Home Schools Board of Education Angry parents demand answers about investigation of Snapchat incident

Angry parents demand answers about investigation of Snapchat incident

Stock photo: Fotolia

A group of angry parents are demanding the termination of the Riverhead Central School District’s security director.

The parents went to last night’s school board meeting demanding answers about a Feb. 15 incident at the high school involving a Snapchat video being circulated among students reportedly depicting a sexual act on school grounds.

Riverhead Police were called to investigate the dissemination of the video school officials described only as containing “inappropriate content.”

The parents wanted to know why their children were detained for two hours “locked in a classroom” — without notification to parents — and had their cell phones confiscated.

They also wanted to know why the children who were detained — 13 in all — were all black.

“My son was one of the 13 that was held in the room. He was told by the security guard Rich Anderson that if he didn’t turn over his phone
they were going to drag him out in handcuffs,” said Julia Dicks. “I want to know what is going to be done. This is not right.”

Parents said their children were not in the video and were not even involved in circulating it. Some of the children received the snap on their phones, while others merely had it shown to them by other students. Some of the students who received the video and showed it to others were white, they said — and they were not detained, according to the parents.

“What is the board intending to do about this?” demanded Kiesha Washington-Dean, whose grandson was among those detained. “Thirteen black children in a room that was locked! How is the board going to address this? It is not going to be swept under the carpet,” she said, her voice rising.

But Washington-Dean and the other parents got no answers; instead their attempt to discuss the incident during the meeting was shut down by school board president Susan Koukounas.

Koukounas interrupted parents at the podium, saying the the school board cannot allow discussion of a particular employee’s performance or a particular student in an open meeting.

“We can’t talk details about a student situation,” Koukounas said, refusing to discuss what happened. She said parents should email the board about their concerns and suggested the board would meet with parents privately. “We’ll address your concerns.”

That only heightened the emotions of parents who said they had already contacted the district superintendent but got no answers.

Michael Branch, whose daughter was detained, called the incident “the criminalization of children” and demanded an explanation from the board.

“My daughter is an AP honors student. She was the only female that was in that room,” he said. “She asked to call her father and they said no. I didn’t get a call until two hours after my daughter was put in this room. Then when we got here, we were told we couldn’t see the children — and then all the parents were put in a room,” he said. “It was a great debacle. We need to discuss this.” He said he called the district two weeks ago and had not gotten a call back.

Greg Meyer said the board had notice that an incident happened but did not receive details.

“As a parent, two weeks later, I’d have steam coming out of my ears too,” Meyer said. However, he said, with the intervening winter break, “this is only the third school day since it happened.” He promised the board would “definitely look into it.”

Kim Crump thanked Meyer for showing the parents respect, but said the lack of answers and the unwillingness of the board to discuss the matter was unacceptable.

Crump said her husband has been a part-time security guard for the district for 12 years and on the day of the incident he wrote a letter to Anderson “stating facts.” Later that day, he was informed that his time slot was eliminated and he no longer had a job. “That was because he spoke the facts.”

“Mr. Anderson is not for this community,” Crump said. “I hate to say this but he’s racist. I’m a white person married to a black man. I think he’s separating the students.”

Again, Koukounas stopped the commentary. “We can’t speak about personnel or student issues in detail,” the board president said. “It’s confidential. We are abiding by the law.”

At that point, there was an outburst from several parents in the audience.

“If you keep it vague on what your concern is, then you can continue,” Koukounas said.

“My concern is Mr. Anderson—” Crump began.

“No,” Koukounas said, cutting her off. “Thank you. Thank you. Please leave your phone number with Mr. Schneider,” she said, referring to assistant superintendent Sam Scheider, who filled in for Superintendent Nancy Carney last night. Carney was absent due to illness.

After the meeting ended, irate parents gathered in the lobby outside the auditorium to vent about what happened on Feb. 15 and how the matter was handled by the school board.

Washington-Dean said her family has consulted an attorney.

“This just is not right,” she said.

The parents said to their knowledge no arrests were made in the incident. A Riverhead Town Police spokesperson could not be reached for comment this morning.

The rules governing whether school officials can discuss matters involving particular employees and students depend on circumstances, according to Robert Freeman, the executive director of the NYS Committee on Open Government, which interprets the state’s open meetings and freedom of information laws.

Federal law protects student privacy, Freeman said in a phone interview this morning.

He noted that the state’s open meetings law does afford the public any right to speak at a public meeting. “But if the public is allowed to speak, then the board must have reasonable rules that apply evenly to everyone,” Freeman said.

“Federal case law indicates that if the door is open, it is open all the way. So if the board is willing to permit positive comments about staff at a meeting, it must accept negative comments as well,” Freeman said.

Freeman refers to an oft-cited prohibition against speaking about employees during an open meeting as “the personnel myth” — something that public officials repeat over and over again. “There’s no law that says they can’t talk about ‘personnel’ and just because they repeat it all the time doesn’t make it true,” Freeman said.

However federal law does prohibit a school district from speaking about a particular child, Freeman said.

“The parent who speaks about her child in the meeting, in my opinion, would have waived the right to confidentiality,” Freeman said. The board would be free to discuss it, he said.

“Saying it’s prohibited by law, when the child’s parent is asking to discuss the child,” Freeman said, “is just inaccurate.”


Correction:  This article has been amended since originally published to correct the date of the incident, which was Feb. 15 not Feb. 16. The date was misstated at the school board hearing.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.