Robert Mickens’ pain was an open wound when he attended a vigil in remembrance of his daughter, Nisa Mickens, 15, and her friend Kayla Cuevas, 16, a few days after they were killed last September in a brutal act of gang violence in Brentwood’s streets.
He spoke to high school kids that evening to say that “things don’t have to be like this” and that violence could be stopped.
The heartwarming response helped him carry on and is at the root of why he is a candidate for the Brentwood school board, the father said Thursday.
“I want the kids to be able to go to school in a safe environment . . . and create programs to help them,” said Mickens, 39, a nurse’s aide. “We have lost loved ones that cannot be replaced, and this should not happen to any student.”
Mickens’ candidacy underscores how high the stakes are in Brentwood and neighboring communities, where gangs including the infamous MS-13 have operated for years and the violence continues despite a law enforcement crackdown.
Three board seats are open in the May 16 election: two for three-year terms and one, left vacant by trustee Gail Kirkham’s death, for a one-year term. Nine people are running — three for each seat — with Mickens among the trio seeking Kirkham’s old position.
Candidates casting themselves as reformers said they see a chance to make a difference. Several interviewed Thursday that their number one priority is doing whatever they can to keep students safe.
“I don’t want to bury another kid,” said the Rev. Bryan Greaves, 28, pastor of Christ Central Church of Holy Church of Christ in Bay Shore, who is running on a slate with Mickens. Greaves eulogized Nisa Mickens at her funeral.
“We want to try to create a safe environment and . . . target substance abuse and guide our children away from alcohol and gang activity,” Greaves said. “Between education and safety, that is our main priority.”
The issue remained an urgent matter after the girls were the victims of vicious attacks, reportedly with baseball bats and machetes.
The skeletal remains of two teenage boys, who had attended Brentwood schools, were found later in September. Investigators believe the killings of Oscar Acosta, 19, and Miguel Garcia Moran, 15, were related to gang activity.
And mourners this week have gathered at funerals for three of the four young men whose bodies were found April 12 in neighboring Central Islip — more slayings believed carried out by gangs.
“Our children are falling through the cracks and no one is catching them,” said Julia Burgos, 60, a retired Brentwood schools social worker who is vying for the one-year seat. She is running on a slate with Maria Gonzalez-Prescod and Simone Holder-Daniel.
While Burgos said she admires that Mickens “wants to do something,” she noted that she can bring 28 years of experience in Brentwood to bear on board deliberations. The students need support, programs and guidance, she said.
“It’s such a broad-spectrum problem,” Burgos said.“We need to make sure the education piece is in place, the social-emotional piece is taken care off, their safety.”
Joseph Walsh, who was a security officer in Brentwood schools before retiring, is running on his own for the one-year seat. He said he would advocate for help from outside agencies.
“The gang problem has to be the number one issue,” said Walsh, 58. “Kids are afraid to walk the streets and they are afraid to ride their bikes and they are always looking over their shoulders to see if anyone is coming for them.”
Other candidates are Joseph Fritz, who is running with Mickens and Greaves, and Michael Houlihan and Andrew Como. They could not be reached Thursday.
Evelyn Rodriguez, the mother of victim Kayla Cuevas, has added her voice. She backed the slate of Burgos, Gonzalez-Prescod and Holder-Daniel before she knew Mickens would run. She wants change in leadership.
She said the district hasn’t done its job to keep kids safe and provide the programs they need: “They failed on Kayla Cuevas. That’s a true fact.”