Speaking at a press conference Tuesday evening at Riverhead High School, Board of Education President Brian Connelly said Laurie Downs' comments were "wrong, hurtful and dangerous." County Legislator Sam Gonzalez of Brentwood, who called the press conference, listens to Connelly's remarks.Photo: Alek Lewis

Hours after Riverhead school board Vice President Laurie Downs announced her decision to step down from the board, officials and community advocates applauded her decision and called on the board to make more of an effort to engage with the district’s Latino population.  

Downs resigned Tuesday after comments she made about Latino gangs in Brentwood during a civic association meeting won March 18 and in an interview with RiverheadLOCAL last week. The comments sparked controversy and triggered a campaign by Brentwood politicians and activists, with some asking for an apology and others calling for her resignation. 

County Legislator Sam Gonzalez called a press conference at Riverhead High School Tuesday evening, where the Riverhead Board of Education was meeting in a closed-door session prior to its scheduled public meeting.  

“Today I am before you joyful that Ms. Downs earlier today sent in her resignation,” Gonzalez said. “It is bittersweet, because at the end of the day, I cannot believe that we are here standing together talking about racism in this country, especially here in the County of Suffolk and in this wonderful Riverhead.”

County Legislator Sam Gonzalez organized a press conference at Riverhead High School Tuesday evening. Photo: Alek Lewis

Gonzalez, who represents Brentwood, had called the press conference to encourage Downs to resign before she made her announcement Tuesday afternoon. He called Downs’ comments “filled with segregation, racism, racial profiling” that were “demeaning, labeling the large group of Latino students, African American students [and] minority students in this district, who she had a duty and obligation to protect against the abuse.” 

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Riverhead school board VP Laurie Downs resigns after backlash over ‘derogatory’ comments about Brentwood and Latino gangs

Downs asserted in a March 22 interview with RiverheadLOCAL that gangs would appear in Riverhead schools because of the large number 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.

Brentwood community members took Downs’ comments as an insult to the western-Suffolk hamlet, which is largely Latino. Downs apologized for the comments Monday afternoon and then announced her resignation Tuesday. 

Gonzalez said that the Brentwood community is “successfully making great efforts to protect its students, to give them the tools and the resources and the conditions that allows them to keep up in this competitive labor market.” He said graduates of the school district are attending Ivy League school and have emerged as prominent intellectuals and public figures. He said he has invited Downs to come to Brentwood so that she could “see for herself what Brentwood is cultivating. 

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said “leaders cannot engage in unproductive fear-mongering and contribute to this divisiveness in our community.” Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who became the first Latino town supervisor in Suffolk County when she took office in 2020, said that “Riverhead’s diversity is a huge source of pride.”

“Comments made recently by Ms. Laurie Downs at a public meeting were divisive, deliberate and unfairly targeted the Hispanic population here in Riverhead,” Aguiar said. “In addition to being hopefully inaccurate, these comments were shockingly unprofessional.”

“It goes without saying whether on the town or at the school level, leaders cannot engage in unproductive fear-mongering and contribute to this divisiveness in our community,” Aguiar said. “Ms. Downs’ resignation is a little too late. The damage has been done. Her words have cut, and we have to work together to heal both the communities — the Riverhead community and the Brentwood community.”

Riverhead school board President Brian Connelly spoke to the group gathered for the press conference. Down’s decision to resign a “necessary first step in initiating the healing process,” he said.

“The statements made by Ms. Downs were wrong, hurtful and dangerous,” Connelly said. “They were discriminatory, gave credence to false and harmful stereotypes, and rather than promoting inclusion and understanding and respect for all, were divisive and yes, insulting. Harmful to the Brentwood community and the Latino population in particular,” Connelly said.

Gonzalez called for the Board of Education in Riverhead to be representative of its community, for Latinos to run for positions on the board, and for Latino voices to be heard.  

“Our kids need to look, and our parents need to look and see the diversity that’s happening here in Riverhead,” Gonzalez said. “I think it’s imperative and it’s important that we need to put forth so that there is an equal representation from the people here in the school district.”

Minerva Perez, executive director of the Latino advocacy group OLA of Eastern Long Island, said the school board has to make it a priority to include Latino members of the community. That means breaking down language barriers and inviting people to run for school board seats.

Butterfly Effect Project Executive Director Tijuana Fulford urged the community to continue the conversation about racism and diversity. Photo: Alek Lewis

Guatemalan Consul Ana Flores and Butterfly Effect Project Executive Director Tijuana Fulford also spoke during the press conference.

“I personally know Laurie Downs, and as much as I can vilify her in this moment, I won’t,” Fulford said. “Because since 1999, she has been a strong advocate for the children,” she said. “But that does not negate the hate that she spewed multiple times through her messaging.”

Fulford said Downs’ resignation should not end the conversation surrounding her remarks, and that the community has to commit to educating itself and commit to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. “This is not gonna be the first time or second or third or last time that these racist comments are made,” Fulford said.

“Ms. Laurie Downs, and I’m saying this with everything, I do not want to see you resign, because I need you at the table, to have this courageous conversation that we need to move forward to push us forward,” Fulford said. “If we keep canceling everyone that says hurtful things, we can never have the conversation. We continue hiding, acting like that what she said did not bother us,” she said. 

“This is not a win. This is a blow for the Brentwood community, for the Riverhead community, for the Black community, for the Latino community, because its another missed opportunity for us to have a conversation, to actually resolve something that’s been happening in closed doors more than once,” Fulford said.

Others spoke during the open comment portion of the Board of Education meeting, which started its public session just after the press conference ended.

“I think today’s moment in history on Long Island reflects the need for change and reflects the need for a new conversation on how we discuss our differences and our diversity across the Long Island,” said Joshua Chan, chairperson of the District 1 Youth Advisory Board, a Brentwood-based organization that initiated a “Hold Laurie Downs Accountable” campaign that included a Change.org petition demanding an apology and retraction and asking the Riverhead school board to “take appropriate action” and “ensure that all board members uphold the values of diversity, inclusion, and respect.” It has been signed by more than 850 people.

“Going forward, we can use this moment and learn from it,” Chan said. “We must be careful with the words we use, because although words by themselves are meaningless, when words are given to someone in power, they can be used to affect the lives of others. When words are used in positions of leadership, legislation can be used to negatively impact people that look like me.”

When Chan asked board members whether any of them tried to educate Downs, Connelly said that it was “the first time that I heard statements like that come from Ms. Downs.” 

“As we said, she does not represent this board, is not representing who sits up here. guess us as a board and us as a district and us as a community — both communities — need to do a better job of recognizing when we see something… and take it seriously,” he said.

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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