As he stood up at the front of the James A. Dever Elementary School auditorium, District 13 parent Victor Perez slapped a printout on the table in front of Trustee Vinny Pandit with a red circle with a diagonal line through it superimposed over Pandit’s face. Then Perez took the microphone.
“First of all,” he said, “I’m hurt.”
Perez, like many of the roughly two-dozen mostly Hispanic people who attended the district’s Oct. 15 board meeting, came to call for Pandit’s resignation over comments he had made on Facebook the previous weekend that they considered racist.
Pandit’s comments, made in response to a flier posted online by the Nassau County Office of Hispanic Affairs promoting an Oct. 16 chat between millennial Latinos and County Executive Laura Curran, asserted that the topic of conversation should be how the county would “eradicate Hispanic/Latino gangsters, rapists, kidnappers and drug lords from our streets so it will be a safe place to live.”
Standing with his family, Perez said he had lived in Valley Stream for 13 years, and, grabbing his 13-year-old son, Ismail, asked, “Is this the face of a kidnapper?”
Then he turned to his daughter, Evelyn, 18: “Is this the face of a drug dealer?”
His was one of numerous emotional testimonies made at the meeting, as Pandit sat, eyes downcast.
After his original post, Pandit continued his commentary, disparaging respondents online who criticized his remarks as offensive.
Describing them using words such as “idiot,” “ignorant” and “illegal,” Pandit appeared to question why anyone would disagree with his statement, which was aimed, he said, at highlighting the dangers posed by Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, an El Salvadoran gang that in recent years has carried out a series of murders on Long Island. He wondered, he said, why his comments were portrayed in such a negative light.
One speaker at the meeting expressed disbelief that the comments made by a sitting public official were genuine. “The first thing that ran through my mind was somebody must have hacked this man’s account,” Noemi Diaz, a District 30 parent, said.
Others were worried about what it could mean for district policy that a school board trustee could hold such beliefs.
The comment “really concerns me as a mother for my child within” the district, Delia Torres-Crespo said. “. . . It concerns me even more for the population that you serve . . . People like you make important decisions for our kids, so how can I trust you?”
Others said the comments constituted a breach of confidence between the Hispanic community in a school district where, according to State Education Department statistics, there are 561 students of Hispanic background enrolled — the most of any demographic — and the school board.
“Your words do not represent the Hispanic families in Valley Stream or any other place,” Maribel Canestro, another District 13 parent, said. “Your comments did not make us feel safe, and I no longer consider you a positive influence or someone who should be trusted to look after the best interest of our children.”
Speaking at the meeting, Pandit, who was elected to the board in 2015, and who is an immigrant from India, offered a long and at times meandering apology for how his comments were perceived.
“I am truly sorry if I hurt any particular group,” he said. “As you know, I stand strongly for the safety of our children in schools, and that drew me into this conversation.”
He said he saw the initial post as an opportunity to begin a dialogue about school safety, and claimed that his comments had been misrepresented.
“My intentions were clear,” he said. “I stand strongly for the safety of our children, and one thing led to another, as it often happens with social media, and things got out of hand.”
Pandit then switched topics to briefly discuss the need for school resource officers, or armed guards, at District 13 schools, but returned to the issue at hand.
“I’m very sorry if [the comments] hurt your feelings,” he said, adding that he recently attended an event promoting a book fair for Latino students. “. . . We love Spanish people, we love the Latinos, I love every community that is here.”
According to District 13 policy, any official communication made by the board must be approved by a majority vote. However, according to Board of Education President Dr. Frank Chiachiere, because Pandit expressed his opinions as a private citizen, there was little action that trustees could take.
Still, he and the other board members expressed their disgust at the remarks.
Chiachiere said he was “mortified” at what was written in the comments, while Trustee William Stris said he was “horrified.” Trustee Toni Pomerantz said her opinion was one of “disappointment,” and Trustee Patricia Farrell said Pandit’s statements were “disrespectful” to the community that he was elected to serve.
But perhaps the most emotional response from the board came from its sole Latina member, Vice President Milagros Vicente. “As a Latina woman, and mother, I was shocked and saddened that an individual would have such feelings about my people, especially our youth,” she said. “We are attorneys, teachers, professionals, doctors, and in this district we have principles.
“This is very emotional for me,” she continued, “because everything that I do in this community is for all children, and there is no space or venue for a person to express themselves in this manner. It doesn’t matter where it happened. It was very disrespectful not only to me, but to the teachers, the staff, to everyone in this community and my people.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that a post promoting a chat between Latino millennials and County Executive Laura Curran had been deleted. It is still available for viewing.