School board member Laurie Downs in April 2019. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead school board Vice President Laurie Downs resigned from her elected position as a trustee today, following blowback for “derogatory” comments made last week about Latino people and gangs in Brentwood.

Downs issued a statement this afternoon announcing her immediate resignation from the Board of Education. “I think this is an important first step in bringing about the healing of the pain my words have caused,” Downs said. “I don’t want my behavior to further distract the leadership of these school districts from providing quality education to all students.”

Downs claimed during a civic association meeting on 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. 

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

Downs asserted in a March 22 interview with RiverheadLOCAL that there were gangs in Riverhead schools because of the large amount of Latino kids in the district. Hispanic and Latino students are the largest demographic group of students in the Riverhead Central School District, making up roughly 60% of the students, according to State Department of Education data.

“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. 

Downs’ announcement comes after public pressure to apologize for her comments from members of the Brentwood community, including politicians, Brentwood High School officials, and the school district’s students and alumni. A Brentwood-based activist group, the District 1 Youth Advisory Board, said Downs’ statement was “perpetuating harmful stereotypes” about the western-Suffolk hamlet and “promoting discrimination.” The group also started a Change.org petition that has collected more than 750 signatures so far. 

Assembly Member Phil Ramos, who represents Brentwood in the state legislature, sent a letter to the Riverhead school board on Monday. Ramos, the deputy speaker of the assembly, called on the State Department of Education to look into Downs’ “toxic behavior” and “take action they deem appropriate.”

“I was especially disappointed that Mrs. Downs appeared to disparage the Brentwood community, an area in which she does not even reside; it’s imperative Riverhead School Board Members focus on their own issues and challenges, without resorting to using racial dog-whistles to fear-monger and divide,” Ramos said.

Downs apologized for the comments yesterday in a statement sent to the press and promised to educate herself.  

“I want to again apologize for the hurt and pain I caused the Brentwood, Riverhead, and other school communities across Long Island,” Downs said. “I recognize the harm that my words have caused, and I am truly sorry for that.”

MORE COVERAGE: School board VP apologizes after activist group condemns derogatory comments about Brentwood

“I understand that what I said was harmful, hurtful, irresponsible, and not representative of the communities I named,” Downs continued. “I have heard incredible youth activists, political representatives, alumni, and parents, and I recognize that I was perpetuating stereotypes and stigmatizing already marginalized communities. For that, I am remorseful and deeply, deeply sorry.”

Downs, who was elected to her third three-year term to the Board of Education last year, was previously an ardent critic of the body and broadcasted the boards’ meetings for many years before she was elected. 

“When I ran for the school board, I never imagined I would hurt a child.  Both Riverhead and Brentwood School Districts whose diversity strengthens these communities not weakens them,” Downs said. “I should have instead used my platform to highlight the positive effects that Latino heritage and culture have had on the school districts.”

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

A big crowd from Brentwood is expected at tonight’s Board of Education meeting. County Legislator Sam Gonzalez, who lives in Brentwood and represents the legislative district that takes in the Brentwood community and the Brentwood school district said this afternoon that Downs made the right decision.

“It’s reprehensible to say what she said and try to continue to stay in that position,” Gonzalez said. “Not only did she hurt the Brentwood community and the Brentwood school district, but many other communities as well — especially her own,” he said.

“I think the response to her comments was a strong message to people that have these racist tendencies in their hearts,” Gonzalez said.

“We’ll still be there in full force tonight,” the legislator said.

“The message has to be sent to anyone else that has any idea of saying these types of things that this community will not tolerate it from anyone,” he said. “We have been working hard in this community. Kids are graduating to Harvard, Yale and Columbia, fighting the stigma that Brentwood is so bad,” Gonzalez said. “I’m going to invite her to come to Brentwood to see for herself.”

Joshua Chan, chairperson of the District 1 Youth Advisory Board, said he was surprised by Downs’ announcement, but that her resignation shows accountability for her comments.

“I would like to see what the school has to say about this to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future, going forward,” Chan, a Latino and Brentwood native, said. “But I think this is a win for Brentwood, a win for young people and a win for Latinos.”

“We grew up in a town where we were told that we’re a full of undocumented immigrants, we’re full of all these nasty things, quote, unquote. But now this is it. We are telling people we are not going to be the ugly child of Long Island any further, and I’m happy that her resignation came very promptly and swiftly,” he said.

Downs’ comments showed how “out of touch” she was with her community, Chan said. He said the school board should reflect the demographic makeup of the school district. All of the current school board members are white, despite the district students being majority Latino.

Tijuana Fulford, founder and executive director of the Butterfly Effect Project, said in a statement this afternoon that “all children must be seen and heard regardless of race.”

She pushed back on Downs’ comments. “To paint a community – multiple communities – with one brush is unacceptable. What was said is not fact. What is a fact is that Vice President Laurie Downs made some very disparaging, untrue remarks about multiple communities,” Fulford said.

“Statements that not only put targets on the backs of children, but further perpetuate the idea that youth of color need to be policed more than they already are,” Fulford said. “This is very dangerous. I know firsthand the effects of these kinds of statements as I grew up a Black kid in the Riverside community. I went to school and was friends with children from Doctors Path and other areas deemed ‘gang infested.’ The statements that were made were not fact, they were biased and prejudiced. But unfortunately, they are the opinions and sentiments of many.”

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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