Riverhead Board of Education member Laurie Downs at a school board meeting in January.
File photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Riverhead Board of Education Vice President Laurie Downs has apologized for comments she made about the presence of Latino gangs in Brentwood after public pressure from a Brentwood-based youth activist group who said Downs’ statement was “perpetuating harmful stereotypes” about the western-Suffolk hamlet and “promoting discrimination.” 

The activist group, named the District 1 Youth Advisory Board, sent out a press release this morning condemning Downs’ statement. The press release included statements from the Brentwood school board president, a state senator from Brentwood, and more than a dozen students and alumni from the school district. Also attached to the release was a Change.org petition with more than 425 signatures asking Downs to rescind and apologize for her statements.

“By sensationalizing the issue of gang violence, Downs has contributed to a harmful narrative that perpetuates fear and misunderstanding,” the group’s press release states. “This type of rhetoric only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes and promote discrimination against communities like Brentwood. While it is important to address the issue of gang violence, Down’s statements only serve to stigmatize and further marginalize already vulnerable communities.”

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: School board member claims ‘enormous amount’ of students are ‘getting jumped and getting robbed’ while walking home from school

Downs, a past president of the board who was elected to her third term last year, claimed during a civic association meeting March 18 that an “enormous amount” of students from Riverhead were “getting jumped and getting robbed” while walking home from school, setting off a buzz in the meeting. Police Chief David Hegermiller said that the police have not received reports corresponding to Downs’s claims.

Downs told RiverheadLOCAL she based her remarks on what school Superintendent Augustine Tornatore told the Board of Education about a recent off-campus fight involving several students. Although there aren’t police reports backing up her statements, Downs said she has witnessed incidents herself in the past, has been told stories by some community members, and has read about them on Facebook.

“I’m afraid,” Downs said during an interview March 22. “Look, we got a lot of Latino kids. We do have those gangs in our school. They haven’t started up yet. But if they do, as I said at the meeting, I don’t want us becoming a Brentwood,” Downs said, referring to the Latino gang MS-13, which has been known to operate in Suffolk County. 

In years past, MS-13 gang members have been charged in incidents in both Brentwood and on the East End. Other gangs also operate in Suffolk County, including the 18th Street gang, and have been the target of law enforcement efforts across the county for decades.

Downs sent a statement to RiverheadLOCAL this afternoon apologizing for the comments after seeing the activist group’s press release.

“I was at the Civic meeting as a resident, and I was not speaking for the Riverhead Board of Education. With that said, I sincerely apologize to the Brentwood community and to the Latino community as a whole, and the Latino community of Brentwood. I didn’t mean any harm, however, unfortunately I did,” Downs wrote. “The words I used were derogatory and harmful, there was no need for them. Violence has no color or community.”

Downs said she has reached out to the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force for guidance about how to further educate herself and “to learn more about other diverse and vital communities.” 

“I also would like to thank the District 1 Youth Advisory Board for bringing this forward and showing me my wrongs,” she wrote.

“I’m happy to see that she’s educating herself on this,” said Joshua Chan, the chairperson of the District 1 Youth Advisory Board and a Brentwood High School alumni. Chan, who is Latino, said the Brentwood community is “more than what we see on the headlines,” referring to the incidents of gang violence reported in the area.

Other Riverhead school board members said in a joint statement that Downs’ comments “do not represent the Riverhead Board of Education, its members or the Riverhead School District.”

“The comments about our growing Latino community and the Latino community in Brentwood were especially concerning to us. To attribute gang violence to one ethnic group is dangerous, discriminatory and marginalizes communities whose makeup is largely Latino,” the statement says. “As members of the Riverhead Board of Education, it is our commitment and promise to do everything possible to promote inclusion, acceptance and understanding in our schools and in the Riverhead community. While we agree gang violence is an issue that needs to be addressed, in no way can it be used to denigrate or give credence to false and harmful stereotypes that inhibit our ability to move forward in positive and meaningful ways.”

“We fully appreciate the strong sentiments expressed by the District 1 Youth Advisory Board in reaction to Ms. Downs’ comments,” the board’s statement continues. “We want the members of that organization, and most importantly, the Brentwood community, to know that we are strong supporters of the Brentwood community and the laudatory efforts that community has made to champion inclusion, equity, respect and understanding. Your efforts stand as a role model for communities across Long Island.”

In Monday morning’s press release, the District 1 Youth Advisory Board said Downs had made “exaggerated claims about the level of gang violence in Riverhead.” The group urges the Riverhead Board of Education to “take appropriate action to address this matter and to ensure that all board members uphold the values of diversity, inclusion, and respect.”

“It is absolutely deplorable and unconscionable, a community leader, board of education president, at that, would perpetuate the false narrative, Brentwood is a crime ridden and gang infested community!,” Brentwood School Board President Eileen Felix said in a statement. (The press release incorrectly refers to Downs as the president of the board.) “How dare you, Madame President?! You are not the authority and or expert on Brentwood! You should know better and our community deserves an apology,” 

“As an alum and former educator of the Brentwood School District, I am appalled by the remarks made about Brentwood by Riverhead School board member Laurie Downs,” said State Senator Monica Martinez, a Brentwood resident. “The Brentwood School District has amazing and talented students and residents. Ms. Downs should know better than to stereotype and make discriminatory remarks toward a community she knows very little about; a community of hard working families. Ms. Downs owes Brentwood an apology and should take the time to learn the beauty of diversity Brentwood encompasses.” 

Downs’s comments were also condemned by the LI/NYC School Safety Directors and Supervisors Organization, who sent a letter to Downs on Monday. The author of the letter and  president of the organization, Bryon McCray, is the director and chief emergency officer of the Brentwood school district. 

“Safe schools and communities are shared responsibilities contingent upon the concerted efforts of responsive, results oriented leaders,” the letter reads. “An effective, school safety approach, one that I encourage, is void of micro-aggressive thought processes that perpetuate racial, ethnic, and cultural stereotypes. When schools and communities are faced with perceived safety risks/ challenges, leaders like me gather to decipher information and plan actions, not exacerbate false narratives that attribute to the polarization of student groups.

“To be clear, gangs of any origin are unwelcomed in our schools and communities. So is profiling Latinos or other ethnicities. To do so is irresponsible and unconscionable,” the letter continues. “The promotion of sustainable school and community safety is a process where racialism has no place. We can advocate for the safety of our children without in-adversely impacting the emotional well- being of others. 

“To that end, I encourage like-minded professionals to join me in the collaborative process of keeping our students safe by evaluating, educating, and mitigating. We cannot allow race-based narratives to detract from the gravity of our collective work. What affects some has the potential of affecting others,” the letter states.

Superintendent Augustine Tornatore refused comment on Monday for this story. “This is more of an issue for the Board of Education members to comment on,” he said in an email.

In response to a request for comment for RiverheadLOCAL’s article last week, Tornatore issued the statement through the district’s public relations firm after the article was published:

“We understand Board of Education Vice President Laurie Downs’ concerns, and if just one incident occurs, that is one too many. We deeply appreciate our partnership with the Riverhead Police Department and are working with them to closely monitor this situation,” Tornatore said. “We ask parents and guardians to report anything concerning they see or hear to the Riverhead Police Department. All of us working together is how we best maintain the safety of our community and continue to prevent these situations from occurring.”

The statement sent on behalf of the superintendent did not respond to a question asking whether students walking home from school are being attacked by other students or provide comment on whether any such incidents were believed to be gang-related, as Downs asserted.

Editors note: This article was amended after initial publication to clarify language used to describe the District 1 Youth Advisory Board’s statement.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com