Riverhead School District

Riverhead Board of Education VP resigns following incendiary remarks about Brentwood

In a stunning twist that capped a fast-moving scandal involving a member of the Riverhead Central School District Board this week, board vice president Laurie Downs resigned her position Tuesday in the wake of outrage over comments she made disparaging Brentwood as the home of dangerous Latino gangs.

Earlier this month, at a public meeting of the civic group Heart of Riverhead, Ms. Downs complained to Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller that local students were being “jumped and robbed” on their way home from school, an allegation that is not supported by crime reports made to police.

“We’re having an enormous amount of children — while they’re walking home from school — getting jumped and getting robbed,” Ms. Downs said at the civic group meeting. She went on to say that “my fear is that we’re going to end up like Brentwood.”

The comments at the meeting seemed to surprise the police chief, who asked Ms. Downs to be more specific. “What schools?,” he asked her. “High school and middle school? Who’s having the problem?”

After the meeting, Chief Hegermiller confirmed to The Riverhead News-Review that police reports do not bear out the allegations Ms. Downs was making.

In an interview after the civic group meeting with Riverhead Local — which first reported on the controversy — Ms. Downs stood by her claims. She told the news outlet that she learned of the alleged incidents from community members, fellow school board members and from comments she read on Facebook.

She also expanded upon her original remarks, saying, “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 told Riverhead Local.

Referring to Latino gang members, Ms. Downs said “these are kids that chop off heads and shit. And that scares me.”

In a statement issued Tuesday, Ms. Downs called her resignation “an important first step in bringing about the healing of the pain my words have caused.” Her statement went on to say that she wants “to again apologize for the hurt and pain I caused the Brentwood, Riverhead, and other school communities across Long Island. I recognize the harm that my words have caused, and I am truly sorry for that. I understand that what I said was harmful, hurtful, irresponsible and not representative of the communities I named.”

In an interview with Riverhead Local earlier this week, Ms. Downs had apologized for the comments she made at a Heart of Riverhead civic meeting on March 18.   

Noting that she attended the Heart of Riverhead meeting “as a resident,” she said she was “not speaking for the Riverhead Board of Education.”

She went on to say that “the words I used were derogatory and harmful, there was no need for them. Violence has no color or community.”

Earlier this week, the Brentwood District 1 Youth Advisory Board, which describes itself as a “community group dedicated to empowering the youth of Brentwood, Central Islip, and North Bay Shore,” issued a statement seeking an apology from Ms. Downs and calling for the school board to disavow her comments publicly.

“By sensationalizing the issue of gang violence, Downs has contributed to a harmful narrative that perpetuates fear and misunderstanding,” the statement read. “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.

A planned protest decrying Ms. Downs’ comments morphed into a press conference in which Brentwood and Riverhead elected officials expressed their outrage and frustration with Ms. Downs’ comments.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the comments were “divisive, deliberate and unfairly targeted the Hispanic population here in Riverhead.” She went on to call the comments “shockingly unprofessional” and described Ms. Downs’ resignation on Tuesday as “a little too late.

“The damage has been done. Her words have cut, and we’ll have to work together to heal both communities — the Riverhead community and the Brentwood community.”

School board president Brian Connelly followed with comments of his own, calling Ms. Downs’ statements “wrong, hurtful and dangerous.

“They were discriminatory, gave credence to false and harmful stereotypes, and rather than promote inclusion, understanding and respect for all were divisive, insulting and harmful to the Brentwood community and the Latino population in particular.”

As the press conference was getting underway, the Riverhead Police Department issued a press release describing an armed assault of a Riverhead High School teenager by five individuals in ski masks armed with a knife Tuesday afternoon.

The five individuals demanded the victim’s belongings and cut him in the chest, according to the press release, and the victim was hospitalized.

Asked about the alleged incident, Ms. Aguiar initially suggested that it was a “copycat crime” due to the issue being publicized in local media this week.

“We don’t know the full circumstances,” Ms. Aguiar said. “There’s a speculation that somebody wanted to prove a point. OK, you’ve got to look at the newsworth[iness]” of the incident.”

She went on to say that “there’s a possibility that, like, copycat things happen when items are newsworthy. So, no, it’s not necessarily related. We can’t make any statements on it.”

When pressed about the alleged incident, Ms. Aguiar acknowledged that, while she did not have enough information to form an opinion on the alleged attack, she does not, in fact, believe it was a crime staged as a publicity stunt.

“There’s all possibilities, and that’s where we have to look,” she said.

After a school board meeting on Tuesday evening, Riverhead Central School District Board president Brian Connelly said while no firm decisions have been made, the board is likely to leave Ms. Downs’ seat open through the upcoming election on May 16.

Instead of the anticipated three board seats being in play, four seats will be open. Whomever wins Ms. Downs’ seat would begin serving immediately after the election, instead of in July when the other winners will take office. The winner of Ms. Downs’ seat is expected to serve out the final two years of her three-year term.