After news broke that two Bellport High School students were among the four victims found dead after a brutal MS-13 attack, the community was put on edge. Shock and fear led to dozens of questions, which were heard and answered at a panel Q&A last week at Bellport Middle School.
Over 100 people filled the auditorium and submitted their questions and concerns on cards read by moderator Dr. Joseph Giani, superintendent of South Country School District. The large panel included town, county and state officials, but the discussion was dominated by police commissioner Timothy Sini, Suffolk County probation officer Jill Porter and Bellport High School principal Tim Hogan.
A top concern was safety at school. In response to the Central Islip incident, the district added two security guards to the high school and two full-time school resource officers from the Suffolk County Police Department, Hogan said, adding that school security guards would be participating in a gang awareness training session led by Porter later this month.
As students returned from spring break last week, a crisis team staffed with psychologists, social workers from the Family Service League and ENL teachers was ready, Hogan said. “It’s a difficult thing to manage because some kids are clearly upset and willing to use that type of service and others are not ready to do that yet,” he said. “I’ve asked the staff — who know our kids better than anybody — to be vigilant in monitoring students in the weeks and months ahead.”
Gang activity is something Hogan said the district has been monitoring closely since two students were attacked in the woods last August. Several gang awareness assemblies with bilingual police officers had already been held, with similar programs in the works, Hogan said.
In November, the school district hired a bilingual social worker to work with those populations at the middle and high school levels.
Parents also wondered how the school would deal with suspected gang activity at school. “Any students found with any gang-related clothing, comments or symbols will receive an out-of-school suspension,” he said. Beyond that, a superintendent’s hearing would determine if the student should be placed on home instruction for the rest of the school year. To date, Hogan said, five students will remain out of school for the rest of the year, but he could not discuss whether the infractions were gang-related.
“How can I protect my son?” one parent asked. Porter’s advice was: “Be in your kid’s ear. If you’re not in your kids ear, someone else is.”
Sini fielded questions about gangs in general: how prevalent they are in the area and what is being done to keep communities safe. According to Sini, there are several hundred known members of MS-13 in Suffolk County. As for their presence in North Bellport, “It doesn’t come close to numbers we see in Brentwood, Central Islip or Huntington Station,” he said.
Sini laid out two main objectives with respect to MS-13. The first, he said, was to solve all crimes, particularly homicides, committed by gang members. The second, more long-term goal, is to eradicate the gang entirely. In the meantime, patrols by both Suffolk County and state officers have been increased in vulnerable areas.
At a similar forum held in Central Islip last week, Sini addressed the crowd directly. “There’s someone in this room who has information about these murders,” he said. In Bellport last week, he explained that the gang preys on new, undocumented individuals. “Often, those with the most critical information are those individuals,” he said. “Our officers do not inquire into your immigration status if you come as a victim or witness to a crime,” he said, adding that cooperating with law enforcement could also lead to immigration benefits.
“There aren’t many [Suffolk County] communities that aren’t touched by gangs,” said Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco in an interview earlier this week. “The federal government has a big role to play in this,” he added, calling for tougher border security, though disagreeing with the President’s call for an expensive border wall. “A combination of barriers and technology—drones, for instance—would not only stop gang members, but human traffickers and heroin coming in as well,” he said. “It would help local law enforcement agencies all over the country.”
Both President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions weighed in on the proliferation of MS-13. In a tweet, Trump said: “The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS-13 gangs to form in cities across U.S. We are removing them fast!”
After citing the Central Islip quadruple homicide, Sessions issued this warning: “If you are a gang member, we will find you.” He did not announce specific steps law enforcement would take, instead criticizing sanctuary cities for their policies.
“The reason why Jeff Sessions said that is because we called him,” Sini said. “There’s no doubt that in Suffolk County in the past, the police department did not work with the Feds. We will continue to target known gang members and suppress crime locally while working with federal law enforcement partners.”
That was one of many guarantees made last Wednesday evening. Government officials, including County Executive Steve Bellone, Suffolk County Legis. Kate Browning and Rob Calarco, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine and Councilman Michael Loguercio, all emphasized their commitment to work together to come up with solutions. Many acknowledged that the issue is multifaceted. “Is this a drug issue? Yes, it is. Is it a crime issue? Yes, it is. Is this an immigration issue? Yes, it is. A socioeconomic issue? Yes. It’s a complex problem with no simple solution,” said Assemb. Dean Murray (R,C,I-East Patchogue). “Unfortunately, like many nationwide problems, the solution must come from the local level,” said Calarco.
Porter disagreed. “The issue we are having here with MS-13 is really not an immigration status issue that dictates gang involvement,” she said. “If you want to decrease gang membership, embrace these children. Understand that they are being pushed away and labeled as a problem by the community.”
Porter noted that in many Central and South American countries, government, police and even schools are rife with corruption. “Gangs run their country. Here, you don’t have to be in a gang — you can be anything you want to be in this country,” she said, emphasizing the importance of education. “There are all of these frightening things, but this is the side that people aren’t talking about. This is not a white, black or brown issue. This is a community issue. We’re not three separate areas, we’re one school community and we have to start acting like it,” she said, to the loudest applause of the evening. She also noted that she was trying to work with local community organizations to set up similar meetings and forums at churches to more successfully get these messages across to the Spanish-speaking community. “Look around you, there are mostly white faces here tonight. There’s a disconnect, and somehow we have to fix that.”