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.”
– – –
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.
Brentwood’s principal and the superintendent declined interview requests. The school district has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit as baseless.
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.
– – –
Arrests of alleged MS-13 members nationwide nearly doubled during Trump’s first year in office. In Suffolk County, 219 have been arrested since Kayla and Nisa were killed, according to police.
But that crackdown has led to a backlash from activists and immigration attorneys – in Brentwood and beyond – who accuse schools of feeding authorities false or flimsy allegations of gang affiliation against students.
“Schools are supposed to be a safe haven for kids to learn,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “But they are actually turning into dangerous places for kids to be because they are being branded as gang members . . . by virtue of spurious allegations and unfounded, generalized and racist assumptions.”
Brentwood was the only school mentioned by name in the ACLU’s class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration last year. The suit claimed Brentwood’s “unsubstantiated allegation of gang affiliation” against an unaccompanied minor had led to the then-16-year-old’s wrongful arrest and five-month imprisonment.
Bryan Johnson, the teen’s immigration attorney, said the information the school passed along to police, and eventually Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wasn’t just inaccurate. It may have been illegal. Federal law protects schools from having to disclose student records, with few exceptions.
“The school let itself be co-opted by law enforcement,” he said.
At a bond hearing, an immigration judge dismissed the gang allegations and set the teen free. Nearly 30 other local teens have also been released, but ICE is still trying to deport them, Johnson said. His client is so afraid to return to Brentwood High, he’s being home-schooled.
But for some in the community, that fear pales in comparison to the specter of more MS-13 slayings.
“They should be a little more careful in how they are investigating these kids,” said Barbara Medina, a crime victim advocate. “But everybody is desperate. They want to get these kids off the streets.”
Of the six charged with Kayla’s and Nisa’s killings, at least two attended Brentwood High, according to people close to the case.
“We’re providing the best, safest environment we can, working with the school district,” said Suffolk County Police Deputy Inspector John M. Rowan.
Sanchez, the school district safety director, denied that administrators improperly passed information to the police. He said Brentwood had doubled its security since the killings and adopted a more “proactive” approach.
“My people know who’s who in the school, and they know who the shot-callers are,” he said, scoffing at the idea that innocent students had been branded as MS-13. “If you walk like a duck and quack like a duck, then why are you saying you’re not a duck?”
Timothy Sini, the Suffolk County district attorney and former police commissioner who’s made a name for himself combating MS-13, said schools are in a “tough spot.”
“They are educators and caretakers. They are not police,” he said. “But they are with the kids all day long, so they are often in the best position to see who’s having problems. Who’s throwing gang signs. Who’s writing things in their notebook that indicate gang activity.”
Sini said Suffolk County law enforcement shares its criteria for labeling someone a gang member with schools but not the public.
“Some of it’s obvious. Some of it’s not,” he said. “And this is when activists get nervous. If a kid is wearing white Adidas, does that mean he’s a gang member? No, of course not. But the bottom line is that I could look at a pair of sneakers on a kid right now and tell you whether it’s an indicator of gang membership. That’s a fact.”
Activists and immigration attorneys say that attitude is dangerous. Though gang membership itself is not a crime, accusations can be enough to lead ICE to again detain an unaccompanied minor.
“It’s like the Salem witch trials,” said Johnson, the immigration attorney. “Everything is rumors and gossip.”
Students say the suspicion can be stifling.
One Salvadoran American honor student at Brentwood said the school allows students to wear Salvadoran soccer jerseys only on special days, but even then, she felt too scared. Her younger brother liked Nike Cortez shoes, she said, but couldn’t wear them “because those are the gang’s shoe.”
Elvin Brogsdale, 18, a recent graduate, said he’d nearly been suspended for unwittingly wearing a shirt with an image sometimes used by MS-13: a grim reaper.
“Everyone is so scared, so tense,” he said. “It didn’t used to be like this.”
A day after the four Brentwood High students were arrested in the December van attacks, Rodriguez received a phone call. It was a recorded message from the school district’s superintendent.
“Please know that it is our number-one priority,” he said, “to keep your sons and daughters safe in school.”