BRENTWOOD, N.Y. — Robert Mickens was just a regular dad who went to his daughter’s high school basketball games in their New York town, worried about whether she studied enough and sometimes got on her case for spending too much time gabbing with her friends.
Everything changed in September. That’s when his 15-year-old Nisa and her best friend, Kayla Cuevas, 16, were found beaten and hacked to death in the street, a killing authorities blamed on the violent gang MS-13, which has infested their school and gripped their Long Island community with fear.
Mickens is now turning his grief into action, running for the local school board to help change what he sees as a culture of gang violence that has claimed the lives of 11 people, mostly teenagers, in Brentwood and another neighboring town since the school year began.
“I just thought I needed to do something to make it better for other kids, to do more,” said Mickens, a 39-year-old nurse’s aide with a trade-school degree and no experience in education. He is among eight candidates on the May 16 ballot for three spots in the Brentwood Union Free School District, one of the state’s largest districts, with more than 18,000 students.
The board does the usual tasks: manages a $380 million budget, evaluates the superintendent and ratifies union contracts. But increasingly it has been grappling with how to handle the mounting MS-13 threat, which has made parents afraid to send their children to Brentwood High School and students fearful that any slight to the gang, particularly a refusal to join, could get them killed.
“You hear from students and parents, they have concerns over about what is going down at the school,” Mickens said. “Me being a father who lost his daughter, I think I could probably help other kids and make a difference.”
The 11 killings blamed on MS-13 in Brentwood and neighboring Central Islip have led President Donald Trump to weigh in, calling them the result of lax immigration policies that let too much criminal “scum” slip through. About a dozen suspected gang members were rounded up and arrested in March, but four more high schoolers were found dead in a park last month.
Nisa’s death last year was particularly tragic because, authorities say, she was not the intended target and was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
An entryway to the modest home Mickens shares with his wife and two stepchildren has become a kind of shrine to Nisa, with condolence cards, pictures of her playing basketball, and a framed photo of her as a young child displayed with a cross and a vial of holy water.
Mickens, who is running as part of a slate with two other candidates — a lawyer and a pastor who delivered the eulogy at Nisa’s funeral — says he’s not looking for votes in the election because his daughter died. He’s looking for votes because people can believe in him and trust him.
A refrain from parents is that the district has done a poor job of providing enticing afterschool alternatives for children often left alone after school because parents work long hours.
“Nowadays with things being so expensive, a parent has to practically do a 12-hour shift just to survive,” Mickens said. “Their child is coming home to an empty house and what’s the first thing they’re going to do? Leave.”
Parents are also questioning why they pay so much in taxes — more than $5,000 a year on a $300,000 home — only to have their schools feel underfunded. They complain there are not enough social workers and guidance counselors. School officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Evelyn Rodriguez, Kayla’s mother, said the high school social workers failed her daughter, who had been bullied for years.
“We need to bring programs into the school so we can catch them early, change their minds,” she said. “So we can avoid this ever happening again.”
Joseph Walsh, 58, a retired security guard at the high school who is running against Mickens, said the problem is both a lack of security guards and proper training for them against the gang threat.
“What good is having more guards when they don’t know what they’re doing?” he asked.
Despite the public outcry over the deaths, a candidate’s night this week drew only about 35 people, where hopefuls took turns answering questions on how to best address the gang violence.
“I want to get to the heart of the matter,” said Bryan Greaves, the pastor on the slate with Mickens. “I don’t want to bury another child. I don’t want to have to counsel another family. I do not want to have to try to raise a GoFundMe for a family to bury a child.”