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Rights Groups Question School Suspensions and ICE Detentions of Immigrant Students for Alleged MS-13 Ties

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The New York Civil Liberties Union and LatinoJustice PRLDEF today filed Freedom of Information Law requests with South Country Central School District and the Suffolk County Police Department regarding suspensions of immigrant students for questionable gang affiliations. The requests seek to determine the criteria for such suspensions, what information is shared with the police and what information police may be relaying to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Bellport High School in Suffolk County has in recent weeks suspended several 15- and 16- year old immigrant students for alleged MS-13 gang involvement, in some instances involving police directly in the school disciplinary process. Parents and students have told the NYCLU and LatinoJustice  that the suspensions have been based on pretextual reasons, such as students wearing commonly worn sports apparel and allegedly making nondescript gestures. To date, the NYCLU is aware of at least two students from Bellport High suspended on such grounds who were subsequently detained by ICE.

“No one should be subjected to suspension on a whim, especially when it can lead to immigration officials tearing you away from your home,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Children deserve to be able to go to school in a safe environment, without having to worry that a basketball jersey could mean deportation. We demand answers.”

Today’s FOIL requests seek information about the school district’s criteria for identifying alleged gang involvement. Bellport High has a vague dress code policy prohibiting clothing that police determine to be gang-related, yet neither the policy nor the school adequately informs students what items are prohibited. One Bellport High School student was suspended without warning when he wore a shirt with a small Chicago Bulls logo. Another student was suspended for displaying an El Salvadoran flag on his Facebook page. One student was suspended after he said  he flashed the middle finger and school officials accused him of displaying a gang sign. Their families all attest to their children’s lack of gang involvement.

“A school district’s disciplinary policies and practices  must comport with the law.  Students, their parents and guardians must have adequate notice of such rules and are entitled to equal non-discriminatory application and enforcement of those very same policies,” said LatinoJustice President and General Counsel Juan Cartagena. “That the Suffolk County Police has reportedly been colluding with the school district and ICE to target Latino students is quite troubling and serves to undermine these public education and law enforcement institutions that we so heavily rely upon to uphold our democratic values and communities. We seek the truth about the nature of these purported law enforcement collaborations in our schools.”

At least two students suspended from Bellport have now been detained by ICE in recent days. One of the detained students was taken without warning to a facility in Virginia on Thursday, July 6. A third student reports that his house has been monitored by ICE agents. All three students’ names are among those on a purported confidential Suffolk County Police Department list of alleged gang members that was obtained by a lawyer for one of the students.

The FOIL requests come days after the NYCLU warned the Trump Administration that placing minors in restrictive detention without cause, often thousands of miles away from home, violates their rights. The Office of Refugee Resettlement has been detaining teens based on questionable information provided to ICE by local law enforcement and failing to conduct its own independent investigations to verify allegations of gang involvement.

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