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Huntington Station

Suffolk County police car. File photo

At about 1:30 a.m. May 26, Suffolk County Police officers rescued five people, including a 6-year old and a 15-year old, from a fire in Huntington Station.

After a 911 call, officers found the building at 1344 New York Avenue, which has a commercial business on the first floor and two apartments on the second floor, on fire.

The family at the rear of the building climbed to the roof, where they awaited help. Officer Giacomo Marchese steadied a ladder as Officer John Farrell and Michael Haggerty climbed to the roof.

Farrell handed the 6-year old to Haggerty, who carried the child to safety. The officers escorted the other family members off the roof. The family went to Huntington Hospital as a precaution.

Meanwhile, Officer Matthew Berube entered the burning building in a street level entrance, climbed to the second floor and escorted a woman, who was unharmed, out of the building.

“Five lives were saved today in part due to the immediate actions of these four Suffolk County police officers,” said Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart in a statement. “Every day, police officers put on their uniform not knowing what is ahead of them and today, these officers risked their lives running toward a burning building to save Huntington Station residents. The Suffolk County Police family could not be more proud of these heroic officers.”

The cause of the fire appears to be non-criminal, according to an SCPD spokesperson.

Suffolk's own data shows areas with large numbers of black and latino populations have been impacted greatly by the ongoing pandemic. Photo screenshot from Suffolk data map

Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and on Long Island where communities are as segregated as they are, much of it comes down to geography.

COVID-19 cases in Suffolk County have an identifiable curve. Data on maps provided by Suffolk County show a darkening red on a path rolling from the eastern end of the Island toward the west, homing in on the western center of the Island — Wyandanch, Brentwood and Huntington Station. In such areas, data also shows, is also where many minority communities live.

Suffolk County health services commissioner Gregson Pigott shares COVID facts in Spanish online April 8. Photo from Facebook video

Data from New York State’s Department of Health maps shows the coronavirus has disproportionately harmed black and Latino communities. Brentwood in particular has shown 3,473 cases, or nearly 55 per 1,000 persons. New York State Education Department data shows the Brentwood school district, as just an example, is nearly 85 percent Latino and almost 10 percent black. Huntington Station, another example of a location with large black and Latino populations, has just over 1,000 cases, or 33 persons per 1,00 have the virus. As testing continues, those numbers continue to grow.

Though data showing the numbers of COVID-19 deaths is out of date, numbers from New York’s Covid tracker website show the percent of black residents who died from the virus was 12 percent, higher than the 8 percent share of the overall Suffolk population. For Latino residents, the fatality percent was 14 percent, lower than their population of 19 percent.

While whites make up 81 percent of the population, their proportion of residents confirmed with the virus is only 64 percent. If the white population were suffering the same proportionate death ratio higher than their overall population, then dozens more white people would have already perished from COVID-19.

“I’m not surprised by the information given,” said Brookhaven town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station). “We need to be testing as much as possible, we need to be tracing, we need to make sure once we get that under control, we need to make sure people get treated.”

The COVID Hot Zones

Toward the beginning of April, Suffolk County established three “hot spot” testing centers in Wyandanch, Brentwood and Huntington. Those sites quickly established a higher rate of positive cases compared to the county’s other sites, especially the testing center at Stony Brook University. A little more than a week ago, such hot spot sites were showing 53 percent of those tested were positive. On Tuesday, April 29, that number dropped slightly to 48 percent hot spot positive tests compared to 38 percent for the rest of the county.

Though such testing centers didn’t arrive until more than a month into the crisis, county leadership said plans for such sites developed as data slowly showed where peak cases were. 

“When we started working with the IT department to find the addresses where these cases were, Southold was leading,” said Dr. Gregson Pigott, the Suffolk Department of Health Services commissioner. “Then Huntington Station became the hot spot. Then Brentwood became the leader in cases, and to this day Brentwood has the most cases.”

Suffolk County has also started plans for recovery after things finally start to open up. The Recovery Task Force is being headed by multiple partners, including Vanessa Baird Streeter, an assistant deputy county executive.

The task force will need to provide aid, but Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said there needs to be emphasis on addressing the glaring inequities, and put an emphasis on “coming back stronger.”

“There’s no question the issue is we know there have been disparities,” he said. “The crisis like this is only going to exacerbate those issues and have those disparities grow.”

But as it became clear to officials the virus was greatly impacting the majority of minority communities harder than others, said communities were watching day by day how the virus was upending lives, infecting whole households and leaving many without any chance of providing for their families.

Latino Community During Coronavirus

Martha Maffei, the executive director for Latino and immigrant advocacy group SEPA Mujer, said Latino communities are hit so hard especially because of many people’s employment. Either they were effectively let go, or they are working in jobs that if they tried to take time off, they would be out of a job. Instead, such workers, even in what has already been deemed “nonessential business,” are still going to work even in places where workers have already gotten sick.

“We were receiving calls of jobs they know the workplace has been infected, they continue to ask employees to come to work,” she said. “They don’t have the option to say no, because they’re basically forcing them and they don’t want to lose their jobs.”

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in early April found approximately 41 percent of Latinos have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic, compared to just 24 percent white and 32 blacks being laid off or furloughed. This jives with research showing about 50 percent of people on the lower income scale have either lost their job or had to take a pay cut.

Many who relied on their jobs to support their families have now lost them completely, and since many are undocumented, they have no access to any kind of federal assistance. In homes that are often multigenerational and cramped, workers out on the front lines come home and have very little means of sequestering themselves.

SEPA Mujer shows their support for immigrants by donning yellow bracelets. File photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

SEPA Mujer also advocates for women in violent domestic situations, and Maffei said its crisis hotline phone has been ringing daily. Bellone has told reporters the incidents of domestic violence are up 3.5 percent from early to mid April.

At issue is the immigrant community’s trust in local government and law enforcement, and that same government’s ability to get the life-saving and virus-mitigating information to them.

The hot spot testing centers now include Spanish-speaking translators, at least one per each, according to Pigott. Bellone also announced, working with nonprofits Island Harvest and Long Island Cares, they are providing food assistance to visitors at the testing sites. Brentwood is already seeing those activities, and Wyandanch will also start providing food April 30.

When the first hot spot site opened in Huntington Station, Maffei said she had clients who were struggling to schedule an appointment. Though she suspects it has gotten better with more sites opening up in western Suffolk, true help to the community should come in the form of facilitating access to information. 

“We’re trying to do the best we can, but a lot of people don’t have access to the internet, don’t have Facebook,” Maffei said. 

Pigott related the county is providing multi-language information via their website and brochures at the testing sites, but community advocates argue there is a demand for such details of where people can get tested and how they can prevent infection, straight into the hands of people, possibly through mailings or other mass outreach.

Why Minority Communities are Vulnerable

Medical and social scientists, in asking the first and likely most important question, “why?” said the historic inequities in majority minority populations are only exacerbated by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

Dr. Johanna Martinez, a physician with Northwell, is in the midst of helping conduct a research project to work out the variables that are leading to how the pandemic has deepened and exacerbated existing inequities.

“It’s not something biological that is different between black and Latino people. It really is the historical inequities, like racism, that has led to the patients being marginalized,” Martinez said. “It is most closely linked to social determinants.”

The links are plain, she said, in socioeconomic status, and perhaps most importantly, one’s access to health care. Immigrant communities are especially likely to lack insurance and easy communication with doctors. It’s hard for one to know if one’s symptoms should necessitate a hospital visit if one also doesn’t have a doctor within phone’s reach. It also means an increased spread of the virus and a potential increased load on hospitals.

“If you’re uninsured, the place where you’re going to get health care from is the emergency room,” the Northwell doctor said. “Right now, we’re trying to use telemedicine, but if you don’t have an established primary care doctor, you don’t have the ability to speak to the doctor of the symptoms you’re having and if this is something you can stay home for or go to the hospital.”

Current data released by New York State has mostly been determining age, as its well-known vulnerable people include the elderly, but Martinez’ data is adjusting for other things like comorbidities. Data shows that diabetes, hypertension and obesity put one at a higher risk for COVID-19-related death, and studies have shown poorer or communities of people of color are at higher risk for such diseases. 

“It’s almost like a double whammy,” she said. “It’s something that makes them even more vulnerable to a very serious disease.”

“It’s not something biological that is different between black and Latino people. It really is the historical inequities, like racism, that has led to the patients being marginalized.”

— Dr. Johanna Martinez

Housing is also a factor. Once one leaves the hospital, or on recommendation from a doctor, it’s easy to tell people who are showing symptoms to isolate a certain part of the house, but for a large family living in a relatively small space, that might just be impossible.

Whether Suffolk’s numbers detailing the number of confirmed COVID patients is accurate, Martinez said she doubts it, especially looking at nationally. Newsday recently reported, upon looking at towns’ death certificates compared to New York’s details on fatalities, there could be many more COVID deaths than currently thought.

“We need more testing to see the prevalence in certain communities,” she said.

Cartright, who works as a civil rights attorney, said these factors are what the government should be looking at as the initial wave of COVID-19 patients overall declines.

“We know black people are dying at a disproportionate rate,” she said. “We need to look at how many people are living in the same household, how many people actually have health care, how many are undocumented who were scared of going to the emergency room. There are so many factors we need to be able to take a look at.” 

Stock photo

Several weeks after viral hotspot testing sites in Suffolk County opened, the percentage of positive tests is coming back higher than for other areas.

After 1,077 people were tested in six sites, including Huntington Station and Wyandanch, 577 people tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.

“That is definitely a lot higher than the overall number in the county, which stands at 40 percent,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on his daily conference call with reporters.

By testing in these communities, the county hopes not only to get an idea of the rate of infection in these areas, but also to communicate the importance of social distancing and isolating for people who have positive tests.

“By doing the testing, we have the direct one-on-one contact with patients and it is with Spanish speaking health professionals who can have an effective dialog,” Bellone said. The communication is “well-received by the patients.”

For some residents who live in more densely populated areas or who share a home with others who might have underlying medical conditions or whose age makes them vulnerable to the virus, the county has offered housing on a case-by-case bases, Bellone said. That has included hotels and shelters.

These situations could include people who are “coming out of a hospital where there is an issue in a home with vulnerable people,” Bellone said. “It’s not just with hotspot areas.”

Bellone also shared the results of broader testing throughout New York that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has conducted to determine the rate of infection, which could include people who were asymptomatic or who had mild symptoms that dissipated quickly enough not to merit testing.

Based on preliminary data, Suffolk County could have about 250,000 people who have the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

If that’s the case, “that tells us that there are a huge number of people who have had the virus and didn’t know they had it,” Bellone said. A scaled up testing program to detect the presence or the virus or of antibodies, along with an aggressive contact tracing program, could enable the county to contain the virus.

That could mean that Suffolk County could “reopen our economy with protective measures in place,” Bellone said. The testing and contact tracing, which former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Johns Hopkins University committed to supporting, are “very good news,” with the caveat that the county needs to “see those full results,” Bellone added.

The number of people who tested positive in the county in the last day was 709, which means that more than 30,000 people have received positive tests for the coronavirus.

The closely-watched hospitalization number dropped again in the last day, falling by 37 to 1,340 residents. The number of people in Intensive Care Unit beds has also declined by five to 494.

For the second straight day, about 10 percent of the population of people with COVID-19, or 131 people, have been discharged from the hospital.

The death toll also continues to climb towards 1,000, with 33 people dying from complications related to COVID-19, bringing the number for the county to 959.

On the supply front, the county executive’s office distributed over 24,000 pieces of personal protective equipment yesterday. The county also received 80,000 ear loop masks from New York State.

The procurement team in Bellone’s office received 27,000 isolation gowns, which have been in short supply and high demand.

The Stony Brook University Hospital extension, which was an all-out effort as the hospitalization was climbing dramatically, is completed. The beds at the facility are not occupied.

“I don’t think there are plans right now” to use those beds, Bellone said. “We are working to prevent a second wave rom happening. We know that has happened in past pandemics.”

A blood sample with respiratory coronavirus positive. Stock photo

Starting today, Suffolk County is providing free testing, by appointment only, at Huntington Station as a part of the county’s efforts to develop a hotspot testing program for communities struggling with a higher incidence of coronavirus infections.

Additionally, Suffolk County will open testing sites in Brentwood and Riverhead on Friday and is searching for additional sites.

Hotspot testing is “targeted and focused on those communities where we are seeing higher rates happening,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on a daily conference call with reporters. Testing will hopefully allow the county to get a better understanding of what the numbers are and will help people battling symptoms of COVID-19 to connect with necessary resources.

Bellone thanked Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who connected county officials with Reef Technology, which is a large scale logistics company. At no cost, Reef will provide tents and help to handle the logistics at these sites, Bellone said.

“It’s a great example of a private sector business stepping up to help,” Bellone said.

At the same time, another company, called East/West Industries based in Ronkonkoma, which designs and manufactures products for airline crews and has contracts with military and commercial airlines, is working to provide face masks which are in line with new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for first responders, police officers, deputy sheriffs. The masks will be cloth masks and will be made of reusable cloth. East/West is also donating the company’s time to produce this protective equipment.

Separately, Bellone said the nonprofit Long Island-based outreach center United Way is collecting donations to help people who are struggling amid the severe economic slowdown. People who are interested in donating to this effort can contact the United Way at UnitedWayLI.org. Those who are interested in accessing those resources can also visit the same site, Bellone said.

The county executive reiterated the county and state government’s 90-day prohibition on evictions.

“We understand that this crisis has created a terrible financial impact for many people, put extreme pressure on landlords” who have bills they have to pay, but “we want to may it clear that evictions are not permissible.”

Bellone highlighted that today marks exactly one month since Suffolk County recorded its first case of the pandemic. The numbers have been climbing since then and have shown some slowdown in recent days.

By the end of the day today, Bellone expects the number of deaths to approach or exceed 300, which is up from 263 yesterday.

The number of confirmed cases is approaching 17,000. Amid a determined effort to increase hospital capacity, the county has increased the number of beds by 1,000 to 3,322. The number of intensive care unit beds is up to 746, which is an increase of 49 from yesterday.

The number of people hospitalized also continued to increase, with 1,585 hospitalized and 517 in the ICU, which is 11 higher than yesterday but still below the peak.

Bellone was pleased to report that 130 residents have been discharged from the hospital in the last 24 hours.

Bellone urged residents to stay the course, even as the temperature climbs, with social distancing.

Meanwhile, Stony Brook University disclosed some of the vast array of donations to its health care workers, who are on the front lines of the ongoing battle to beat back the infection in a county that has more positive tests for the virus than every other state but New York and New Jersey.

Between March 20 and April 4, the University received 201,959 pieces of personal protective equipment, 232 iPads 4,793 comfort care items and 65 foot deliveries. The comfort care items have included fidget spinners, aromatherapy masks, vide messages and stress balls, while patient comfort care has included puzzles, socks, sleep masks, notebooks and pens.

Jessly Diaz, 14, of Huntington Station has been reported missing. Photo from SCPD

Suffolk County Police have issued a Silver Alert for a missing Huntington Station woman who suffers from depression.

Jessly Diaz, 14, went missing from her home located at 7 Kingston Place  Feb. 16 at approximately 9 p.m. Diaz is Hispanic with brown hair and black eyes. Diaz is 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs approximately 100 pounds. She was last seen wearing a white jacket with grey snowflakes.

Anyone with information on Diaz’s location is asked to call 911 or the Second Squad at 631-854-8252.

As a reminder, Silver Alert is a program implemented in Suffolk County that allows local law enforcement to share information with media outlets about individuals with special needs who have been reported missing.

A mugshot of Charles Titone, who police said sexually abused a 6-year old and possessed child porn. Photo from SCPD

Police arrested a school bus driver early on Tuesday, Dec. 3 for alleged sexual abuse and possessing child pornography. The man drove a bus in the Northport-East Northport School District.

Police, which included the members 2nd precinct, along with computer crimes and special victims sections, said they launched an investigation into Charles Titone III, 46, following a tip from the New York State Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Police said investigators executed a search warrant at Titone’s home, located at 250 Depot Road in Huntington Station, early in the morning and arrested Titone at around 7:30 a.m. for allegedly having sexual contact with a 6-year-old and possessing child pornography on his phone. Titone is a school bus driver for Huntington Station-based Huntington Coach Corp. and drives in the Northport-East Northport school district.

Titone was charged with sexual abuse 1st degree and possessing a sexual performance by a child.

The victim was someone previously known to Titone and not a student from his bus route, police said.

Attorney information for Titone was not immediately available.

Titone is being held overnight at the second precinct and is scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 4 at First District Court in Central Islip.

The investigation is continuing. Police said detectives are asking anyone with information to contact the Computer Crimes Unit at 631-852-6279 or anonymously to Crime Stoppers at 800-220-TIPS.

A crowd gathers at the birthplace of Walt Whitman, where Whitman’s legacy was discussed from Aug. 9 to 11. Photos from Cynthia Shor

‘O Captain, My Captain’

By Walt Whitman

Whitman’s poem “O Captain, My Captain” is an elegy written to honor Abraham Lincoln in his work for the country in keeping it unified, said Cynthia Shor, executive director of Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. 

Like all poems, the tribute contains a turning point that reveals an overarching meaning. See if you can find Whitman’s message in this poem, written in 1865, the year of Lincoln’s death. 

O Captain! My Captain!

our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack,
the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear,
the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel,
the vessel grim and daring:

      But O heart! heart! heart!

       O the bleeding drops of red,

         Where on the deck my Captain lies,

          Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! My Captain!

rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

       Here captain! dear father!

         This arm beneath your head;

           It is some dream that on the deck,

            You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer,
his lips are pale and still;

My father does not feel my arm,
he has no pulse nor will;

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound,
its voyage closed and done;

From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

       Exult, O shores, and ring O bells!

        But I with mournful tread,

         Walk the deck my Captain lies,

           Fallen cold and dead.

The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association hosted its first three-day international conference in honor of Whitman’s legacy. The event was held at Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site at 246 Old Walt Whitman Road in Huntington Station.

“All the presentations opened new roads into interpreting Whitman, whose words are still relevant today in his Bicentennial 200th birthday year,” Executive Director Cynthia Shor said. “Plans are being made for a follow-up conference in 2021.” 

About 50 guests each day from both the local community and other parts of New York, such as Queens, attended to see 25 international presenters share their research about Whitman’s impact on cultural, social, historical, literary and gender issues from his lifetime to our lifetime. 

Presenters traveled from six countries and 10 states to discuss topics such as translating Whitman’s poems into other languages, the use of his poems in contemporary advertising and the influence of mesmerism and Darwinism in his writing. Creative expressions were also included through poetry readings and open mic, films and music celebrating Whitman. There were nine panels in total, moderated by the association’s board members. Local Walt Whitman “personator” Darrel Blaine Ford dressed as Whitman and posed for pictures with attendees.

The keynote speaker was Professor Ed Folsom, the Roy J. Carver Professor of English at The University of Iowa. His panel discussion was titled “Whitman Growing Old” and he spoke about how Whitman confronted death in his poetry and how he still speaks to poets today, long after his death. 

“There has been a gradual, almost imperceptible, shift in our view of Whitman and his work recently, as if we have been searching for the Whitman who can address and respond to a growing cultural despair instead of (or maybe in addition to) the Whitman who spurs on an endless optimism,” Folsom said. “Americans are, after all, at a far different period of the nation’s history than that which he experienced, a point where some of the democratic payoff that Whitman promised should be far more apparent than it is, a point where many of us begin to feel a need for a different Whitman, one more tempered in his outlook, older, pointing not the way to a fully achieved democratic future but rather one who can guide us about how to live in a diminished present on an earth of diminishing resources, in a society where the same old problems — of racial injustice, of grotesquely unfair wealth distribution, of continuing gender discrimination — just keep resurfacing, as virulent as ever.” 

Folsom is the editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, co-director of the Whitman Archive and editor of the Whitman Series at The University of Iowa Press. He is the author or editor of numerous books and essays on Whitman and other American writers. 

The association wishes hearty congratulations to all who took part and is delighted to have hosted an event shedding light on Whitman’s tremendous body of work and his charismatic personality.

This program was made possible with funds from Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation, New York State Parks, Suffolk County, Town of Huntington, New York State Council on the Arts and Huntington Arts Council. The association offers special thanks and appreciation to these organizations for their continued support. 

Whitman’s birthplace museum is open to the public seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. After Labor Day, the site is open Wednesday to Friday, 1 to 4 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. The site is located at 246 Old Walt Whitman Road in Huntington Station. For more information call 631-427-5240 or visit www.waltwhitman.org.

File photo

Suffolk County Police 2nd Squad detectives are investigating a motor vehicle crash that killed a man in Cold Spring Harbor Thursday morning.

Jason Mocte-Zuma was operating a 2013 Honda Civic sedan northbound on Harbor Road when his vehicle struck a utility pole and overturned at approximately 11 a.m. Mocte-Zuma, 21, of Huntington Station, was transported by Cold Spring Harbor Rescue to Huntington Hospital where he was pronounced dead. There were no passengers in the vehicle.

The vehicle was impounded for a safety check.

The investigation is ongoing. Anyone with information on the crash is asked to contact the 2nd Squad at 631-854-8252.

Huntington High School. File Photo

An outpouring of anger, tears and frustration rocked Huntington Monday night as hundreds of residents expressed concern about an article published by The New York Times Magazine during the school’s holiday break.

There was standing-room only inside the auditorium of Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School Jan. 7 as parents, teachers and students lined up to address Huntington school district’s board of education in reaction to the Dec. 27 publication of the article, “How a crackdown on MS-13 caught up innocent high school students,” written by ProPublica reporter Hannah Dreier.

The Times article focused on the experience of an immigrant teenager at Huntington High School, named Alex, who was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in June 2017 for suspected MS-13 gang affiliation. The story alleges Huntington school district’s school resource officer, Suffolk County police officer Andrew Fiorello, provided information and school documents to ICE that led to the student’s deportation in July 2018.

“The issue is very clear: Our classmates are being accused of participating in gang activity on evidence that does not prove their involvement beyond a reasonable doubt,” Steve Yeh, Huntington’s Class of 2017 valedictorian said. “Our school failed to protect our classmate.”

The facts questioned

Brenden Cusack, principal of Huntington High School, was the first to step forward Monday night to refute the magazine piece he claims “mischaracterizes” events portrayed.

“It is a clear misrepresentation of our school and of me, both personally and professionally,” he said. “The story as published is not the full story.”

In the article, Cusack reportedly wrote up Alex for allegedly defacing school property — a calculator — with gang symbols. The article states he informed the student it would be reported to the school resource officer.

Huntington parents and community members give a standing ovation after high school Principal Brendan Cusack’s speech. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

The high school principal did not address the facts behind the immigrant teen’s case before the crowd gathered, citing student privacy laws.

“While it would be simple to argue statements and context in numerous places within the article, it does not change the fact that the events, as presented, are beyond upsetting,” read a Dec. 28 letter issued by the school district in response to the article. “We deeply regret the harm faced by any family in our community who has been separated from a child.”

This sentiment was echoed again by Huntington’s Superintendent of Schools James Polansky Monday night.

“There are many things about it that are deeply upsetting,” he said.

Huntington school district’s staff is not the only source used in the magazine article upset with the portrayals in the piece. Joanne Adam, director of Huntington Public Library, said the article claims its head of security banned students who have been suspended from school for suspected gang activity is untrue.

“It’s not our policy to ban people simply because they might be suspected of being in a gang,” Adam said.

Both library branches, Huntington and Huntington Station, are staffed by in-house security personnel and do not have any specific policies with regards to handling gang violence, according to Adam. In the last four years, she said she could not recall any incidents where Suffolk County Police Department was contacted for any related gang activity.

“If someone is suspected of being in a gang and using the library, they are just as welcome to use it as the next person,” Adam said. “So long as they are coming in and using a library as they should be.”

 

Immigrant students voice fears

Huntington High School students decried the current atmosphere and actions they’ve seen made by school officials in their interactions with immigrants and students of racial minorities.

“I know what it’s like to be a Latino in Huntington,” Landary Rivas Argueta, a 2016 Huntington graduate said. “It’s not welcoming, it’s not safe, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”

More than a dozen recent high school graduates, collaborating as the Concerned Alumni for Protecting Our Classmates, say regardless of the factual truths in the Times article they have concerns over the adequacy of services provided for immigrant students and the district’s treatment of racial minorities.

“I know what it’s like to be a Latino in Huntington. It’s not welcoming, it’s not safe, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”

—Landary Rivas Argueta

“We believe the school administration is responsible for providing a safe environment for all students to learn and grown,” read a Jan. 7 written statement to Huntington’s school board. “We were appalled to discover that not all of our peers felt a shared sense of safety.”

Savannah Richardson is a 2016 graduate who was enrolled in the district’s dual-language program as a Mexican immigrant whose picture hangs on a banner over Jack Abram’s auditorium.

“For years, I believed the [school resource officer] was placed there to protect us,” Richardson said. “I was never aware information shared with the SRO would end up in the hands of ICE.”

Xavier Palacios, a Huntington school trustee who privately practices as an immigration attorney, was quoted in the Times article. He said the information sharing was between the district’s school resource officer and ICE was not done with purposeful intent to harm.

“What happened to Alex was an unfortunate series of events of unintended consequences — I don’t think anyone meant to harm him,” Palacios said. “The truth is procedures failed Alex and possibly other students and we must change that.”

But Huntington parent Josh Dubnau said he first reached out to Huntington’s administration via email with concerns about the relationship between Suffolk’s school resource officer program and ICE over the summer, following a PBS “Frontline” documentary titled “The Gang Crackdown,” regarding treatment of immigrants and suspected MS-13 members, that ran in February 2018.

After several email exchanges with Polansky, Dubnau said he was reassured the district’s students safety was protected without a loss of rights.

“My trust in you [Polansky] at that time is something I deeply regret,” Dubnau said. “This school board and administration needs to re-earn our trust and it will be a challenge for you to do so.”

 

Suffolk’s SRO program

Polansky said Huntington school district has been involved in the county police department’s school resource officer program for more than 15 years. The program places uniformed police officers inside public school buildings to serve as points of contact between the school district, its staff and students, and other law enforcement officials in order to increase school safety.

“I think the role of law enforcement in schools in today’s political climate is open to considerable debate.”

— James Polansky

“I think the role of law enforcement in schools in today’s political climate is open to considerable debate,” the superintendent said.

Polansky sits on the executive board of Suffolk County Schools Superintendents Association, an organization of school administrators representing the county’s 69 school districts. The association has repeatedly called on the police department to further expand the SRO program, most recently as part of its blueprint for enhancing school safety.

“Part of our mission is to keep schools and campuses safe,” Elwood Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said in a phone interview. Bossert is president of the county schools superintendents association. “Having a strong collaborative relationship with the police force and having officers present in the building who are familiar with the campus, familiar with emergency response plans, familiar with faculty and students, go a long way to ensure the safety of our students.”

School resource officers are employees of the police department, not the school district, and there is no formal agreement as to the position’s duties and responsibilities, according to Bossert.

“I think those folks who right now have some real concerns about the presence of police officers don’t necessarily have an understanding of that job,” he said. “If they did have a better understanding of the role and responsibilities of an SRO it would help alleviate some of the concerns being expressed in my neighboring community.”

The superintendents association has called for formal written document of an SRO officer’s “role and responsibility” dating back to a May 2018 letter sent out to Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) and the police department. Still, nothing concrete has been developed as to date.

“We need clarity and guidelines. If we can’t get those, I am not comfortable having those officers in our buildings going forward.”

— Jennifer Hebert

“We need clarity and guidelines,” Huntington trustee Jennifer Hebert said. “If we can’t get those, I am not comfortable having those officers in our buildings going forward.”

There is no law mandating that school districts participate in the SRO program, according to Bossert, but he is not aware of any district that has voiced opposition to being a participant.

“I urge this board to carefully consider any decisions and weigh the long-term consequences  against the perceived short-term benefits,” said James Graber, president of the Associated Teachers of Huntington. “A year ago, there were calls for more security in this school district because of the incident in Parkland [Florida]. To move in the other direction would be a mistake.”

 

Future of SRO program in Huntington

Huntington school administrators said they’ve seen the immediate need to review its existing policies and procedures, particularly when it comes to the role of its school
resource officer.

“In light of current national and local concerns, however, we believe that we must advocate for an additional layer of organization addressing the relationship between school districts and the police department,” read the Dec. 28 letter to the community. “This can be accomplished through formulation of a memorandum of understanding.”

Huntington parents and community members came to the meeting Jan. 7 armed with a detailed list of suggestions of what should be in the proposed agreement between the school district and Suffolk’s police department.

Diana Weaving, of Huntington, presented school trustees with detailed suggestions from a concerned citizens group regarding the treatment of immigrant students and the duties of the SRO officers. It suggested the memorandum of understanding includes extensive data collection including the number of times law enforcement is called to Huntington schools, number of arrests, which arrests were school-related offense, the location and date of offense and note of the involved student’s age, race, ethnicity, gender and English language learner status.

In light of current national and local concerns, however, we believe that we must advocate for an additional layer of organization addressing the relationship between school districts and the police department.”

— Huntington school district Dec. 28 letter

Weaving requested the district provides SROs, security guards and school staff with more extensive training in cultural competency, racial bias and prejudice, and restorative justice.

Aidan Forbes, Huntington’s Class of 2018 valedictorian and member of Concerned Alumni for Protecting Our Classmates, called for more in-depth investigation of a student’s character before they are reported to an SRO along with changes to the district’s suspension policies. Zach McGinniss, also a 2018 graduate, demanded more cultural training for SROs and issued a request the school district not share student’s information with third parties — including ICE — without court order or consent of a student’s parents.

All involved called for a written contract, or memorandum of understanding, to be drafted as soon as possible. The superintendent said it will necessitate a process involving community input to draft an agreement, and it will require both Suffolk police department and the school district to come to the table. He cited some Nassau County school districts which have documents that can be used as examples, but each must be uniquely catered to each individual district.

Polansky said he envisions the proposed document could be used as a template that could be used by other Suffolk schools. Trustee Hebert agreed, saying Huntington must make every possible effort to transform the SRO system into a better program.

“I see us as being given the mandate of having to figure this out for everyone else,” Hebert said. “And we will.”

Huntington school board will further discuss the SCPD’s SRO program at their upcoming February meeting.

Pilar Moya, center, stands to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration laws at a Huntington rally this June. Photo by Eve Krief

Generous, warm and intelligent are a few of the adjectives Huntington residents use to describe one Huntington Station resident.

Pilar Moya — also known as Moya-Mancera — has dedicated her life to community activism, in particular aiding Town of Huntington residents and its Latino communities.

“I’ve always been a public servant, always,” Moya said. “That’s my passion, my love.”

“[Pilar Moya] is always standing up for what is right.”

— Eve Krief

During the day, Moya works as executive director of Greenlawn-based nonprofit Housing Help, a certified housing counseling agency that has served town residents for more than 30 years. She helps ensure the organization provides housing counseling, financial literacy, and credit and debit education for residents of Long Island. Her clients often include first-time home buyers, seniors, low-income families and people suffering with student loan debt.

Since taking leadership of the nonprofit in 2017, Moya has initiated several affordable housing counseling and advocacy programs.

“I call my agency tiny but mighty,” Moya said.

Housing Help was able to assist more than a thousand clients last fiscal year.

“That’s for the entire Suffolk County,” she said. “Our impact for the Town of Huntington was 702 clients.”

Moya brings fresh ideas, a positive spirit and drive to the agency.

“She jumps in with both feet at all times,” said Michele Martines, of Huntington. “Whatever she’s interested in or feels like is worthwhile.”

When she’s not working at Housing Help, Moya created the nonprofit Latinos Unidos en Long Island, an organization that aids Latino immigrants by assisting in obtaining and providing legal aid, support and housing help. The organization started in Huntington and rapidly expanded across Long Island.

“She is always standing up for what is right,” said Dr. Eve Krief, a Huntington pediatrician and founder of the Long Island Inclusive Communities Against Hate advocacy group.

I’ve always been a public servant, always. That’s my passion, my love.”

— Pilar Moya

Moya partnered with Krief to assist with the Families Belong Together rallies in Huntington, to protest against the immigration policies of President Donald Trump (R), including the separation of children from their mother at the border.

At the second rally held June 30, nearly 50 organizations and close to 1,000 people attended, according to Krief.

“We hope our rally displays the love and compassion we hope that America can represent as well as the hopeful and powerful nature of our democracy,” Moya said at the event. “Our message to the families separated at the border is, ‘You matter — and our voices are our extensions of yours.’”

Krief shared that she can always count on Moya for help even when she’s “doing a thousand other things.”

In addition to Housing Help and Latinos Unidos, Moya participates in many different local organizations including co-chairing the Hispanic Task Force, Suffolk County Hispanic Advisory Board, serving as a steering committee member of Huntington Township Housing Coalition, and as a member of the town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“I guess I have been blessed that I am able to do this work because I have a good team of leaders that work side by side with me,” Moya said.