Several current and former Locust Valley High School students, as well as members of the community, addressed controversy surrounding the sale of Back the Blue masks by LVHS’s club of the same name during the district Board of Education meeting on Tuesday. Some speakers said the sale is tone deaf during a period of racial divide in the United States, while others said it is to show support of the police without any political agenda.
Due to district policy, the Herald Guardian was not able to acquire proper spellings of speakers’ names. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the Herald listened to the meeting via livestream.
LVHS senior Anastasia Georgioupolis said the Back the Blue masks have been sold at the school store and been promoted by the district athletic department’s Instagram page, which she said has never promoted another club fundraisers. Her issues, she said, lies in the appearance of district support toward a specific belief.
Georgioupolis said she would love to see more inclusivity of beliefs in the school and asked the board and school administration if she could make and sell masks centered around Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ-plus community. She has spoken with the LVHS’s Gay-Straight Alliance club, she said, and they would be interested in working together to create and sell more inclusive masks.
Student Reid Barisellos also said he has concerns about the Back the Blue mask sales. His problem has nothing to do with the police or any other first responder, he said, as he is enrolled in an EMT training program. The issue, he said, lies in the fact that the masks’ logo belongs to the Act America Back the Blue organization, the website of which it is important to stand up to “radical leftist protesters vilifying our local heroes.”
The issue is a “massive divider,” Barisellos said, and while he said he understands that some members of the club may have personal connections to people in the police whom they want to support through selling masks, there are less divisive ways to do so. He suggested that the club instead advocate for police officers to come into the school to share their experiences, which he said would increase students’ personal connections to the police.
“Sadly, defending police has become a partisan issue,” Barisellos said, “but I believe that, in a public school, we should focus on inclusion . . . I believe that fundraising by using the logo of a clearly partisan organization is a massive misstep in a public school with a diverse student body.”
According to U.S. News, the student population at Locust Valley High School is roughly 76 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, four percent Asian and one percent Black.
Alumna Amanda Hornam said she is disappointed in the administration for allowing political bias to come into the high school. She said school rallies can often turn political, which can alienate students who are part of minority communities. She also said it is not right for the school to allow the selling of Back the Blue masks while not doing the same with masks supporting Black Lives Matter or the LGBTQ-plus community.
Student Alexis Cassano said that she and her family are close to the family of a police officer, Sgt. Paul Tuozzolo, and she was disturbed by the possibility of the negative connotation of the Back the Blue flag tarnishing his name. She said that, with respect for him and his family, she wanted to avoid that possibility by separating the sales of Blue Lives Matter masks from the school.
However, not everybody was in support of these ideas. Resident Maureen LiAntonio said she was not planning on speaking at the meeting but felt compelled to stick up for the Back the Blue club following previous speakers’ statements. She said she was astounded by people who are offended by the club, which she said was set up in support of law enforcement. Just because somebody finds something offensive, she said, does not make that idea inherently wrong.
“When people are private citizens, they’re allowed free speech,” LiAntonio said. “Just because you’re offended by it doesn’t mean that person is wrong, and free speech goes for everybody.”
LiAntonio said she finds there is a lack of respect among many of the district’s current and former students.
“I’m going to implore the district to figure something out,” she said, “because, each month, kids come here and they disparage volunteer adults in the community and nobody corrects them about the system, about how it works . . . I think these kids need to be educated big-time and fast.”
Locust Valley resident Pam Halpin said her daughter, Megan, was one of the founding members of the Back the Blue club a few years ago. The purpose of the club, she said, is to back all first responders. She said she is upset by the sentiment against the masks’ logo, which she said has been a symbol representing murdered police officers for years. The masks, she said, have been sold the last three years to raise money for a veterans hospital in Suffolk County.
“Before we start disparaging something, just think about [how] people are actually doing good,” Halpin said. “Not everything has to be so polarizing. Not everything has to be a symbol of hate. It becomes a symbol of hate when you make it a symbol of hate.”
Superintendent Dr. Ken Graham thanked the students who spoke. He said it has been tough to get people together to share ideas this year due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, he said he looks forward to speaking with students on both sides of the issue.
“Clearly, we have some work to do in terms of culture,” Graham said, “and I think that that’s an ongoing conversation.”