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Long Island Schools Move to Curb Police Role in Detaining Immigrant Students

In response to our story about a student who was detained and deported after drawing a doodle of his school mascot, the Huntington district is seeking a countywide agreement to rein in school-based police officers.

Students arrive at Huntington High School in Huntington, New York. (Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times Magazine)

In an effort to prevent immigrant students from being detained and deported on questionable evidence of gang involvement, a Long Island school district is taking the lead in negotiating an agreement to limit the role of school-based police officers.

At a packed, often emotional meeting Monday, the Huntington, New York, school board said it has authorized its superintendent to hammer out a deal between the approximately 50 Suffolk County school districts that allow police in schools and the county Police Department. Board president Jennifer Hebert said that without a formal agreement, she would oppose the continued use of police known as resource officers in Huntington’s schools.

“We need clarity and guidelines, and if we can’t get those, I’m not comfortable having officers in our building going forward. And many of these trustees feel similarly,” she said.

Another board member, Xavier Palacios, called for expunging school suspensions from the disciplinary records of students whom school resource officers reported to ICE. “We must make a wrong right. If our district needs to create a new policy to prevent this from happening again, then we must do so,” he said.

The board members were responding to a story published last month by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine about a student named Alex who attended Huntington High School while seeking asylum in the U.S. After he drew the telephone country code of his native Honduras as well as a devil with horns, which is a symbol of the violent street gang MS-13 but also Huntington High’s mascot, the school suspended him for gang activity.

Alex was then detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which under President Donald Trump is increasingly using school records to arrest immigrant students who haven’t been charged with any crime but are suspected of gang membership. Alex was one of about a dozen immigrant Huntington High students detained for allegedly associating with MS-13, which has been particularly active on Long Island. In several of these cases, ICE cited classroom doodles and other school incidents that were reported by Huntington High school resource officer Andrew Fiorillo. Alex was deported to Honduras in July 2018.

The day after the story ran, the Huntington school district posted a letter promising to ask for a contract with Suffolk County police to clarify the duties of school resource officers. The Police Department said it is reviewing the district’s request, and the police commissioner is expected to meet with county superintendents soon. At a community meeting Tuesday, Inspector Bill Scrima said that Fiorillo, who has worked at Huntington High for 14 years, has been pulled out of the high school. “We’re not sure whether the school wants him back,” Scrima told Newsday.

Neither the school nor the Police Department responded to ProPublica’s questions about when Fiorillo is expected to return. Fiorillo did not respond to messages.

A spokesman for the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association said it supports Huntington’s proposal for a formal agreement with police. “This episode is upsetting on so many levels,” Huntington Superintendent James Polansky said. “What I ask for is that we come together as we take a lead role in changing the story, not just for us, but for districts around the area.”

Protecting Our Classmates, a group of Huntington High alumni that formed in response to the article and includes the school’s three most recent valedictorians, said that an agreement should mandate cultural competency training for police. The group has set up a GoFundMe site for Alex.

School privacy experts said districts that allow student information to be handed over to ICE may be violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the landmark 1974 law that protects the confidentiality of school records. “This is a massive violation of the spirit of our federal student privacy law. These practices are unconstitutional and must stop immediately,” said Harrison Rudolph, an associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law Center.

Some 500 people packed into an assembly hall for the school board meeting. So many people wanted to speak that the board held two comment sessions. Recent graduate Landary Rivas stood at the speaker’s podium next to Alex’s younger brother, who transferred from Huntington High to a neighboring school district after Alex was deported.

“It’s very hard to be Latino here,” Landary said, speaking through tears. “Something has to change. ‘I’m sorry’ is not going to cut it. This stuff has to stop.”

Alex, who is following the developments from Honduras, said he is grateful for the support and hopes that telling his story will help other immigrants. “I want this to never happen to another student,” he said.

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Portrait of Hannah Dreier

Hannah Dreier

Hannah Dreier is a staff reporter at ProPublica. She spent 2018 digging into how a botched crackdown on the gang MS-13 hurt immigrant families on Long Island. That reporting won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, a Hillman Prize, and a Robert F. Kennedy Award.

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