NYCLU: Students accused of being in MS-13 need due process

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BELLPORT -

Civil rights groups are demanding answers after three high school students from Bellport were suspended and are now dealing with immigration issues after being accused of being members of MS-13.

News 12 Long Island previously reported in June that South Country School District suspended one of the students for wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt – an emblem that was previously announced by the school to be an MS-13 gang symbol. 

News 12/Newsday report: 4 Hispanic men fight MS-13 accusation

Their attorney, Peter Brill, says the other students were suspended after they were caught "flipping the bird" to each other. Brill says a school administrator misidentified it as a gang symbol and brought it to the attention of the school resource officers. 

Brill says the district overreacted and says the teens do not have a criminal record. 

Two of those students have been detained by Immigration and Custom Enforcement. News 12 was told that one of them is in a Virginia detention facility. The third student says he's under surveillance.

The New York Civil Liberties Union says the teens have been denied their due process. They've also formally filed a Freedom of Information request, demanding to know what criteria the Suffolk Police Department uses to classify someone as a gang member and then report them to federal authorities.

News 12 Long Island asked Suffolk Police Commissioner Tim Sini what criteria they use to identify gang members. Sini said he would not disclose that. 

"I think the answer to that should be obvious. If we let people know…the gang members know what we are looking for to confirm them as gang members, they will then take steps to prevent us from getting that information," he said. 

Irma Solis, with the Suffolk Chapter of the NYCLU, says not making the criteria public means mistakes could be made. 

"We're all at a loss, the parents are at a loss, because they don't know what indicators they should be concerned about and trying to make sure they don't inadvertently wear a color they're not supposed to be wearing," says Solis. 

Citing federal law, the superintendent of the South Country School District wouldn't comment on the specific students suspended. In general, the district says "wearing or displaying gang apparel and/or accessories, writing graffiti, making gestures or signs" is classified as "disruptive behavior" subject to discipline. The district has said it relies on the Suffolk Police Department to tell them what constitutes gang apparel and gang gestures.

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