New York Public Schools (and Others) have a Gang Problem:
BRENTWOOD, N.Y. –The old minivan appeared near the school on a Tuesday morning, its Illinois plates the only thing out of place in the blue-collar suburbs of central Long Island. But as backpack-toting teenagers passed by on their way to Brentwood High, the van’s doors suddenly swung open.
Out sprang members of the violent street gang MS-13, armed with baseball bats.
They attacked three 16-year-old students they suspected of being rivals before driving off. When police spotted the van in the same neighborhood the following afternoon and surrounded it at gunpoint, the MS-13 members were in the midst of trying to abduct a fourth.
“We were going to take him somewhere private and beat him to death,” said Miguel Rivera, 20, according to a Suffolk County indictment.
The Dec. 6 arrests of Rivera and four others thwarted what police say would have been the sixth murder of a Brentwood High School student by MS-13 in less than two years.
But the incident also shook the school for another reason.
All but one of those arrested attended Brentwood, according to Suffolk County police. Three were unaccompanied minors who had been caught at the border and then placed in the community by a federal refugee program.
From New York to Virginia to Texas, schools in areas racked by MS-13 violence are now struggling with a sobering question.
What to do when the gang isn’t just in your community, but in your classrooms?
For the past year, the Trump administration has waged a nationwide crackdown on MS-13. Nowhere has this effort been more intense than in Suffolk County, where police say the gang has committed 27 murders since a surge of unaccompanied minors began arriving in 2013.
In his January State of the Union address, Trump recounted the story of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, two Brentwood High students killed by MS-13 on Sept. 13, 2016.
“Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors and wound up in Kayla and Nisa’s high school,” the president said as the girls’ parents, who had been invited to watch the speech at the Capitol, wiped away tears.
Faced with an influx of scores of unaccompanied minors and an uptick in gang violence, Brentwood High has been criticized both for doing too little and too much to address the problem.
A $110 million federal lawsuit, filed in December by Kayla’s mother, claims administrators failed to protect her 16-year-old, allowing MS-13 to create an “environment filled with fear within the school.”
Meanwhile, a class-action suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Trump administration alleges the school went too far, hastily labeling kids as gang members and leading to their wrongful imprisonment.
School officials say they walk a fine line, reporting illegal activity while respecting students’ rights.
“We can see a gang member coming a mile away,” said Carlos Sanchez, safety director for the Brentwood Free Union School District. “The problem is that it’s not against the law to be a gang member, even if they identify themselves as MS.”
‘They failed my daughter’
Located 50 miles from Manhattan’s skyscrapers one way and the Hamptons’ oceanfront estates the other, Brentwood High School serves a community of 60,000 that was once largely Irish and Italian, then Puerto Rican and now nearly half Central American.
The sprawling school’s corridors are a maze adorned with inspirational messages like “Look for Rainbows” and “Believe and Succeed.” Only a few signs on classroom doors hint at the school’s transformation in recent years.
“I work with and for undocumented students and families,” one reads.
Starting in 2013, thousands of unaccompanied minors — most from Central America — began entering the United States illegally from Mexico each month, many turning themselves in to authorities. More than 200,000 have been detained, screened and then placed with relatives by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Nearly 5,000 have been sent to Suffolk County.
Schools are required by law to enroll and educate these students. At Brentwood High, the student population soared to 4,500, making it one of the largest high schools in the state.
“We had to open many more classes and hire more teachers,” recalled Wanda Ortiz-Rivera, the school district’s head of bilingual education.
But the challenge went beyond language. Many of the new students were years behind in their education. Some had never gone to school and couldn’t read or write in any language.
Brentwood had long been overwhelmingly Hispanic, but the sudden surge in enrollment led to new tensions.
“There were a lot of Salvadoran people, Salvadoran people we don’t like,” said Mabel Castaño, a friend of Nisa’s and Kayla’s who said she attended Brentwood High for 18 months. “Some of them would say they had family members in MS-13. They’d say, ‘I’m going to get my brother or my uncle or my cousin on you.’ ”
Sanchez, the school district safety director, said MS-13 had long been overshadowed by gangs like the Bloods and Latin Kings.
“The last couple of years, when we had the unaccompanied children coming, that’s when we saw the change,” he said. By providing vulnerable newcomers with a sense of belonging, MS-13 “became a powerhouse.” A deadly one.
First, a former Brentwood student was fatally shot by the gang in November 2015, police say. Then Brentwood students began to go missing. A 15-year-old Ecuadoran named Miguel Garcia-
Moran vanished one February evening.
Two months later, Oscar Acosta, a 19-year-old Salvadoran, left home to play soccer and never returned. And in June 2016, Jose Peña-Hernandez, 18, a suspected MS-13 member, disappeared, too.
Three missing immigrant teens didn’t draw much attention to Brentwood. But that would change with the killings of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens.
Kayla, a basketball player from a Puerto Rican family, had first clashed with MS-13 two years earlier at Brentwood’s Freshman Center, where gang members spat on her, stole or broke her things and taunted her, according to her mother’s lawsuit.
Things escalated in summer school, when an MS-13 member threatened her with a knife, then continued to attend Brentwood High, the lawsuit says.
“She used to tell me, ‘Ma, they are taking over the school. It’s like they’re everywhere,’ ” said Evelyn Rodriguez, who has become the face of MS-13 victims.
Rodriguez said she and her daughter reported the bullying to school administrators, who promised the knife-wielding student wouldn’t be allowed back. But when Kayla, 16, who had exchanged online taunts with MS-13, showed up for classes that fall, he was still there, the lawsuit alleges.
After a confrontation at Brentwood, federal prosecutors say, MS-13 put a “greenlight” — or kill order — on Kayla, and members made a “throat slicing gesture” toward her at school, the lawsuit says.
A week later, she was walking home one evening with Nisa, a basketball teammate one day shy of her 16th birthday, when MS-13 members spotted them and attacked with a machete and baseball bats, according to prosecutors. The girls were beaten to death.
“They failed my daughter,” Rodriguez said of school officials.
Tensions in the school and the community quickly boiled over as Bloods and Latin Kings banded together to go after MS-13, police said. Two students told The Post that they were stopped by a car full of people in red clothing who asked whether they had seen anyone wearing blue, a color sometimes worn by MS-13. Another had his blue shirt burned in front of him, school officials announced.
A week after the murders, while students and teachers mourned the girls at a funeral parlor, police discovered the remains of Acosta and Garcia-
Moran across town.
They found Peña-Hernandez’s body a month later.
But There’s More; Remember THIS Public Park in Maine? Now the Somali Muslims Have Put a Man in the Hospital:
LEWISTON – State and local police are investigating a Tuesday night melee near Kennedy Park that left one man hospitalized in critical condition.
Witnesses said at least two dozen teenagers, preteens and adults were involved in the brawl.
Nicholas Vinciguerra, who lives on Maple Street, said he and his longtime friends, whom he refers to as family, had been gathered in the park Tuesday night when gunfire from BB and pellet guns erupted from the open windows of a black car driving north on Bates Street.
Vinciguerra said he and his friends were hit by the BBs and pellets. Three men from the group ran after the car as it turned right onto Spruce Street, then left onto Knox Street.
Jennifer Hixon, 27, said she was standing around in the park with a group of regular friends when a shot from a pellet gun struck her in the side.
“Right here,” she said. “It got me right in the ribs.”
When the car stopped halfway down the block on Knox Street, Vinciguerra and his friend confronted the youths in the car and asked them why they had shot at them. Suddenly, the three men were surrounded by roughly 30 people swinging sticks, baseball bats and other weapons, Vinciguerra said.
“You could see they were swinging for the fences,” he said.
Some of the attackers picked up bricks and used them as weapons, Vinciguerra said.
“They had bats and sticks and rocks and steel pipes,” said an 18-year-old who identified himself as David. “They had everything. They were just coming in by the dozens. There were maybe 30 of them and eight of us. It was just a brawl. A bloodbath.”
Vinciguerra said he was told that his friend had been hit with a brick and was taken to the hospital, where police said he underwent surgery and was listed in critical condition.
“I just want my town to be the way it used to be,” Vinciguerra said, “where you could go out your door and go for a walk at 9 o’clock at night and not have to worry.”
He said the assailants didn’t appear to have any motive other than to injure people.
This wasn’t the first time this type of incident had happened, Vinciguerra said. It began roughly two months ago. He said he and his friends and their families have been harassed in that area of downtown Lewiston recently and don’t feel safe walking alone there.
Vinciguerra said the three men appeared to have been lured into a trap Tuesday night.
He predicted the worst is yet to come.
“I’m trying to stop it before it happens,” he said.
By the time police arrived at the scene on Knox Street on Tuesday night, most of the brawlers had scattered, Vinciguerra said.
He said he didn’t believe law enforcement would bring the ongoing feud to a peaceful resolution.
“I don’t talk to the cops,” he said. “They don’t listen.”
There was a lot of similar mistrust in Kennedy Park on Wednesday afternoon as several people gathered to tell their stories.
Daniel Dennison Sr., a 39-year-old with bruises around his right eye and the side of his nose, said he was among those who got jumped.
“They just started ganging up on us,” he said. “I got sucker punched and knocked to the ground. I tried to get back up and fight, but there were suddenly, like, 12 of them around me.”
David, the 18-year-old, said he had gone to the park after hearing that a group had plans to start a fight in Kennedy Park. What he didn’t expect, David said, was that there would be so many of them, or that they would be using such a wide range of weapons.
“I came down without any weapons at all,” he said. “I fight with my fists.”
A few weeks ago, a video began circulating on social media showing a group of people fighting with a smaller group in Kennedy Park.
That previous brawl, said Rich Finch, 44, began when a young man approached his wife in the park and asked to borrow a lighter. When Finch asked for the lighter back, he said, trouble began.
“One of the guy’s buddies came up behind me with a big stick and hit me in the head,” Finch said. “By the time I stood up, there were 25 or so of them surrounding me.”
Those hanging out in the park Wednesday complained that police don’t investigate these type of attacks as vigorously as they should.
“It’s like the police are scared,” said a woman named Lori, sitting on a bench Wednesday in the middle of Kennedy Park. “But they need to put a stop to it or there are going to be riots.”
Stoddard said she has a meeting with Lewiston Mayor Shane Bouchard. The mayor said he wouldn’t comment on the matter while it was being investigated.
Police Lt. David St. Pierre said there has been more tension at the park since the May 17 incident and that police are “definitely stepping up some patrols in the Kennedy Park area to hopefully address it and put an end to it, because it is concerning.”
“I wouldn’t say there’s some drastic uptick in calls there, but we are concerned because we’ve had a couple of incidents,” including the one Tuesday night, he said.
Police said Wednesday they would be enforcing a 9 p.m. curfew in the park. That means people will be allowed to move through the park but not congregate there.
On Wednesday, police were conducting interviews with those involved in the incident and planned to continue that work Thursday.
The case was turned over to Maine State Police because of the man’s medical condition. State Police investigate homicides in Lewiston.
Anyone who may have witnessed the Tuesday night brawl is urged to call the Lewiston Police Detective Division at 513-3138.