Riverhead School District

Parents consider lawsuit after district reportedly detained students

A group of Riverhead High School parents are considering bringing a lawsuit against the Riverhead School District following an incident in which 13 black students were allegedly locked in a room, their cellphones confiscated, over a video that was distributed on social media.

The parents maintain that each of the students questioned Feb. 15 by school security about the video — which allegedly depicted a sexual act being performed on school grounds and was circulated throughout the student body — was not involved in the incident. They also say the questioning was racially charged and are calling for the resignation of the district security director involved.

“My concern is that [my son] was told by the security guard … that if he didn’t give over his phone, they were going to drag him out in handcuffs,” Julia Dix said at last Tuesday’s Riverhead Board of Education meeting. Ms. Dix said her son, who is 14, wasn’t told why he was being questioned and that she wasn’t contacted until nearly two hours after he was detained.

“I want to know what is going to be done because I don’t have the time to sit at home and worry about my son in school, where he should be protected,” she told the school board.

Ms. Dix was among four parents or guardians who spoke at the meeting, which was attended by nearly a dozen other parents and guardians of students who were reportedly detained. They said the students were questioned by district security director Richard Anderson, who did not respond to requests for comment this week.

The parents said their children weren’t in the video and didn’t help distribute it. In some instances, they said, white students — who weren’t questioned — sent their children the video.

Riverhead Town police were called to the high school to handle the incident around 2 p.m. Feb. 15 after Riverhead High School principal Charles Regan, Mr. Anderson and a school psychologist reported “possible videos involving male and female juvenile students being posted on social media sites and viewed and disseminated to the students at the school,” according to a copy of a police report obtained by the News-Review. The report also lists the names of four students — which were redacted — and the name of a parent for each student.

The police report contains no other information about the incident and police declined comment, citing an ongoing investigation.

The parents and guardians who attended last week’s school board meeting asked members why their children were selected to be questioned, why their cellphones were confiscated and why it took several hours before they were notified.

“To the parents and grandparents and community and taxpayer, I want you to know that young black lives matter in this school,” said Kiesha Washington-Dean, the grandmother of one of the students.

According to the school district’s code of conduct, disorderly conduct subject to disciplinary action includes the misuse of cellphones. The policy states that “school officials questioning students shall advise each student why he or she is being questioned. However, parents and students should be aware that school officials are under no obligation to contact a student’s parent prior to questioning the student.”

At several points during last Tuesday’s lengthy discussion, school board president Susan Koukounas urged parents not to name any individuals and to avoid mentioning specific details about the incident in order to protect the privacy of those involved. She said disciplinary incidents concerning students or issues with personnel cannot be discussed in public session and asked parents to leave their contact information so that the board can follow up with them.

Some parents said they had met with Superintendent Nancy Carney in the days following the incident and that she had advised them the matter would be brought to the school board’s attention. During the meeting, however, member Greg Meyer said the board hadn’t heard the full story, something other members agreed with. Mr. Meyer said they only received notice that an incident had occurred — nothing about the alleged treatment of the 13 students or the questioning’s reportedly racial tone.

“This is something that’s very serious to all of us here,” he said during the meeting. “If I can just say this, what you guys are saying kind of took me by surprise … As a parent, you guys said this happened on the [fifteenth], here we are almost two weeks later … I tell you what, I’d be sitting there and there would be steam coming out of my ears, too.”

Each of the board’s seven members declined comment for this story.

Ms. Carney, who was absent from last week’s school board meeting, along with deputy superintendent Sam Schneider, didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

Ms. Washington-Dean said Monday that administrators have reached out to parents since the meeting to schedule individual meetings to apologize. She said parents aren’t satisfied with that and believe the administration should apologize to the students, too. After last week’s meeting, some parents said they aren’t pleased with Mr. Anderson and are calling for his resignation, saying they’ve heard of instances in which he unfairly treated other black students.

Because Ms. Washington-Dean and other parents have since retained an attorney, she declined further comment about the incident.

Mr. Anderson, who was hired in August, replaced James Gresham, who worked at the district for just six months before resigning in April 2015. A retired New York City police officer, Mr. Anderson is a full-time on-site security director for Riverhead schools.

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Photo: Kiesha Washington-Dean told the Riverhead school board last Tuesday her grandchild was one of 13 black students detained Feb. 15 by district security director Richard Anderson. (Credit: Nicole Smith)