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Some Staten Islanders outraged after Department of Education covers cross on public school

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MT. LORETTO, Staten Island -- It's a public school which is, by its creation, funded by all New York taxpayers.

So the fact that it had a 10-foot-tall cross plastered across its facade was objectionable to at least one of the special needs school's families. Their complaint led to the cross being covered up, and that act is sparking its own objections.

"It's crazy, to tell you the truth," said Tottenville resident Anthony Weber. "God forbid we complain about any other religious aspect of anything, and automatically, it's a hate crime."

He was among some local residents who are dissatisfied with what the city's Department of Education has done about the situation.

It placed a sign over the cross that reads, "South Richmond High School -- Home of the Panthers," a simple statement of fact which, PIX11 News has learned, cost $4,000 to create and install.

The concrete cross is part of the design of the building, which was completed in 1958. It's on the grounds of this Catholic Church complex on the South Shore of Staten Island. The DOE has leased the former Catholic school building for the last 15 years. During that time, the cross had been partially obscured by a tall shrub.

The shrub had to be cut back recently, and that's when the complaint arose.

In the decade and a half since the DOE lease was first opened, many of the demographics of the borough, particularly in its southwest end, where the school is located, have changed.

"Until the early 2000s, Staten Island was predominantly a white, European Roman Catholic borough," said Prof. Abraham Unger of Wagner College.

He said that increased diversity is an issue that the borough is going to have to deal with more and more. However, Prof. Unger pointed out, "There's a massive increase of Latino immigration to the borough."

"From 2000 to 2010," Unger continued, "Staten Island experienced a 52 percent increase in immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries."

Many of them, he observed tend to be Roman Catholic or Pentacostal Protestant -- Christians who are devout and proud of their faith.

"It's really sick," said Maria Morio, a Tottenville resident who moved to the borough four decades ago. She said that she's gone from being the only Spanish speaker in the community to being one of a countless number.

Regarding the cross covering controversy, she called the change wrongheaded.

"This was already here," she told PIX11 News. "I think it should stay."

She also mentioned that people of other faiths live on the South Shore now, and while she and others PIX11 encountered expressed disappointment and resentment over the cross being covered up, hardly any of them had known it had happened until we pointed it out to them.

For its part, the DOE issued a statement, "When leasing buildings from religious institutions, we work closely with building owners to ensure religious symbols and iconography are removed or covered."

The school building's cornerstone has a cross carved into it, about 8 inches long. There's no indication it's being considered for removal.