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How My High School Destroyed An Immigrant Kid's Life Because He Drew The School's Mascot

Late last year, Pro Publica and the NY Times published an incredible, long and infuriating article, mostly about how a high school in NY destroyed an immigrant student's life, due to a mixture of moral panics about "MS-13" gang activity (whipped up by the federal government), over-aggressive policing within schools, and deeply troubling decisions by ICE. The story touches on a number of things that we normally write about -- and I've been stewing over writing a post for weeks. The topics herein are most frequently covered on this site by Tim Cushing, rather than me. But I took this article, because the high school at the center of the article, Huntington High School in Suffolk County, New York, is the high school I attended. It's the high school I went to for 4 years, and it's the high school where I gave a speech at graduation on the same football field you can see in one of the photos used to illustrate the story.

Everything about the article is infuriating in so many ways, that it's been difficult to figure out where to even start, but if we have to start someplace, let's start with this: the rise of embedding police into schools -- so-called School Resource Officers (SROs), who are employed by the local police, but whose "beat" is a school. Those officers report to the local police department and not the school, and can, and frequently do, have different priorities. We've long raised concerns about the increased policing of schools. Traditionally, schools handled their own disciplinary matters directly, within the school, with a focus on what was best for the learning environment of the students. They were not always good at this, but adding in an element where the end result could be criminal charges has always seemed misguided, and never more so than in this particular story and the case of "Alex" in the news story.

As the article notes, this trend of putting police in schools came about as a result of the original "famous" school shooting, the one in Columbine, which resulted in a variety of moral panics:

CONGRESS FIRST PROVIDED funding to bring full-time police officers into schools after the 1999 Columbine shooting. The number of these resource officers has doubled in the last decade, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. Some 80 percent of high schools with more than 1,000 students have them. Schools with large populations of black and Latino students are more likely to have a resource officer than schools that are majority white. After the school shooting this year in Parkland, Florida, Trump called for police officers on every campus.

The position of school resource officer is a hybrid of conflicting roles: counselor, teacher and cop. “You have to have a person who can be caring and loving, but on the flip of a switch, turn into a law-enforcement warrior,” said Mac Hardy, a spokesman for the resource officers association.

That was a few years after I had graduated from the school. We had security guards, but they were not actually police. They didn't carry guns. They didn't have the power to arrest people. And they certainly didn't write up secret reports and send them to ICE leading to the deportation of students. But, apparently, we live in different times.

The second disturbing moral panic in the story is around gang activity, and specifically worries about MS-13.

Huntington High administrators say there has never been any MS-13 presence at the school. Unlike a number of other Long Island high schools, Huntington High says nothing about gang activity on its website; instead it offers guidance on throwing snowballs (“dangerous”) and keeping the hallways clear (“essential”).

That sounds about right. I'm sure there is some gang activity and some violence among students at the school. There was when I was there. I don't know how accurate it is, but I do remember when I was there being told that Huntington had been selected for some study because the population there was a pretty close match to the population diversity of the entire US. You had some rich families, some poor, and plenty of middle class. You had kids of every color and nationality. There were all sorts of groupings. The first time I saw a handgun was when a student (who I barely knew) was showing it off in his locker. There were fights and localized gangs, but hardly anything that crazy. It really doesn't sound like that much has changed. But, with the President and others continually exaggerating the idea of "MS-13 gangs," some police and some schools seem to have bought into the moral panic -- including the police sent to high schools. And even though some have suggested not going overboard with these things, that kind of nuance appears to have gotten lost.

In Suffolk County, although resource officers have been in the schools for two decades, their roles are expanding. In 2017, the Police Department sent officers into Huntington High and other schools to train administrators and teachers to identify gang members. The presentations focused on items like plastic rosaries, blue bandannas, anything with horns and the numbers 504 and 503, written in notebooks or on hands. One slide, which was used in community presentations, featured a group of young men holding up the Salvadoran flag at a Central American pride parade.

Some police officers cautioned that these symbols could also mean a student was being pressured to join or just trying to look cool, and that symbols can have multiple meanings. The same way metal-heads might draw a pentagram, or wannabe punks might draw the anarchy sign (a letter A inside a circle), some students might draw MS-13 symbols, unaware that adults could take those doodles as proof of membership. One law-enforcement officer told me about being called in by a Long Island school after a student drew the signs for both MS-13 and a rival Mexican gang in his notebook. The officer explained that a real gang member would not draw signs of a gang he wasn’t a member of — the drawings were not incriminating, just dumb. But not all officers were as clear about these nuances.

In the case of Alex, in this story, these kinds of warnings apparently created the problem. His problems started... because he wore some blue sneakers and a security guard thought it was a gang symbol:

Alex knew that MS-13 claimed Nike Cortez shoes and blue bandannas, so he made sure to avoid them. In the spring of 2017, school security guards stopped him as he walked down the hall wearing bright blue sneakers that his mother picked out for him as a gift for accompanying her to an immigration appointment in Queens. They said the blue of the shoes was the color of MS-13. They also searched Alex’s bag, on which he had written “504,” and found that he had doodled the name of his Honduran hometown and a devil with horns. Without explaining why, the security guards photographed the drawings before giving Alex his books back. When Alex got home that day, he buried the shoes in a closet and didn’t wear them again, even on weekends.

Even trying not to wear anything that looked like a gang member was interpreted... as being a gang member:

He stopped wearing his Honduran sports jerseys and his bracelet with the colors of the flag. He avoided talking to anyone he didn’t already know well. He and his two best friends decided it was safest to wear all black to school to avoid being tagged as gang members. But when they showed up in their matching outfits, the security guards said they couldn’t dress like that because it looked as if they were trying to start a gang.

Oh, and about that "devil" drawing mentioned above. That apparently was a key part of where everything went wrong for Alex. Except... the freaking school mascot is the "Blue Devil" and has been since at least well before I went to the school. And that's what the drawing was:

A few weeks later, on May 4, 2017, Alex was daydreaming as his algebra teacher introduced yet another indecipherable math operation. Without thinking, he began doodling in pencil on the school calculator he was using. When the bell rang, he handed it back in. That afternoon, security staff pulled Alex out of English class and took him to the office of Brenden Cusack, the principal. When Alex walked in, he saw the calculator on Cusack’s desk. Through an interpreter, Cusack asked Alex if he had drawn the number 504 on the case, and Alex said he had. Then Cusack produced the security guard’s photos of Alex’s drawing of devil horns and told him that the doodles signified MS-13.

Alex told me he would never have written on a wall or desk in this American school, and he knew it was wrong to draw on the school-issued calculator, but he was surprised to be taken to the principal for something he saw as a form of fidgeting. He tried to defend himself; the devil was the school mascot, after all, and 504 was the Honduras country code. “For the police, it’s a gang thing, but for us, it’s about being proud of your country,” he later told me. To Cusack, Alex’s distinctions didn’t seem to matter. The principal signed an incident report that said Alex had been caught in possession of “gang paraphernalia” and had been “defacing school property with gang signs.” Alex said that Cusack told him that he would be suspended for three days and that the doodles would be reported to Fiorillo.

Indeed, Alex appears to have been proud to show off his school spirit:

When his parents had extra money, he asked for a T-shirt, sweatshirt or backpack emblazoned with Huntington High’s name and its mascot, the blue devil with horns.

But combine all of this and you end up with him being deported as a supposed MS-13 member. First, as mentioned above, he was suspended for three days over this moral panic concerning his doodling of the school mascot. Then, apparently, the local school police officer, Andrew Fiorillo, was given the "incident report" about this, leading him to share that with his police department... which later (of course) shared the information with ICE.

It is most likely that as Alex sat at home during his suspension, Fiorillo received word of the doodling incident. While Fiorillo told me he didn’t remember details about Alex’s case, Huntington High has a policy of calling him in as soon as a staff member sees something that could be gang-related, according to a former principal, Carmela Leonardi, who retired in 2015. “The minute you see a gang sign, you need to intervene,” she said. “First, we’d try to get Drew involved, and say, ‘Have you seen this kid outside of the school talking to people?’ Because sometimes you do that in your notebook because you’re trying to seem cool, or because you’re a little idiot.”

Once Fiorillo knew about Alex’s drawings, he would have had to fill out a form and send the information on to the department’s criminal-intelligence unit. Although Suffolk County school resource officers are allowed to use their judgment about reporting infractions like marijuana possession or writing on school walls, their 2017 handbook requires them to write up gang activity, no matter how trivial. School resource officers are not detectives, and they don’t generally go further than passing on what they are told and observe themselves, according to Gerard Gigante, Suffolk County’s chief of detectives.

There's a lot more in the story, but a few months later, out of the blue, ICE showed up at his house and detained him. He had no idea why, but that was the last time he saw his home in Huntington.

... when the ICE agents came to Alex’s house on June 14, 2017, he was shocked into silence. It was only when they were far from Huntington, passing through unfamiliar, rundown Long Island towns, that he was able to get out the words to ask why he was being arrested. Alex says the agent first asked him to guess, and then told him, “We received a report a while ago from the school that you were a gang member, and that’s why.” Behind the tinted windows, his confusion resolved into fear for himself and his parents. “I felt so bad,” he said, “because I was thinking that my mom and dad were going to suffer.”

The article details how everyone just kept passing the buck, rather than taking responsibility for this weird game of disciplinary telephone, where a doodle of the school mascot eventually leads to deportation:

When I asked Fiorillo if he had known that his information was shared with ICE, he demurred. “I can’t speak to what they do, they being a federal government agency,” he said. “I don’t work with them.” Testimony at an immigration hearing by another Suffolk County school resource officer, George Politis of Brentwood High, whose information collected in school was found in ICE memos, shed some light on the process. Asked what happened after he wrote a report, he said: “It’s submitted, and then I don’t know how it’s disseminated from there. We enter it on a computer, and then it goes to whoever wants to read it within the department.”

Meanwhile, the high school -- my freaking high school -- did nothing to help. In fact, they appeared to actively block any attempt to help, with the school principal claiming they couldn't help for privacy reasons:

Palacios asked his client’s teachers for letters of support. But the teachers refused, saying the administration wouldn’t allow it. Alex’s father and the parents of many of the other detained Huntington students also approached their children’s teachers for letters and were also turned down. Cusack, the principal, told me he had been caught off guard by the requests and worried that having staff write about students to third parties would violate students’ privacy rights.

The article notes that the ACLU sued over a large number of similar situations (though, because Alex had just turned 19, and was no longer considered a minor, his case was not included). The result of that lawsuit showed that this combination of moral panics, school police officers, and ICE gone nuts, meant a bunch of kids being detained (and some deported) over little more than random accusations that some of them might have done something vaguely gang like.

The lead case involved a Brentwood High student, Noel (his middle name), who ICE said was dangerous because he had been seen with suspected MS-13 members and had written the number 503 in a school notebook. ICE labeled Noel a “gang member” when he was detained, then downgraded him to a “probable member” and finally, on the day of his hearing, settled on calling him a person identified by a school resource officer as “associated” with the gang. In an immigration courthouse in lower Manhattan, Judge Aviva Poczter ordered Noel’s immediate release, noting that 503 is a country code. “I think this is slim, slim evidence on which to base the continuing detention of an unaccompanied child,” Poczter said.

In other hearings, ICE presented evidence pulled from the Suffolk Police Department’s gang database. Again and again, judges found that the material — a student cited for a gang tattoo who didn’t have a tattoo; a photo of a group of suspected gang members that did not include the student in question — was far too weak or inaccurate to detain the students. In the cases involving Huntington students, the “Huntington High resource officer” kept coming up. In one case, he reported that one student was “found to be in possession of MS-13 drawings in his school work.” In another, he reported that a student had written “MS13” on his arm. Ultimately, 30 of the 32 teenagers in the ACLU lawsuit were freed, including Palacios’ client, who returned to school.

The article goes on and on with much more detail, and background about Alex and his family -- and how a judge in his asylum case ignored the (lack of) evidence and ordered him deported. And then, the government kept pressuring him not to fight deportation, basically making his life a living hell until he felt he had no choice but to accept deportation.

All because he'd drawn the freaking school mascot. And because we've put police where they don't belong. And because of moral panics over "gang violence" that is not nearly as big a problem as gets hyped up by the media... and the President of the United States (for a good backgrounder on the actual threats of MS-13, I recommend the thorough This American Life episode, which shows (1) that MS-13 is much smaller than people claim, (2) that the violence is mostly directed at other immigrant kids, (3) that the police who claim to be so concerned about MS-13 seem to mostly ignore or deny actual reports of MS-13 violence when it involves immigrant kids, and (4) that the police only really care in the rare instances when it impacts white, American-born people).

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security is celebrating this program of detaining and deporting kids who probably haven't done anything wrong as they continue to expand it:

But across Long Island, immigrant students who get in trouble for minor offenses still risk the same chain of overreactions that led to Alex’s deportation. In August 2018, the school district for Bellport High banned students from drawing devil horns and the numbers 503 and 504, or posting them on their private social-media pages. By December, the ACLU identified about 20 new minors around the country arrested by ICE on shaky gang claims, and it sued to force ICE to reveal the total number of minors who have been detained. ICE now says Operation Matador will be permanent on Long Island. This fall, the initiative won an annual award from the Department of Homeland Security for best new ICE program.

After the article came out, the school district posted a letter in response, which calls the details of the article "upsetting," but hardly seems to suggest that the school is going through any serious self-reflection of its role in all of this:

While it would be simple to argue statements and context in numerous places within the article, it does not change the fact that the events, as presented, are beyond upsetting. We deeply regret the harm faced by any family in our community who has been separated from a child. In that light, systems and processes at the high school will be reviewed thoroughly in an effort to maintain a safe haven, as well as the happiness and well-being of all students. We could not ask for a more caring and compassionate group of school staff members, who routinely place the needs of children before their own.

And while it says that it will do this "thorough" review, the letter, at the same time, suggests only minor modifications to having a police officer in the school:

We have enjoyed a productive working relationship with the area’s SRO through the years. He has helped and guided numerous students and families in our district and others. In light of current national and local concerns, however, we believe that we must advocate for an additional layer of organization addressing the relationship between schools districts and the Police Department. This can be accomplished through formulation of a Memorandum of Understanding. It is our firm belief that such an agreement would establish formal procedural guidelines associated with the SRO position, as well as with information flow and restrictions. It is our additional belief that this would not only provide guidance and protection for schools, school staff and students, but for the SRO’s and Department as well.

That seems like too little too late.

Honestly, so much of the article is a demonstration of how little things snowball and overreactions create horrific situations. Putting police in schools was never a good idea -- but extra fear about high profile school shootings encouraged doing that as a "solution" that isn't much of a solution (how often have you heard about SROs stopping a school shooting?). The panic over MS-13 and "gangs" has resulted in people freaking out over anything they perceive as a gang indicator. In many ways, it actually reminds me of the "Satanic Panic" from back in the 1980s, where adults were freaking out about "the kids" somehow being evil, and freaking out over even the slightest "evidence" to support their own delusions.

It is deeply disturbing that this happens anywhere, but the fact that I'm so familiar with this particular school makes it that much more painful to me, personally. That school, its teachers and other students, are certainly a big part of who I am today. And today I'm ashamed that that very same school had any role in this travesty, completely ruining a kid's life because he had a little school spirit (likely much more school spirit than I ever had).

While writing this, I was trying to recall the details of the graduation speech I gave 25 years ago at Huntington High School. It's possible that the printed out text is in a box somewhere at my parents' house -- which is still mere blocks away from the school. I don't remember it exactly, but I do recall, with tremendous clarity, that the key theme was about learning how to keep things in perspective, and about not getting carried away, especially based on trends or peer pressure. It probably was not a very good speech (a friend at the time noted that the other speaker that day gave a "reach for the clouds" message, while mine was a "but keep your feet planted on the ground" kind of speech). However, it certainly seems that many, many people these days could gain from internalizing that message -- including at the very high school I went to.

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