Alex Wong/Getty Images Evelyn Rodriguez and
Freddy Cuevas, parents of a girl prosecutors say MS-13 killed, wipe away
tears during President Trump’s State of the Union speech.
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
the past year, the Trump administration has waged a nationwide crackdown
on MS-13. Nowhere has this effort been more intense than in
$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
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
The main entrance to Brentwood High, one of
Photos by Michael Noble
Jr. for 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
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.
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.
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.’ ”
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
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
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.
escalated in summer school, when an MS-13 member threatened her with a
knife, then continued to attend Brentwood High, the lawsuit says.
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.
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
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.
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
of alleged MS-13 members nationwide nearly doubled during Trump’s
first year in office. In
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
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
school let itself be co-opted by law enforcement,” he said.
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.
for some in the community, that fear pales in comparison to the specter
of more MS-13 slayings.
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.”
the six charged with Kayla’s and Nisa’s killings, at least two
attended Brentwood High, according to people close to the case.
providing the best, safest environment we can, working with the school
district,” said Suffolk County Police Deputy Inspector John M. Rowan.
the school district safety director, denied that administrators
improperly passed information to the police. He said
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.
say the suspicion can be stifling.
Salvadoran American honor student at
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
is so scared, so tense,” he said. “It didn’t used to be like
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.”