Gurney's Inn
May 09, 2007

Drug Arrest Sparks Community Outrage

An arrest last week of a part-time school custodian at Westhampton Beach High School has left both parents and the community seeking answers.

Last Wednesday, a 26-year-old East Moriches resident, Ralph Hernandez, who was employed part-time by the Westhampton Beach School District, was arrested for the possession and sale of illegal narcotics.

Hernandez was charged with two counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance in or near school grounds, three charges of third degree sale of a controlled substance and two counts of third degree possession of a controlled substance. Each count is a class B felony punishable by a maximum of two to nine years in prison.

According to District Attorney Thomas Spota, detectives assigned to the East End Drug Task force executed a search warrant at Hernandez's home and seized 22 packets of cocaine ranging in size from one-half gram to 3.5 grams, a digital scale bearing cocaine residue, and 48 Percocet pills.

The arrest was the result of an investigation involving undercover detectives who purchased cocaine from the defendant on the grounds of Westhampton Beach Middle School, which is located on the same campus as the high school.

At a press conference following the arrest, Spota said that on both occasions, powdered cocaine was left in an automobile. The defendant allegedly directed the undercover detective to go to the car, parked in the middle school parking lot, leave the money, and take the cocaine.

According to the district attorney, the defendant told the detective after he was arrested that he did not sell cocaine to students; he admitted to selling Percocet, a prescription-only pain reliever, to students for $4 per pill.

No arrests of students were made.

Spota said the narcotics investigation is ongoing.

Hernandez pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in Westhampton Village Court; bail was set at $75,000. He was represented by Legal Aid.

The arrest was the second incident in recent weeks to shine the spotlight on the school district: A recent "unspecified threat" to students sparked a sea of rumors that raised concerns among parents and triggered an increase in absenteeism on the anniversary of the Columbine tragedy.

In both cases, Westhampton School District Superintendent Lynn Schwartz was proactive, posting letters on the district's website and advising parents to contact him with concerns.

In a message posted on the district's site last week, Schwartz said the district had been "informed that a former employee was arrested on charges of allegedly selling cocaine to an undercover narcotics agent and prescription drugs to Westhampton Beach School District students."

The superintendent added Hernandez "is not currently employed in any capacity by the district. He was a substitute custodian who was never a permanent employee of the district."

According to Schwartz, Hernandez worked 23 days in 2005-2006 and 60 days in 2006-2007. In addition, he said, Hernandez completed and passed all necessary background checks under the SAVE legislation, which is a pre-requisite for school employment in New York.

Schwartz said the district was notified on Monday, April 30 by the State Education Department that Hernandez had been arrested April 17. Although the nature of the charge was not made clear, Schwarz said Hernandez was "notified that his substitute services were no longer required by the district."

The earlier arrest involved a menacing incident on April 17 unrelated to the district at a friend's home, according to a representative for Spota.

Schwartz said the arrest prompted a local school investigation, adding that "the district will work closely with the Westhampton Beach Police Department in order to continue to provide a safe and appropriate school environment for our students" and said they would be reviewing current efforts with regard to drug and alcohol prevention.

In an interview after the arrest, Schwartz assured the district would remain diligent. "We do an awful lot of work in the drug and alcohol prevention effort. In light of this recent event, we are continuing our work."

A current initiative includes implementing Communities That Care, a nationwide prevention program based on the understanding of risk and protective factors which aims to tackle and reduce youth violence and crime, substance and alcohol abuse, school delinquency and dropout, and teen promiscuity and pregnancy. The district is working with the Human Understanding and Growth Seminar (HUGS) program and with a district wellness committee to institute the CTC initiative. "We continue to take drug and alcohol prevention seriously and plan programs around that issue," he said.

Kym Laube, executive director of the HUGS program, feels that last week's incident triggers concerns namely, that parents will focus concerns on drugs such as cocaine and Percocet and sweep the alcohol issue under the rug. "We have alcohol being used regularly. People make the excuse for alcohol all the time. We see drugs as being the bad thing, but we see alcohol as being the 'acceptable' drug. And yet, alcohol kills more youth than all illegal substances combined."

And, said Laube, with prescription pain killer abuse on the rise, education needs to take place in the medical profession.

But, according to the Teen Assessment Project 2006, a survey conducted in November 2005 by the Southampton Town Youth Bureau with the cooperation of local school districts, local usage of illicit drugs, with the exception of marijuana, is much lower than the national average.

For those seeking answers after last week's arrest, Laube suggested: "Parents need to parent. It's not about a popularity contest or being your kids' friend." Parents need to provide "clear and consistent boundaries."

Laube believes last week's arrest may have had a silver lining. "We are just beginning this whole community mobilization process. It's not that I think this incident was good, but I think good can come out of it."

The arrest, she added, may have raised awareness and sparked the realization that parental and community involvement is key. "It's not a school problem to fix. The school's job is to educate. It's a community problem, not only in Westhampton Beach, but all communities."

There are certain steps residents can take to tackle the problem, including "environmental strategies" such as reducing the amount of exposure young people have to alcohol. "House parties need to stop," she said; parents should encourage alcohol and substance-free events.

At an event to discuss the TAP survey, Westhampton Beach High School students Mara D'Alessio said, "Parents need to get involved."

Kathy Tureski, parent of a high school freshman, was glad the defendant was arrested and believed the district followed policy when hiring him. "It's unfortunate that it happened, but it's all over the place. You just hope that you raise your kids not to do drugs and keep connected with them."

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