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Rocky Point High School

File photo by Giselle Barkley

Tensions swelled inside the Rocky Point High School auditorium during a special meeting of the Rocky Point school district board of education on Thursday, July 28.

In early July, the board reversed its longstanding practice regarding book donations, deciding to no longer accept books from the public. The controversy centers around a June donation made by district parent Allison Villafane, who donated several books exploring themes dealing with sexuality, gender identity and race during Pride Month.

“This past June, in keeping with my past practice, I have donated books to promote diversity, equity and inclusion,” she told the board. “These books were best sellers, approved by the library here.”

In an interview, Villafane shared the list of the seven titles that were included in the donation, saying these books were intended to be spread out across different schools throughout the district depending upon age appropriateness. The titles are:

  • “Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly 
  • “All Different and Beautiful: A Children’s Book about Diversity, Kindness, and Friendships” by Belle Belrose 
  • “Our Diversity Makes Us Stronger: Social Emotional Book for Kids about Diversity and Kindness” by Elizabeth Cole 
  • “Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
  • “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson 
  • “Pink Is for Boys” by Robb Pearlman 
  • “The List of Things That Will Not Change” by Rebecca Stead

Jessica Ward, president of the board of education, defended the decision. She said the board did not take its decision lightly and that all five members of the board had arrived at its determination together.

Ward told the public that the decision was motivated by a basic lack of expertise on how to evaluate children’s literature.

“None of us — the five of us on the board — are experts in children’s literature,” Ward said. “None of us has a master’s degree in library science … so we thought it would be best for all of our schools to allow our librarians, who are the experts in children’s literature, to populate their libraries and their catalogs with books of their choosing.”

Villafane detailed her past practice of donating materials, saying she has made several rounds of donations over the years as each of her four children has moved through the school district. In the past, Villafane has donated materials regarding food allergies. In other years, they would focus on promoting diversity or compassion.

She said this most recent donation is not a significant departure from her past practice. Because the books were already in circulation in various school libraries throughout the district, Villafane believed she was performing a service to the school by making the approved books more accessible.

Villafane suggested the board was applying an arbitrary standard to her donation, asking if the board would apply this same standard to the donations of gifts such as piano keyboards and trumpets.

Responding to these charges, Ward said that the board’s decision “wasn’t necessarily in response to the books that you donated. It was in response to all books.” 

She added, “Our current policy says … that we may accept gifts, grants … as well as other merchandise. If there was something else [such as] a musical instrument or some other educational or instructional item that you or someone wanted to donate, then we would take that on a case-by-case basis, but we are not taking any donations of books.”

Along with Villafane, other members of the public joined in their criticism of the board’s decision. Ernestine Franco, a resident of Sound Beach, said the board did not apply reason to its decision and that it failed to properly consider the consequences.

“If it was just a change of practice, then they did it very badly,” she said in an interview. “That’s what makes me think it was a political move.” She added, “Even if they wanted to do what they did, there had to be some logic to it and there wasn’t.”

Bea Ruberto, also a Sound Beach resident, concurred with this assessment, arguing the decision was a product of hasty decision-making and primarily motivated by the board members’ political preferences.

“I am convinced that it is political,” Ruberto said in an interview. “I am also convinced that for them to do that, they didn’t look at the practice they had in the past on how to deal with and accept book donations.”

Despite criticism from the public, there were others who responded favorably. One such individual, identified as “Ms. Sarlo” in the meeting’s minutes, defended the decision. According to her, it is best for the board not to consider these materials as there is no universal agreement on their content. 

“I think that the decision was the correct one because … not everybody agrees with all of the books,” she said. “There are so many more important things that we need to be talking about that the board could be spending time on instead of book donations.”

Franco disagreed with this assessment, suggesting that it minimizes the issues at stake and offers a convenient excuse for the board to rid itself of accountability.

“I think [Sarlo] was trying to validate what happened by saying it wasn’t important,” Franco said, adding, “But what’s important, at least to me, is not the book but what the book stands for, which is education. … Instead of opening up to a very diverse atmosphere, they’re trying to close up the atmosphere to what kids are going to be exposed to.”

Villafane suggested that the board’s new practice on book donations violates common sense. She believes the board can correct course by adopting a new policy allowing the acceptance of books for titles that are already in circulation.

“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “There is a database of books that have been approved for distribution at various grade levels, so as long as the book you want to donate is within that system, you should feel free to donate it.”

The Rocky Point board of education will reconvene on Monday, Aug. 29, at 7 p.m., where deliberations on book donations are likely to continue.

The Sound Beach Civic Association hosted its annual Memorial Day service at Veterans Memorial Park May 31.

Attendees of the event included New York State Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Riverhead), Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point), musicians from Rocky Point High School and veterans representing each branch of the armed services. 

Deacon Bob Mullane, of St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church, delivered the invocation for the event. “We have gathered here today to remember those who have died in service to this country,” he said. “We commend them for their courage in the face of great odds. As citizens of this great nation, we remember the sacrifices, and those of their families and friends, with deep gratitude.”

Jimmy Henke, a longtime resident of Sound Beach and war hero, raised the American flag during the ceremony. While serving in Vietnam on a reconnaissance mission, his company came under intense enemy fire. After exposing himself to the gunfire, Henke carried a wounded comrade to a medical site. For his valiance in the face of tremendous danger, Henke was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. 

Following him, veterans from each of the armed services raised the flags representing their respective branch of services. Girl Scouts Julianna Gabrielsen and Anna Polyanksi laid the memorial wreaths.

Performances were delivered by students from the music department of Rocky Point school district under the direction of Amy Schecher. Tessa Cunningham, Alexandra Kelly and Brenna Kiernan sang both the national anthem and “God Bless America.” Daniel Curley and Shaun Sander performed “Taps.” 

The event was concluded by a wind rendition of “America the Beautiful,” performed by Shane McDonald, Ryan McDonald, Jasmine Pickenburg, Matthew Liselli, Hannah Gundel, Brayden D’Ambrosio, Piper Rinn, Aneesh Deshpande, Vivian Dorr and Justin Pititto with Curley and Sander.

To learn more about the Sound Beach Civic Association, visit www.soundbeachcivic.org.

— Photos by Raymond Janis

By Bill Landon

It was another beautiful edition of the “Live Like Susie” remembrance and fundraiser Saturday May 14th at Rocky Point High School, where the annual charity baseball game between the Rocky Point and Mount Sinai varsity teams was played in remembrance of Susie Facini.

Facini was a Rocky Point graduate who passed away suddenly in 2011 of a cardiac event; she was 19 years old.

There was plenty of grilled hot dogs, hamburgers and salads along with T-shirt sales and raffles to raise money for local scholarships in Susie’s name.

The only requirement to receive a scholarship was to be nice, according Bernadette Facini, Susie’s mom.

Photos by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Saturday, May 7 was truly a day of remembrance for Mike Bowler, the legendary Rocky Point boy’s lacrosse coach, in the school’s second annual Mike Bowler Tribute Day. 

Bowler, who passed away in Dec. 2019, was someone who left his mark on the community throughout his 43 seasons at the helm. His impact on student athletes was felt well beyond the playing field. He established the boy’s lacrosse program in 1978, amassing more the 600 wins during his career. Bowler also led his team to a state championship in 2008.

In 2020, coach Bowler was named New York State Coach of the Year in boys lacrosse by the National Federation of High School Sports. The award is presented to those who have made the greatest impact on student athletes in their respective sport.

It was a cold, windy and wet day on Saturday, but that didn’t dampen the spirit of the game as the Eagles hosted Bellport in this Division II matchup. 

Sophomore attack Ryan Meyers had an assist and six goals to top the Eagles scoring chart in the 16-7 victory. Senior Tyler Moeller had a goal and five assists and teammate Kyle Moore had four goals and two assists for the Eagles. Eighth grader DJ Xavier had six saves in net and Aidan Donohue, a sophomore, also stopped two.

— Photos by Bill Landon

By Chris Mellides

Shoreham-Wading River Central School District

Shoreham-Wading River High School will serve as the polling site for this year’s school budget and board of education election. File photo

The proposed budget to be voted on is $83 million, an increase of 2.87% and a tax levy hike of 1.70%, within the district’s limit. There will also be a Proposition No. 2 on capital projects of $2,898,040 with no tax levy increase.

Incumbents Thomas Sheridan and Meghan Tepfenhardt are running unopposed for reelection as trustee candidates.

Only Sheridan responded to a request for interview. He has been serving on the board of education for the past three years. His dedication to the district comes from a determined perspective to help ensure that his school district continues to build on its accomplishments and to better enable it to be recognized and celebrated for its points of pride. Sheridan said that the biggest challenge facing Shoreham-Wading River is the commitment from New York State to continue its funding for the district’s schools.  

The budget vote and board of education elections will be held Tuesday, May 17, at gym from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

Mount Sinai Union Free School District 

The proposed budget of $63.8 million with a 2.02% increased tax rate, does not exceed the tax cap. District funds are being earmarked for renovations, replacements and upgrading infrastructure. 

Mount Sinai Elementary School will serve as the polling site. File photo

Voters will be asked to vote for any two of the four candidates on the ballot, who are Alice Samantha Dreyer, Alexis Fliller, John Hnat and Anthony Mangione. Incumbents AnneMarie Henninger and Lisa Pfeffer (incumbent) are not seeking reelection. Only Dreyer and Mangione responded to requests for interviews. 

Alice Samantha Dreyer

Dreyer is a first-time candidate running for a seat on the board of education. A doctor of psychology, Dreyer’s focus if elected will be on mental health, as it relates to the rise of depression, anxiety and suicidality among students nationwide. Dreyer sees the importance in recognizing the needs of her district’s students and believes in inclusivity when it comes to students of all ability levels. She said that the biggest challenge facing her district stems from the COVID-19 pandemic and its ill effects on students’ learning and anxiety levels. Dreyer hopes to see her district continue to provide a broad-based, foundational education for all its students. 

Anthony Mangione

Mangione has never sat on the Mount Sinai board of education. The first-timer said that a large group of local residents take to social media to and ask why their voices aren’t being heard. This is the driving force behind what made Mangione run. His goal is to reverse the loss of learning that school students experienced while learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, Mangione promises to fight to end or prevent unfunded or underfunded mandates. 

The budget vote and board of education elections will be held Tuesday, May 17, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Mount Sinai Elementary School.

Rocky Point Union Free School District

The proposed budget to be voted on totals $88 million, an increase of 2.72%. Voters will also be asked to elect two trustees. The candidate receiving the highest number of votes will fill the seat for three years and the second seat will fill the seat immediately following the election, expiring June 30, 2023. 

The following candidate information was obtained from the district’s website.

Nick Contes

Contes has been a Rocky Point resident for the past 15 years, has two daughters in the school district and is risk and insurance manager at Henry Schein. Contes and his family have contributed to an array of local youth programs, including soccer, tee-ball and cheerleading. He has openly spoken at many BOE meetings and is an advocate for parental choice, improved school lunches and highlighting areas of cost savings for the district. 

Nicole Kelly 

Kelly is a Rocky Point resident and mother of a child attending Rocky Point High School. As a senior administrator at Brookhaven National Laboratory, her work experience includes project management, contract administration and compliance on the state and federal levels. She’s been critical in implementing various interactive events within the district to enhance learning and opportunity for students of all ages. If elected, Kelly plans to include increased strategic planning, safety and security for increased community communication. 

Jason Ford 

Ford has been a community member for 10 years and a father of three children who attend Rocky Point schools. Ford serves full time in hospitality management and volunteers his time throughout the community. He is an active PTA member as well as being a baseball coach for St. Anthony’s CYO and is a volunteer for both North Shore Little League and Rocky Point Youth Soccer Club. Ford would like to work collaboratively with fellow board members, teachers and administrators to provide the best education for the district’s students and be a voice for the community during these challenging times. His goal is to help bridge the gap between parents and educators. 

Susan Sullivan 

Incumbent trustee Sullivan has been a resident of Rocky Point for 37 years and retired from the district after serving as a teacher and administrator for a total of 40 years. She holds a B.A. in education, a master’s in liberal studies and a master’s in education. Sullivan said that it has been an honor to serve on the board for the past nine years. She looks forward to continuing as a trustee, representing the entire community, keeping in mind that she serves as one of a team. Sullivan will work together with her fellow trustees to offer an educational program that supports the needs of all students and is mindful of the fiscal responsibility to the community. 

Erin Walsh

A veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, catechist, PTA volunteer and legal secretary, Walsh has recently completed her paralegal qualifications to bolster her advocacy and knowledge in law. Walsh, a 14-year Rocky Point resident and mother of two, looks forward to serving the students and families of the district through transparency and communication along with parental involvement in the schools. She focuses on making certain that every dollar in the budget delivers enthusiastic learning along with smaller class sizes, while eliminating administrative waste in her district. 

Susan Wilson 

Wilson is a retired teacher and administrator who has been part of the Rocky Point community since the 1960s. She is a married mother of two local Point graduates. She holds a B.A. in accounting, an M.A. in liberal studies/technology and an advanced degree certificate in educational leadership. She has served on the boards of the PTA, Rocky Point Civic Association and the North Shore Beach Property Owners Association. Wilson’s goals will be to continue being an advocate for a nine-period day, while also supporting districtwide improvements with a focus on increasing the graduation rate. She also seeks out perspectives on the issues helping in her consideration of the financial impacts of the budget on the taxpayer. She supports decisions that have the interests of the school community at heart.  

Rocky Point High School will serve as the polling site. File photo

The budget vote and board of education elections will be held Tuesday, May 17, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Rocky Point High School. 

File photo from Pixabay

This 5K race will be held Sunday, May 15, and will help raise money and awareness for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder and support for the Joseph P. Dwyer Program.  

Participants will trek through the roads, trails, hills and track of the Rocky Point High School and Conservation Area.

Registration to begin at 10 a.m. in front of Rocky Point High School: 82 Rocky Point-Yaphank Road, Rocky Point NY 11778.

Photograph of an American tank during the Battle of the Bulge, above. File photo from Getty Images

“The same day I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha [in Germany]. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however, that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.” — Supreme Allied Cmdr. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

At that moment almost 78 years ago, Hitler’s Third Reich was rapidly crumbling away.

This was in large part due to the massive strength of Eisenhower’s armies, which were determined to finish the war in Europe. With the end in sight, Allied soldiers entered German soil with the hope of receiving a speedy surrender. During this advance, American soldiers quickly noticed that the enemy had some notable similarities to their own countrymen. 

The German population was similar in size to the American middle class, and lived in heated homes surrounded by picturesque natural beauty from the German and Austrian landscapes. As Allied forces continued their eastward push, however, any feelings of closeness with the enemy quickly evaporated, as they had come to learn of Hitler’s “final solution.” American soldiers, many from neighborhoods along Long Island’s North Shore, had discovered and liberated the German death camps. 

For the men who witnessed this shocking brutality, these experiences would never be forgotten. Although hardened by the Battle of the Bulge and other combats against a fanatical resistance unwilling to surrender its losing cause, Americans were utterly unprepared for the scenes at these camps. Some had heard of the cruel treatment inflicted by the Nazis, but they were horrified after entering these camps. At once, the medics distributed food, water and medical treatment to save as many lives as they could. 

After visiting the Ohrdruf concentration camp on April 12, 1945, a sickened Eisenhower said, “We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, we know what he is fighting against.” Renowned journalist and radio broadcaster Edward R. Murrow accompanied the American 6th Armored Division into the Buchenwald concentration camp. Laying witness to the atrocities, he reported, “I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words. … If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry. I was there.”  

“The inmates liberated by our forces were skeletons. … It was enough to make strong men weep — and some American officers did so unabashedly.”

— Robert Murphy

Diplomat Robert Murphy was also present to see the conditions of these camps. He recalled: “The inmates liberated by our forces were skeletons. … It was enough to make strong men weep — and some American officers did so unabashedly.” Many American soldiers were ordered to see these camps for themselves, as Eisenhower wished to prevent any future deniers of the Holocaust.

Two local heroes

Among these soldiers was the late John D’Aquila, resident of Belle Terre. A member of the 11th Armored Division, he served under Gen. George S. Patton’s famed Third Army. D’Aquila was a native of Middletown, Connecticut, who landed in France during the Battle of the Bulge. As a medic, he was ordered toward the strategic Belgian town of Bastogne which was surrounded by German forces. During one of the worst winters in recorded history, D’Aquila treated wounded soldiers as they turned back this German offensive. For his valiance and unceasing treatment of wounded servicemen, D’Aquila received a Purple Heart after being wounded during this battle.

Like many other soldiers at the end of this war, D’Aquila wondered if he would survive. On May 5, 1945, the 11th Armored Division entered the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. By the end of the war, those camps in Central Europe had considerably higher death rates as they were the last to be captured by Allied forces. D’Aquila remembered the inability of the local Austrian citizens to accept responsibility for the savagery committed there, despite the stench of death that hung in the air, the piles of bodies stacked up “like cordwood.”  

After the war, D’Aquila attended college and later earned a degree in law, where he defended the interests of insurance companies. Locally in Port Jefferson, he was on the board of directors of Theatre Three, and a play was later created by Jeffrey Sanzel, “From the Fires: Voices of the Holocaust.” Until his death, D’Aquila openly addressed his wartime experiences because he wanted to ensure that citizens, especially the youth, did not forget the severity of the Holocaust.

In 2008, D’Aquila described his experience of liberating Mauthausen during a Veterans Day program at Rocky Point High School. As though it had just occurred, D’Aquila spoke of his duty to medically care for the survivors of the concentration camp as they were finally being liberated. At another program at the high school, D’Aquila joined Werner Reich, who had survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Mauthausen, and was liberated by the 11th Armored Division.  

Reich was a 17-year-old young man who weighed only 64 pounds at the time of his liberation. In this condition, he was not expected to survive. At RPHS, he looked at the audience and vividly stated that if it had not been for Americans like D’Aquila, then he would have surely perished from starvation. Although from different backgrounds, both men were inextricably tied to one another through their shared experience of “man’s inhumanity to man.” For years, Reich has spoken to high schools across the North Shore to ensure that good people do not stand by when innocent people suffer from such atrocities. 

Even though World War II ended long ago, the world now watches history repeat itself through the images of fighting in the Ukraine. Americans are again learning of the massive losses of Ukrainian civilians suspected of being killed by Russian forces. People such as D’Aquila and Reich made it their mission in life to alert people that history will repeat itself if good people do nothing. We must learn from the examples of the past, we must always act, protect and preserve the rights and freedoms of people everywhere.  

Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School and adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College.

Christine Blume's RPHS class. Photo from RPSD

Rocky Point High School students in Christine Blume’s English 10 class created websites revolving around a blog niche of their choice. In these lessons, the students learned how to blog, providing them the opportunity to engage in literacy activities and teaching them how to publish their writing and share their writing with authentic audiences. 

“When students write blogs they become an integral part of a lively literacy community for real readers, not just their teachers,” said Blume.

To complement the lessons, Ms. Blume — with the technical help of high school librarian Jessica Sciarrone — brought in via Zoom self-made blogger Nicole Lewandowski, who spoke to the students about blogging in a refined niche, getting inspiration to promote a blog and gain followers. She also shared how she monetizes her blog, which has now become her career and main income source. 

According to Blume, students were engaged, asked questions and gained valuable information from the presentation. 

“Furthermore, this unit comprehensively recognizes that reading and writing texts online offers students the basic skills that they need to be literate citizens in the 21st century,” she added.

Rocky Point HS student Tessa Cunningham stands proudly next to her artwork. Photo from RPSD

Rocky Point High School senior Tessa Cunningham received an award of honorable mention for her work in Advanced Visions 17, the annual art show at LIU Post that features Advanced Placement high school art students.

The show tasked artists of excellence to imagine “What the World Needs Now….” The promotion for the show stated that through expressive, original work, young artists grapple with the larger issues facing our world today, bringing messages of hope and connection that chart a path forward. Building on the exhibition’s legacy of showcasing the best creative minds, these works combine concept, materials, skill and words that inspire — truly advanced visions. 

Tessa’s work, “What Have We Done?” was on display in the group show at the university throughout the month of February. 

In her written statement, she explained, “In my opinion what the world needs now is to unite against the climate crisis going on. To put our own material desires aside and prioritize the well-being of nature and animals. In doing so we will be able to achieve a world where humans and the environment live in harmony and are both able to thrive. We are running out of time so it is vital that we take care of our wildlife, for the health of their world and ours.”

At the March 3 Town Board meeting, Councilwoman Jane Bonner recognized a group of Rocky Point High School Technology students who created a prosthetic hand for Anun Suastika, a six-year-old Indonesian boy who was born with no fingers on his right hand. Anan’s father made a plea on a website called E-name for someone to help make a prosthetic hand for his boy. 

Mr. Schumacher, passionate about teaching students the technology skills that they can use in many career fields, happened upon e-NABLE, an organization with volunteer members who use open-source technology and 3-D printers to provide free prosthetic hands for children and adults. He thought it would be a great way to blend technology and humanity into a project for his students and guided them as they built the prosthetic hand using the school’s 3-D printer. 

The students worked during free periods and after school to design and assemble the 3-D parts into a Phoenix V-3 prosthetic hand. As traditional prosthetics normally cost thousands of dollars and need to be replaced as children grow, the production of a printed Phoenix V-3 prosthetic hand is much more inexpensive because of its design: It simply relies on a person’s functional wrist and uses the palm to push against the device so the fingers close when the wrist is bent.

“It is not every day that high school students can make such a big impact on a person’s life, but these students did just that. I thank Mr. Schumacher and his Technology class for taking on the challenge to improve Anun’s quality of life,” said Councilwoman Jane Bonner. 

“We are grateful to Mr. Schumacher and these students for this project that will have a profound effect on a boy’s life,” Rocky Point School District Superintendent of Schools Dr. Scott O’Brien said. “The enthusiasm and passion shown by this committed group is inspiring to others in our school district, learning that in our classrooms they too can make a difference in the global community.