Riverhead School Board VP Resigns After Brentwood Comment Controversy

The Riverhead School District office on Osborne Avenue
The Riverhead School District office on Osborne Avenue
Taylor K. Vecsey

A Riverhead school official resigned after sparking outrage over her public comments saying that she feared the community is “becoming a Brentwood” while suggesting Hispanic residents cause gang violence — a stereotype critics blasted.

Laurie Downs, the vice president of the Riverhead Central School District Board of Education, stepped down hours before a group of lawmakers from Brentwood were slated to hold a news conference at Riverhead High School calling for her to apologize.

“I don’t want my behavior to further distract the leadership of these school districts from providing quality education to all students,” Downs wrote in her letter of resignation on Tuesday, March 28.

“I want 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.”

Downs made the initial comments about Brentwood to a local news reporter following a March 18 Heart of Riverhead Civic Association meeting in which she raised concerns about crime in the community. 

“We got a lot of Latino kids,” Downs told RiverheadLOCAL. “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.”

Brentwood, which has the highest concentration of Hispanic residents on Long Island, has also been a hot spot for gangs — predominantly MS-13 — for years, although authorities have quelled the violence following a series of crackdowns. 

Riverhead has seen a 78% increase in Hispanic residents in the past decade as of the most recent census, but still make up a minority of the overall community at 14%. And police disputed Downs’ claims of rampant local gang violence.

“Downs’ comments, which insinuated that the growing Hispanic population in … Riverhead will lead to increased gang violence, were not only stereotypical but also unsupported by facts,” said New York State Assemblyman Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), who is deputy speaker of the chamber. “Recent police reports show that the incidents Mrs. Downs referred to in her speech did not occur. This type of misinformation and fear-mongering is simply unacceptable from any public official, let alone one who is responsible for the education and welfare of our children.”

In response to Downs’ comments, the District 1 Youth Advisory Board started a petition on change.org calling on her to apologize. It got nearly 800 signatures in less than a week.

“By sensationalizing the issue of gang violence, Downs has contributed to a harmful narrative that perpetuates fear and misunderstanding,” the board wrote in its petition. “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, Downs’ statements only serve to stigmatize and further marginalize already vulnerable communities.”

Downs initially apologized, but then stepped down entirely shortly before the news conference, which was to precede a Riverhead board of education meeting, where the public comment portion of the meeting was expected to be dominated by the controversy.

Brian Connelly, the president of the board, distanced himself from his now-former vice president’s comments.

“The statements made by Ms. Downs were wrong, hurtful and dangerous,” he said. “They were discriminatory, gave credence to false and harmful stereotypes, and rather than promote inclusion and understanding and respect for all, were divisive and, yes, insulting and harmful to the Brentwood community and the Latino population. Please know that those statements did not in any way represent the Riverhead Board of Education, the Riverhead School District or the Riverhead community. Ms. Downs was not speaking on behalf of this board, this school district or this community.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, a former police detective and the first Latina to lead a town in Suffolk County, called for unity.

“Riverhead’s diversity is a huge source of pride,” she said. “In addition to being woefully inaccurate, these comments were shockingly unprofessional … Leaders cannot engage in unproductive fear-mongering and contribute to divisiveness in our community.”