonymous student said those who participated in the protest felt as though the administration did not listen to opinions from most of the students when making the decision.

“Instead of listening to our voices, our principal brought our protest in the auditorium, and basically stifled our statements in what was a clear attempt to silence us,” the student said. “It is clear, to me at least, that the school has no intention of doing what is right. They would rather follow in popular culture than face the fact that what they are doing is blatantly unfair. Again, I carry no prejudice. I speak with the basic ideal of a democratic republic that what is done should be decided by the majority.”

Ward Melville isn’t the first Long Island school to break tradition, following in the footsteps of Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington and Island Trees High School in Levittown. Kilmnick said he feels the administration made a bold move in the right direction.

“I think we’re seeing a movement,” Kilmnick said. “Even though Ward Melville is the third school on Long Island to do this, I think we’ll see a lot more on Long Island. And we’re certainly seeing schools across the country getting rid of the separate colored gowns because they’re not inclusive for all students. What the change does, in fact, is let everyone in Ward Melville wear green and gold, from looking at the new gown, and it allows the entire school to move forward as one community, and to celebrate graduation in a safe, inclusive manner — and make graduation celebratory for all.”

A six-year-old James meets Hillary Clinton in 2008. Photo from Anne Shybunko-Moore

On Friday, Jan. 20, about 900,000 people are expected to be gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to witness Donald Trump being sworn in as the nation’s 45th president.

Among the crowd of thousands will be selected future leaders from schools across the country, including James Moore, a sophomore at Ward Melville High School, who will represent Long Island in a five-day program surrounding the historic event.

The Presidential Inauguration Leadership Summit, held between Jan. 18 and 22, gives students like James the opportunity to take part in a series of workshops, seminar discussions and presentations that coincide with the inauguration, listen to world-renowned speakers — some of this year’s honored guests include General Colin Powell, the youngest-ever Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai via video satellite, renowned filmmaker Spike Lee, former governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley (D) and Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson — and gain a perspective on local, national and global issues facing their generation.

Ward Melville High School student James Moore will attend the Presidential Inauguration in Washington, D.C. Jan. 20. Photo from Anne Shybunko-Moore

James was invited to participate in the exclusive experience as an alumnus of the Junior National Young Leaders Conference, which he was chosen to join by his elementary school teacher when he was entering seventh grade.

He served on the student council and Junior Honor Society while at Gelinas Junior High in East Setauket, received Triple C Award upon graduating sixth grade for demonstrating outstanding “Courage, Character, and Commitment throughout the school,” has volunteered at Island Harvest packaging food for the homeless and received the New York State Scholar-Athlete Team Award in 2015 as a varsity-level track runner who maintained a GPA of 90 percent or better during the season.

Additionally, James volunteers at Setauket Presbyterian Church by helping to teach Sunday school.

“Being part of history is a big part of why I wanted to go,” James said in an interview. “I’m looking forward to hearing the other side of politics, how people are seeing things from around the country, and just getting to be with people who are similar to me … it’s cool to be able to think and be part of this [moment] together.”

He said the 2016 presidential election was “surprising” and “interesting to watch.”

“I remember waking up after the election was over going ‘wow, that happened?’” he said. “[But] I’m not upset with it and I’m not going to go out and complain about it but it threw me off.”

While he said he’s excited about learning more about the political process, and hearing Yousafzai’s speak in particular, the 15-year-old from Setauket is no stranger to interacting with major politicians and voicing his thoughts on social, environmental and community issues in public forums.

In fact, as the son of two presidents of major defense and trade manufacturing companies on Long Island whose event guest lists frequently include Hillary and Bill Clinton, James has been politically engaged practically since birth.

“He’s met Bill and Hillary a few times, Congressman Steve Israel, Congressman Tim Bishop; he’s met these folks and he’s very confident and comfortable in speaking with people in leadership roles,” his mother, GSE Dynamics President Anne Shybunko-Moore, said. “James has grown up in a very aware environment … because of what I do, we’re always watching the news and talking about the issues.”

“I remember waking up after the election was over going ‘wow, that happened?’”

— James Moore

James even participated in Hillary Clinton’s campaign last February and is interested in an internship position at Assemblyman Steve Englebright’s (D-Setauket) office.

His mother said her son has a “sincere realness” that makes him a natural leader.

“He’s always been very thoughtful,” she said. “He’ll see a situation and be like ‘what can I do to help or change that?’ That’s just who he is.”

James’ father, Manufacturing Consortium of Long Island President Jamie Moore, said he hopes his son gets a “fire lit” and obtains an understanding of what he can do with his life from his experience in Washington.

“I see so many of these kids just kind of floating through, and playing Pokemon Go or whatever, and there are so many opportunities they could be doing to increase their knowledge, help out other people, help other communities and this is one of those things that will hopefully help open his eyes and give him some ideas,” he said. “We try to craft that by giving him enough experiences to get out there and try new things.”

While in D.C., James said he’ll be following his program itinerary by day and studying for his school midterms by night.

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