Village Times Herald

Risco Mention-Lewis, left, was named deputy comissioner in 2012. She said she sees today’s protests as a genuine moment for legitimate reform. File photo

Risco Mention-Lewis, who has been a Deputy Police Commissioner since 2012, talked with TBR News Media about the recent protests on Long Island and about the relationship between the police and communities of color. The deputy commissioner supported the Constitutionally protected right to protest. Mention-Lewis was an assistant district attorney in Nassau County and has served as the first African American Deputy Police Commissioner in Suffolk County. In a wide-ranging interview, which is edited for space, Mention-Lewis offered her candid assessment of the civil unrest and the questions about police triggered by the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the end of May.

TBR: Have you spent time at the protests?

Mention-Lewis: I have not spent a lot of time at the protests. If I can’t [be there], I know somebody who knows somebody. It’s six degrees of separation. I run a support group for previously incarcerated [called Council of Thought and Action, or COTA]. A lot of the guys in that population are marching. Some of them are in the heads of the group, next to the person leading. I can reach out and see if I can have a dialog.

TBR: You did go to Mastic [on June 1]. What happened there?

Mention-Lewis: The young people needed a little conversation and guidance. I was there for 4.5 hours. My knees were so crimped that I couldn’t get into my car.

TBR: What did you do in Mastic?

Mention-Lewis: When they started getting a little out of control, jumping on the Sunrise [Highway], I thought if I could get on the ground and have a conversation, I could help them rethink the way they protest. There’s nothing wrong with protesting. America wouldn’t be here [if we didn’t protest].

TBR: What is your role in these protests?

Mention-Lewis: I’m the Deputy Police Commissioner. The way I look at it, the time we’re in is the time I was born for. My whole career has brought me to be who I am in this moment in time. 

TBR: Can you offer some examples?

Mention-Lewis: All the things I’ve been doing my career are coming together. I’ve been talking about race my entire career. I’ve been talking about disparate treatment in criminal justice. [I have supported] more resources for previously incarcerated people and people of color my entire career. If we want to drive down crime, you have less reentry to do if you do more intervention. We’re focused on the back end, when we could do much more on the front end.

“People in Hauppauge don’t need a Department of Labor as much as people Wyandanch. Why not put resources where they are needed, where people don’t have cars?”

— Risco Mention-Lewis

TBR: What are some of the solutions on the front end?

Mention-Lewis: Police spend a lot of time in minority communities. They are learning to spend time in the community versus as an outsider. They are learning about the youth centers, resource centers. They are talking to those guys on the corner. When I first got here, I hung out on the corner more than I did anything else. I know that was weird. What is the Deputy Police Commissioner doing on the corner? That’s where you get your connections and your influence, getting to know people.

TBR: What sorts of resources do people need?

Mention-Lewis: Part of our job is to make information accessible, to make resources accessible. That’s why I work with [County Executive Steve] Bellone and [Babylon Town Supervisor Rich] Schaffer to make sure the resource center has what is needed in a resource center. If I have to travel two to 2.5 hours on a bus, I’m not getting that resume done. Go online? What if I don’t have Internet. What if I only have a laptop or a cell phone? The resource center needs to have computers. Some communities need a Department of Labor in the neighborhood.

TBR: Like where?

Mention-Lewis: It’s simple, common sense. People in Hauppauge don’t need a Department of Labor as much as people Wyandanch. Why not put resources where they are needed, where people don’t have cars?

TBR: Are protestors talking about any of this?

Mention-Lewis: A lot of protests are talking about [how they want] better. Okay, have you done the research?

TBR: Have the police been effective in making community connections?

Mention-Lewis: We’ve done a really good job of getting into our communities. It’s why we didn’t have incidents [during the over 100 protests]. We had people on bikes talking with people before the marches started.

TBR: Are the protests creating change?

Mention-Lewis: Humans navigating life in white skin have the privilege of not thinking about race, until now. However, because they have not thought about it, they often may not know how to think about it. I’m a practical person. I want resources in the community and also help the Police Department Command understand the framing in the moment.

TBR: Are African American residents skeptical of government resources?

Mention-Lewis: One of the largest things that the government and policing need to understand: because of the history of America, Black people, even if sometimes you bring the resources, [think] it’s a suspect resource. There’s the Tuskegee experiment [in which Black men with syphilis didn’t receive treatment, even when penicillin became the standard of care in 1947. The study continued until the press reported it, in 1972].

TBR: What’s the impact of the Tuskegee Experiment?

Mention-Lewis: There’s always this undercurrent of mistrust, and rightfully so. The Tuskegee experiment went into the early 1970s. We’re talking about recent impacts on Black communities. White communities are not aware all the time. When that body was found in Huntington, people think about lynching. The police may not know, but there are six across the country that Black people are paying attention to. If you don’t know the cultural context, it’s difficult to be having the conversation.

TBR: How do you create the cultural context?

Mention-Lewis: If there are suicides or murders, it [doesn’t matter] in the sense of cultural context. People are concerned, even if the police say they are all suicides. Even if the police say they are all suicides, people of color say, ‘we know they don’t always tell us the truth, especially when we die.’

TBR: What can help develop that cultural context?

Mention-Lewis: We talk to leadership. We talk to families. We have a press conference with all of us and not just the police. When we start thinking about cultural context, how do we communicate taking into account that cultural context? It’s the same with recruitment. We have a low number of African Americans in the police department. We have to talk about the 1,000 pound invisible elephant in the room.

TBR: What’s your focus in the Police Department?

Mention-Lewis: Criminal justice and driving down violence in communities.

TBR: How do you think Suffolk County has done in the police department?

Mention-Lewis: We are ahead of the game. We’ve been working with the Department of Justice for many years. The DOJ is saying we have one of the best implicit bias training programs. They asked us to teach the Ferguson [Missouri Police Department, where a white police officer killed Michael Brown in 2014]. We have been doing community relations in a different way for years. We know how to work with leadership, whether that’s minority, Muslim, Black, Jewish. We know to go to leadership in churches and synagogues to get and receive information to be culturally competent.

“We’ve been working with the Department of Justice for many years. The DOJ is saying we have one of the best implicit bias training programs.”

— Risco Mention-Lewis

TBR: What are you doing to improve the process?

Mention-Lewis: We are doing traffic stop data to look at whether the stops are fair and just. We are doing a community survey to ask how we are doing. How do you know unless you ask? 

TBR: Who is looking at the traffic stop data?

Mention-Lewis: The Finn Institute.

TBR: What do you expect the Institute’s research on traffic stops will show?

Mention-Lewis: That we have work to do, but we’re willing to do it. Most data will always reveal you have work to do.

TBR: What is the methodology of the Finn study?

Mention-Lewis: With the data collection, the study will show when an officer stops a car, the race, date, time and location [of the traffic stop]. If we look at this person’s history, there might be an issue here that we can fine tune.

TBR: The results could show a range of responses, right?

Mention-Lewis: You give the rules, you test to see whether the rules are in place, then you retrain or you congratulate, depending on what’s going on.

TBR: Are you pleased that the SCPD is conducting this study?

Mention-Lewis: We are not perfect. What we have in place are systems to check the system. The community is checking us, too. The community is not just complaining to one another. They are making complaints to us.

TBR: Why isn’t the SCPD using body cameras?

Mention-Lewis: The biggest reason is the cost. It’s millions of dollars for the cameras plus the storage. It’s a great idea. We should have them, eventually. They are going to be across the United States.

TBR: What do you think of the justice system?

Mention-Lewis: We are moving in the right direction as a county. The courts should follow suit because we know with sentencing, statistically, nationally, there are issues. All this is, is an opportunity for every aspect of society to look in the mirror and say, ‘what can I do and what knowledge do I need to do my best effort?’

TBR: How do you think the police has responded to protests?

Mention-Lewis: We don’t say we are a community response unit. We are not looking to respond when something happens. That’s not our relationship with the community. We do community relations. We want to have a relationship year-round. When something happens, that’s not the first time you’re talking to us. Whatever community we’re in, we’re looking to be a part of the solution, working with the community to problem solve. We have people on bike patrol getting to know the protesters at every march.

TBR: Do you think people believe the police are protecting and serving them?

Mention-Lewis: There’s two cultures in policing: the warrior and the guardian. The warrior is what many departments have become. The guardian is what is being promoted as what we should be. Those are just words. How do our actions correspond with that? Black communities in particular have had more of a warrior treatment. How do we partner with the community to listen and deal with problems differently in those communities, effectively but differently?

TBR: Do the police serve the variety of communities effectively?

Mention-Lewis: You should be able to sit down with us and express what you feel we should have done differently. We should be willing to listen. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to walk away satisfied. We will try to figure out how to do it better.

TBR: Have protestors asking for anything unreasonable?

Mention-Lewis: The Mastic kids were asking for a youth center, or some place where they can have activities. That’s reasonable. They were asking for criminal justice reform. Okay, do your research so you know what that means. Be an educated protestor. I haven’t heard ‘defund the police.’ If someone says, ‘no racist police.’ We shouldn’t be offended by that. If they say, no f-ing police, that’s offensive. Some people want to yell in people’s faces unguarded. We have to deal with that as professionals. They are not yelling at us anyway. They are yelling at the officer on the Internet. We are carrying ourselves well through the process.

TBR: How is the police department doing in recruiting people from all communities?

Mention-Lewis: We worked hard with the community to recruit people of color. In the last recruitment class, 34 percent of the applicants identify as people of color. That hasn’t happened in the history of the department. Right now, there are 2 percent [African Americans] in the department. We’re not perfect, but we are doing the damn thing.

TBR: What are some of the easiest things to change?

Mention-Lewis: All departments should have implicit bias training. Across the country, I didn’t know this, we banned chokeholds 30 years ago and there’s still people doing it today. We need national standards for policing so that when people across the country have other rules, they don’t affect our reputation. We’re not perfect.

Fireworks in Port Jefferson for Independence Day 2019. Photo by David Ackerman

As the county prepares for a Fourth of July following a painful spring, county officials and health care providers reminded residents to remain safe during fireworks displays and to continue to follow health guidelines.

Steve Sandoval, Associate Professor of Surgery and Medical Director of the Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center at Stony Brook University Hospital, urged residents to be cautious around fireworks and barbecues.

The best way to avoid injuries is to “prevent the burn in the first place with safety tips and precautions to eliminate potential dangers,” Sandoval said in a statement.

The Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center offered 10 tips, which included viewing fireworks used by professionals, not leaving hot coals or fire pits, not using the stove top, fire pit or fireplace when residents are tired or have had alcohol.

“If burned, do you go anywhere but a facility that specializes in burn treatment,” Sandoval said.

The Suffolk County Police Department, meanwhile, warned residents of counterfeit oxycodone. Detectives recently seized pills that bear the markings of 30 mg of oxycodone but that were fentanyl instead, which is 1,000 times more potent than morphine. Ingestion can cause overdose and death. The department warned residents that people buying these pills may not be able to distinguish between the counterfeit pills and prescription oxycodone.

Viral Numbers

After two days without a death related to complications from COVID-19, two residents died in the past 24 hours. The total number of residents who have died from the virus is 1,983.

The number of new infections over the last day was 47, bringing the total to 41,538. Gregson Pigott, the Commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said new infections crossed a whole spectrum of ages and included people in their 20’s.

The county distributed 30,000 pieces of personal protective equipment over the last day.

After the success of drive in movies at the Smithpoint County Park, the county is opening a second site for movies, at the Suffolk County Community College on the Grant Campus in Brentwood. The series will include “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” July 8, “The Karate Kid” July 9, “Matilda” on the 10th and “Back to the Future” on the 11th. Residents interested in getting free tickets can register through suffolkcountyny.gov/driveinmovies.

METRO photo

It was the winter of 2007 to 2008 when the financial crisis hit. Years of excessive risky loans by banks (and others) and a downturn in the subprime lending market resulted in several years of economic hurt. Many lost their jobs and homes. Some say we truly have never recovered.

For the young people graduating high school or college just over a decade ago, it was walking blind toward a cliff’s edge. They went through school with certain expectations, but the jobs once promised to be there upon graduation were gone. In the following years, young people took what was available, much of the time it was low-paying service industry jobs without a real hope of promotion. A new kind of employment, something people started to call the “gig economy,” was born. People worked freelance without a chance for receiving health insurance through an employer or have any kind of job security.

Now we face a new impending time of economic peril, and there are many thousands of young people graduating this year from high school or college on Long Island.

We as parents and residents need to ask ourselves, “What will we do for them to make sure they can make it out there in a time of wild unpredictability and economic inhospitability?”

Research indicates that people who graduate in a time of economic tension can remain in worse straits than their peers for over a decade. A 2019 study in the Journal of Labor Economics showed the pay and employment rate for people who graduated during the Great Recession have remained relatively low, even after several years. Millennials, the youngest of whom are 24 while the oldest are nearing 40, hold just 3 percent of America’s wealth compared to 21 percent that the baby boomer generation held at around the same age, according to a 2019 U.S. Federal Reserve report. 

This is a pivotal time for young people entering the job market, as not only is this when they can start to accrue wealth and build up savings, but it’s a means to start grinding away at what can be tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. 

Without early starts to their careers, young people will end up running in place, making enough to live but not enough to build their credit or finances (though on Long Island it’s rare they will be able to afford the rent to even the smallest apartment). 

It’s time as a nation we seriously have to consider governmental action to save the future for our graduates. Yes, that includes student loan forgiveness programs, as there is potentially no worse idea than saddling a young person — who likely never even signed a check before — with thousands upon thousands in debt to either private firms or the U.S. government. Even more people will be looking to college as a way to build their job prospects, so it’s time we look at additional subsidies for college. We should also start thinking of handing out incentives to companies willing to hire people fresh out of school.

An unregulated financial sector helped cause the 2008 economic collapse. Now with the pandemic, more research has shown if the government, both state and federal, had responded to the crisis with lockdowns sooner, we could have saved more lives and potentially restarted our economy faster and smoother. 

What’s done is done, but the fact is young people had no part in causing this economic downturn. Let’s have us as parents and neighbors think about how we can still help young people get ahead in life, for the sake of their entire generation.

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

America was reluctant to enter both World Wars and yet we won them both, at a tremendous cost to previous generations.

Today, as we continue to battle through the coronavirus, I’d like to think we will persevere. We don’t need political spin. We have plenty of that from both sides.

We need a sense of optimism, of shared purpose and of a keen belief that we will prevail through hard work and a readiness to innovate and adapt. We see so many horrific headlines about the number of people who test positive and who are threatening the capacity of health care systems in Florida and Texas, among others.

Even as we do everything we can to protect our health and the safety of our friends and family, we need to believe in ourselves and in our ability to work together. Defeating the virus takes more than ignoring it or claiming victory for political expediency.

Whoever wins this presidential election in this incredibly challenging year will have enormous work to do. 

Even a vaccine that is tested and produced in mass quantities by the early part of next year, which seems spectacularly optimistic but is still possible, doesn’t automatically put us back on the path to the world of 2019.

After all, the flu vaccine doesn’t eradicate the illness. It comes back with a vengeance some years. Some people who receive the shot still get sick, oftentimes with less severe symptoms.

We need to recognize that the world has changed. We’ve had time to process it and to adjust, even if we’re sick of the new rules. We need to use all the space we have to turn what seems like a nuisance and an inconvenience into a modern triumph.

The country can and should rethink everything from ways to attend sporting events to the specific needs of the home office. Maybe sports stadiums should remove seats, put picnic tables in front of patrons and make the game-time experience for fans look different because, for the foreseeable future, it will be.

Yes, I know, that will cost an incredible amount of money, but it would also give patrons a chance to enjoy their own space, instead of hoping for a time machine that brings us back to an era when we gave strangers a high five when our team scored.

Maybe waiters and waitresses can provide virtual personalized service, connecting through online services that deliver, via conveyor belt beneath those tables, contactless food to guests.

We need to renovate our homes to enjoy the new reality. Maybe we need virtual artwork we can add to our walls, that helps expand our small rooms and that changes at the flick of a switch. Maybe we also can figure out ways to create virtual assembly lines, where workers provide their part of a mechanized process from a distance, in a basement, workspace, or outside in their enclosed yards. It may not be as efficient, because someone might have to transport those parts, but those driving opportunities also create jobs for people who become a part of a new, virtual factory.

We may want to go back to the way things were, but we need to recognize the realities, and the opportunities, that come from moving forward. Moving on will require us to develop new ideas, create new jobs, and believe in ourselves. We have survived and thrived through challenges before, by pulling together, by innovating, and by tapping into the combination of ingenuity and hard work. People are prepared to put in the effort to earn their own version of the American Dream. We need innovations, new businesses, and inspirations that reignite the economy, while protecting our health.

METRO photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

O! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, that is the first stanza of our national anthem, the star-spangled banner. It has been my experience, at ballgames and other public gatherings (remember those?) where the anthem has played, that many Americans do not know all the words. In fact, not a lot of the words. In truth, not any of the words beyond the first two sentences. Confess: that’s you or your spouse or your children.

Now there is always a story behind every creation. In honor of our nation’s upcoming birthday, I thought I would tell you some of the controversial story and remind you of the words of at least the first and last of the four stanzas written by Francis Scott Key.

So who was Francis Scott Key and how did he come to write these words?

Key was a good-looking, rich American lawyer, author and amateur poet who was from Frederick, Maryland. Born August 1, 1779, three years after the start of the Revolutionary War, he lived to be 63, dying at the beginning of 1843. He was married to Mary (“Polly”) Tayloe Lloyd and they had eleven children. Incidentally, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a distant relative.

We remember that we learned of Key viewing the attack by the British on Fort McHenry from a ship outside Baltimore during the brief War of 1812, and how he could not tell, through the dark night, if the fort had fallen to the enemy. But at dawn, when he saw the flag still flying, he was inspired to write the poem in 1814 that was to become our national song.

His friends called him “Frank,” which often blended with Key to come out “Frankie.” He had a high profile, having been part of Andrew Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet, the unofficial advisers who were so influential. He defended a young Sam Houston in court on the latter’s trial over beating up an Ohio congressman. He was U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and he prosecuted the would-be assassin of President Jackson, who by the way was a Southern slaveholder.

Key, as a youth, had almost become an Episcopal priest, helped found two seminaries and wrote about poetry’s influence on religion. He also had a complicated and contradictory relationship with slavery. He personally owned six slaves, though he allegedly opposed the practice and eventually set them all free. Yet he did not do so for the many slaves his wife inherited and who worked the farm that provided much of the family’s income. He represented slaves for free in court who were trying to win their freedom, yet he was bitterly opposed to the abolitionist movement, and as U.S. district attorney, challenged its efforts. He strongly supported the colonization of former slaves in Africa, helping to found the colony of Liberia.

It is no surprise, then, that in the recent rush to tear down statues, his was toppled on Friday, June 19, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Today we have come to recognize that the imperfect Key is inseparably linked with slavery and pride in our nation.

O thus be it ever when free men shall stand

Between their lov’d homes and the war’s desolation!

Bless’d with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

William Sun

East Setuket’s William Sun ended the school year on a high note.

Sun is Ward Melville High School’s valedictorian with a 105.01 weighted average. The valedictorian is planning on attending Brown University in Rhode Island to major in computer science.

Sun attended Nassakeag Elementary School and then W.S. Mount Elementary for the district’s intellectually gifted classes. Before Ward Mellville, he studied at P.J. Gelinas Middle School. While he has lived in the Three Village area all his life, his father, Yan Sun, a doctor, and his mother, Hong Tan, a nurse, are originally from China and moved here in the 1990s and now run a doctor’s office.

Sun said attending Three Village through the years he has been surrounded by brilliant peers.

“There are so many smart people in this community,” he said.

During his high school career, he has been a member of the Ward Melville High School Varsity Science Olympiad Team and was also the president of the school’s math team and computer science club. He qualified for the International Science and Engineering Fair and won a silver medal at the Long Island math research competition. The valedictorian played piano and violin in the school’s ensembles and was named an All-State pianist, qualified as an All-State alternative for violin and toured in Spain and eastern Europe in eighth- and 10th-grade, respectively, through the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra. In 2020, he was named a National Merit Scholarship winner.

Among his activities and achievements, being the director, creator and manager of Piano for Patients has been one of his favorites. He and other student-musicians would play piano in the Stony Brook University Hospital lobby and over time other musicians became involved performing with other instruments. He’s hoping before he attends college and hands over his responsibilities to a younger student that the group can do one more performance in the summer, since they haven’t been able to perform during the pandemic. Recently, he and his piano teacher Daniel Fogel have organized an online concert as an alternative way to do community service through playing piano.

In addition to Piano for Patients, he volunteered at the hospital helping out with whatever needed to be done to lighten the load for workers, whether it was moving things around, making beds or cleaning floors.

He said choosing computer science came about since he’s been involved in programming since sixth- and seventh-grade, and he also took courses at Stony Brook University where he was involved in programming as well as researching different ways to find data.

“In the future, computer science is going to have a large impact and so I want to be a part of that,” he said, adding he thinks about working at places such as Google in the future.

He said among the teachers in the Three Village school district who had an influence on him was former Gelinas teacher Gary Vorwald, who was both his earth science teacher and the head of Science Olympiad in the school. The valedictorian remembers how the teacher would stay late at school to help students.

“It was the first time that I saw passion for science, he really made me want to join the Science Olympiad,” he said.

As the school was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sun said he kept himself busy with computer science projects and learning Mandarin.

As he leaves Ward Melville behind, he said he’s impressed with the younger students.

“This is really a tumultuous time but we’ve seen some amazing things, especially from the grades that are coming up,” he said. “People are really pushing for what they believe in. What I would say is fight for what you believe in, because with what’s going on now, people are really fighting for justice and such amazing things.”

Matthew Fiorella

Ward Melville’s salutatorian capped off the school year with a 104.85 weighted grade point average.

With the school year behind him, Matthew Fiorella is ready to head to the University of California, Los Angeles and major in engineering. He said when it came to choosing colleges it was down to the California school and the University of Michigan. He decided he would have better intern and job opportunities through UCLA. Plus, he said he liked California after visiting there a couple of times.

Originally living in Arizona and Ohio when he was younger, Fiorella moved to the Three Village Central School District for second grade. He started at Setauket Elementary School and then entered the Intellectually Gifted Program at Mount Elementary School in fourth grade. He continued his studies at P.J. Gelinas Junior High School.

During his high school career, Fiorella has kept busy both in and outside of school. He was the president of the Junior Model UN, a member of the National and Spanish honor societies and was named a National Merit Finalist. The salutatorian was also a member of the school’s band. He played first alto saxophone and was president of the wind ensemble. He also completed an internship at the biotechnology startup Vascular Simulations Inc.

As far as sports, he worked as a coach for the Three Village Youth Basketball organization and took part in the Sports Arena Basketball team.

He said balancing extracurriculars with schoolwork can be challenging.

“It’s trying not to waste time and not to procrastinate, which is difficult because it’s something that I think is natural to a lot of people,” he said. “I think being involved in a lot of things and moving around a lot helps me stay disciplined.”

Fiorella has been inspired by his father, Dr. David Fiorella, who works at Stony Brook University Hospital, and his mother, Andrea Fiorella, a former physical therapist. Besides his parents, Fiorella said his cousin David Lawrence has been an influence in his life.

Lawrence is an electrical engineer, which Fiorella found interesting because there are creative elements to that field, and he had the opportunity to tour his cousin’s workplace when he was younger.

“It was always very interesting to me, and it was really cool to see the more imaginative side of engineering, and it’s kind of what got me interested in it,” he said.

However, with a recent curiosity in history and politics during high school, he said he may even consider studying law in graduate school one day.

“I like engineering, but I don’t feel like I have had the chance to really validate that interest because most of the courses you take in school don’t reflect engineering until you get into college,” he said.

With senior year behind him, and a possible in-person graduation in July, the salutatorian said he and others never imagined the possibility that they might not have a prom or graduation.

“It’s hard because you really don’t know what you’re missing because you haven’t experienced it or something else like it,” he said. “I feel like it’s a very singular experience.”

For those students he leaves behind at Ward Melville High School, he said his advice would be not to stress so much about the day-to-day things and focus more on enjoying everything.

“This year has really shown there’s so much you really can’t plan for,” he said. “Even just in the way college decisions come out, you really realize that things aren’t the way you expected them to be. You just kind of have to accept it.”

Michael Bernstein on the Stony Brook University campus. Photo from Stony Brook University

As the 2019-2020 school year comes to a close, Stony Brook University’s recent interim president is returning to familiar territory.

Michael Bernstein will remain at SBU, even though his last day as interim president was June 30. On July 1 he returned to his former position as provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs. Last August, Bernstein took on the role of interim president after the departure of former president, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr.

Bernstein said he decided to stay after a request from new university president, Maurie McInnis, who was appointed in March, and added that a search for his replacement may take up to a year. He plans to move to California in the future.

“I’m in a position, I think, to help Maurie as she transitions in as the new president,” he said. “Obviously, we’re very much challenged with planning through this COVID emergency and figuring out how we’re going to manage the fall semester, not to mention the whole academic year.”

While the pandemic got in the way of working on some SBU goals such as strategic revisioning, strengthening a few of the business practices and revitalization of the computer system, he’s confident that McInnis, with whom he has been in constant contact since her appointment, will be prepared to take on the challenges once the 2020 fall semester can begin.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which required colleges and universities to switch to online learning and hold events virtually since March, Bernstein said he enjoyed his time as interim president overall.

“I was surrounded by a superb senior leadership team,” he said. “We were getting a lot done in terms of managing university affairs.”

Bernstein said he realized the importance of taking precautions early on once the number of COVID-19 cases started rising in the U.S.

“My sense was that we were in the midst of an emerging crisis that was going to accelerate pretty quickly and pretty dramatically,” he said. “We made a decision to shut down and start canceling major campus events pretty quickly.”

He said that the campus nearly closed earlier than it did but the school had to wait for directions from the State University of New York administration to coordinate with the broader school network. Bernstein said the last major event at the campus was the 2020 gala held at the Staller Center March 7.

“I had said at that point that we will have no more major campus events, and we were a little early when we made that decision,” he said.

While he received some pushback, he’s glad he made the decision.

“I think within a couple of weeks people were circling back to me saying, ‘That was the right decision, thank you for making it as quickly as you did.’ I think it became clear to people that we had to shut everything down.”

He added that shortly after the university cut back on public events, students were asked to head home, and spring break was extended to two weeks so the university could prepare for online learning.

He said at the last in-person university council meeting, it was realized they were all in the midst of a critical moment in their careers and that everyone would be defined by what decisions were made. While he said it was a challenging time, he remained positive.

“There’s the old saying, ‘Calm seas and blue skies do not make good sea captains,’” he said. “You’re not in a leadership position to work when things are calm. When things are calm and fine, you don’t need leaders.”

The Our Lady of Wisdom Regional School is closing at the end of this school year, according to the Diocese of Rockville Center. Photo by Kyle Barr

Our Lady of Wisdom Regional School in Port Jefferson will have closed by the end of the school year and will not reopen for fall2020. The coronavirus pandemic has hurt the institution, and Catholic officials said COVID-19 has exacerbated issues of progressively lagging enrollment.

The Our Lady of Wisdom Regional School is closing at the end of this school year, according to the Diocese of Rockville Center. Photo by Kyle Barr

According to a release by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the school, located on the grounds of the Infant Jesus R.C. Church in Port Jeff, along with two other Catholic schools on Long Island, have suffered from increased competition from public and other secular schools. This has led to more and more financial support needed from local parishes.

“Following much analysis and discussion with stakeholders at both the diocesan and parish levels, the pastors of the parishes that support each school have made the difficult decision to close,” the diocese states in the release.

Parents will need to work with the diocese’s Department of Education and other school officials to enroll their kids in different Catholic schools on Long Island.

“COVID-19 has had a significant financial impact on all of the parishes and schools within the diocese, resulting in the difficult decision to close these three Catholic elementary schools in order to eliminate the unsustainable financial stress on their parishes,” said Sean Dolan, a diocese spokesperson.

The diocese said in the release the school has declined in enrollment by 37 percent to just 66 students in kindergarten through eighthgrade. It is 31 percent, or 79 students, if you consider students from nursery through eighth-grade.

The school was financially supported by four local parishes, including Infant Jesus, St. Gerard Majella in Port Jefferson Station, St. James R.C. Church in Setauket and the St. Louis de Montfort in Sound Beach. The diocese said the four supporting parishes provide around $475,000 in operating support to the school, which accounts for more than 45 percent of the school’s total revenues. 

Our Lady of Wisdom Principal John Piropato and other school leaders did not return requests for comment.

The school was established by the Daughters of Wisdom, an order that has deep ties to Long Island, in 1938, then called the Infant Jesus Parish School. It was renamed to Our Lady of Wisdom in 1991. The sisterhood was largely uninvolved with it once it became a regional school, according to Sr. Cathy Sheehan of the Daughters of Wisdom.

Remembering Infant Jesus School

For the many students who went there over the past 80 years, many remember it as a strict place of learning, whether that fostered a sense of discipline or a harsh atmosphere. Once it transformed into a regional school, many said the place fostered a unique sense of community one couldn’t get from the other expanding school districts on Long Island.

Displants from the Port Jefferson/PJS area, folks who live as far away as New Mexico, chimed in remembering their old school.

Eileen Powers-Benedict said going to the Infant Jesus School engendered a strong sense of order that helped them get ahead in their school careers. The oldest of nine children, five brothers and three sisters, she would enter the school in 1961 while the last of the Powers children would graduate in 1985. Her father, William Powers, a deacon, was a frequent clergy visitor. Her mother, Tatty Powers, was a volunteer who did readings to those in prekindergarten through first grade. Powers-Benedict’s three children also went through the school.

She said while she understands why the school had to close, she is disappointed other parents will never have the choice to send their children there.

“The education for my siblings and me was all business, some of us came out a year ahead in foreign language and mathematics, although individualized instruction was not in style,” she said. “There was a tremendous air of compassion that supported students and their families in times of trouble and strife.” 

Michael Langan, who now lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut, was one of six children of World War II veterans Robert and Elizabeth Langan. He would graduate from the Infant Jesus School in 1968. 

He remembers even before the convent went up next to Infant Jesus church in the late ‘60s, when the nuns lived at a convent at St. Charles Hospital. The nuns would walk to the school or have a station wagon take them in bad weather.

Many of the nuns who taught at the school when he was there, Langan said, originated from Ontario, Canada. Many had marked French accents. Back then, he said behavioral discipline was very much the norm, including some amount of corporal punishment. 

“But in fact that was true of public and parochial schools back in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said,

Back then, he remembers, class sizes were much larger than today, with around 50 students.

One particular nun, Sr. Mary, he said, had “a beautiful soul — emblematic of the dedication of the Daughters of Wisdom who served the people of the Port Jefferson area for so many years.” She passed away this year on April 8.  

Not everyone accepted the nun’s punishment lightly. Deborah Keating, who now lives in Florida, said she graduated eighth-grade from the school in ’69, describing it as “a nightmare,” saying that some nuns could be abusive.

“Sr. Ann Michael, if you saw her coming, you knew you had better pray for your life,” Keating said. 

Though at the same time, her brother, who she said had Down syndrome, attended the Maryhaven facility in Port Jeff, which is also run by the Catholic church. There, she said the staff was very kind to him, and he went on to work as a janitor in the Maryhaven facility, He has since retired after working there 25 years, and lives with Keating at her home in Florida.

Things did change, especially as the years went by and the school changed names and leadership. MaryKate Henry, who lives in Babylon village, grew up in a middle-class household in Coram that she said worked hard to provide the Our Lady of Wisdom tuition for her and her siblings. She went there as it transformed into a regional school, and graduated eighth-grade in 2000 with a class of just 19. Her largest class size was in fourth=grade with 36 kids taught by one teacher. To this day, she still has friends that went there in her elementary years.

“That’s what I loved about OLOW — as we called it — everybody knew everybody, who your parents were and what they did and everyone was there for each other,” she said.

Faith was very much a part of the Catholic school, and she said that sense of religiousness has carried over into today. Her kids now attend the Babylon school district, and with a relatively small class size, she said it’s one of the things she hopes to have for her kids, a place that fosters community.

Marci Lobel. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Pregnant women with access to the outdoors are less stressed during the pandemic.

In fact, according to an unpublished finding that isn’t yet peer reviewed, pregnant women who had outdoor access were 67 percent less likely to worry about contracting the virus and 63 percent less likely to feel stress about being unprepared for the birth.

Lobel with a recent doctoral student, Jennifer Nicolo-SantaBarbara.

Stony Brook University recently awarded a project led by Dr. Heidi Preis in the Department of Psychology, with co-Principal Investigators Dr. Marci Lobel in the Department of Psychology and Dr. Brittain Mahaffey in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health that explored the link between stress and pregnancy. The researchers are hoping to identify what helps pregnant women and what may make them more vulnerable to the impacts of stress.

Stony Brook provided a total of $398,200 in seed funding to 17 research projects in response to the pandemic. Researchers at Stony Brook had put together 63 submissions, using a peer review process to choose the projects to fund, including the COVID-19 Pregnancy Experiences (or COPE) Study. The funding, which is for one year, is designed to provide the kind of seed funding that will lead to further research and that other funding agencies will support.

The COPE study tapped into a global network of collaborators that Lobel, who is the Director of the Stress and Reproduction Lab at SBU, established over the past 30 years to compare the different factors that mitigate or exacerbate stress for pregnant women in Spain, Israel, Italy, Germany Poland and Switzerland.

“The biological impact of COVID-19 is getting the lion’s share of attention, as it should,” said Lobel. “We don’t yet know enough about how the psychological impact will affect vulnerable groups, like pregnant women.”

Indeed, Lobel has spent three decades studying the effect of stress and related psychological factors on pregnancy. In other studies, major stressors, such as earthquakes, ice storms, and periods of warfare, confirm the toxic impact of prenatal stress, particularly for preterm births and low birth weight, she said.

Lobel and her colleagues created a self-report instrument called the Pandemic-Related Pregnancy Stress Scale, or PREPS, in which women report their specific concerns or anxieties caused by COVID-19.

Throughout the United States, the team sought responses from about 4,500 women recruited through social media at the end of April and the beginning of May.

Marci Lobel with her family at Yosemite in 2016. The photo credit is: Photo courtesy of Marci Lobel.

Among the women in the study, just over half of them were pregnant with their first child. In many studies that predated the current work, including some from her own research group, Lobel said women pregnant with their first child had higher levels of stress.

In some preliminary findings, 21.7 percent of pregnant women in the study reported severe levels of anxiety. “I think that is higher than what we typically would find in a population study of pregnant women,” Lobel said.

Women with a history of interpersonal violence also reported higher levels of stress and those whose prenatal appointments were canceled or altered were 1.78 times more likely to experience high stress related to a lack of preparedness and 1.49 times more likely to experience high stress related to worries about perinatal infection.

Some women in the study have found ways to reduce the accumulating stress about the health care crisis. The techniques that work for some women, Lobel said, may not work for others, suggesting that stress relief is specific to the individual and is usually determined by the situation itself.

“I don’t recommend any particular way of coping,” Lobel said. “What works for one may not work for another. It’s good to have a tool kit with lots of ways of coping.”

Indeed, some of the techniques pregnant women have found helpful include meditation, prayer, and faith-based practices. Pregnant women have also benefited from social support, which is particularly important during the pandemic when some women may feel “literally and figuratively isolated from others,” Lobel said.

Of all the research Lobel has done, the one that has received the most attention and landed her in the bible for pregnant women, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” was a study on optimism. She found that women who were more optimistic had better birth outcomes due in part to the better are they took of their health during pregnancy.

Coping with stress by avoidance predicts increases in emotional distress, Lobel explained. This corroborates much research which shows that avoidance is usually an ineffective way to cope with stress, except in limited cases such as when a stressful situation is brief and uncontrollable.

When people avoid the things that bother them, they can do it cognitively or through alcohol, which is especially dangerous for pregnant women and their developing fetuses. Avoidance can also involve excessive sleeping, as pregnant women may decide they don’t want to deal with life and stay in bed all day.

The scientists plan to collect a second set of data from these women, who were recruited through social media and who represent a diverse socioeconomic background, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other factors, on July 15th.

Lobel said she already has some preliminary, unpublished findings from Poland, which are showing the same kinds of stressors and distress among pregnant women. Polish women have expressed stress related to worries about lack of preparation for birth during the pandemic and stress related to worries about infection.

Lobel said the researchers hope to explore a host of questions as they collect more information. They hope to look at obsessions and compulsions and would like to measure anger. They also will measure levels of depression and anxiety and will compare that to the norms for non-pregnant women.

On the other side of the stress meter, the group will study how being pregnant during the pandemic may help some women appreciate their pregnancy more. For some women, the pregnancy may give them strength to deal with the pandemic, as they focus on having a baby.

The researchers will also explore the level of control women feel over the outcome of their pregnancy and the health of their baby. Feeling in control can create a positive response associated with lower distress.

While Lobel and her colleagues won’t answer all these questions in a year, they hope their initial studies will lead to more funding and research. “Hopefully, we’ll get a [National Institutes of Health] grant to follow up these women for a couple of years to study them and their children to see if there are any developmental or mental or physical health effects” of the pandemic.