The MTA has shuttered an elevated walkway over Long Island Rail Road tracks leading to East Middle School in Brentwood after years of complaints of drugs, gangs and other illicit activity in the area.
Suffolk County Legis. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), a former assistant principal at the middle school, said she first contacted the Metropolitan Transportation Authority after she took public office in 2014 to relay concerns about solicitations that students were pummeled with on their walk to school.
Since then, several meetings were held between Martinez and MTA and other officials to discuss logistics of having the overpass closed. This summer, a final meeting was held when three seventh-grade students presented a petition with 200 signatures from fellow students to a room full of officials and pleaded with them to help ensure their safety, Martinez said.
“They had been approached by older men soliciting them for drugs and sexual encounters,” Martinez said. “They said they were scared but they were very eloquent in the way they spoke and delivered themselves. They said, ‘What if it was your daughter who had to deal with this?’ I think that was the final push to get it done.”
The school is south of the LIRR tracks, and students who live north of the tracks are bused to class; Martinez said students who chose to walk did so to avoid taking the buses and now would have to take alternate routes.
An MTA employee working near the overpass Tuesday said he often saw used needles nearby. Two MTA police officers on patrol said the area is a known hotspot for gang and drug activity and they’ve been called there several times in the past few years.
LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said the closure was ordered by Patrick Nowakowski, the railroad’s president, after discussions with Martinez and the school district. The LIRR is developing a plan to demolish the overpass, he said in an email.
Suffolk County police officials did not return requests for comment.
Felix Adeyeye, a Brentwood schools spokesman, said in a statement the district “is in support of the closure of the overpass as it would limit access to the school for nonstudents.”
A chain-link fence about eight feet high was erected Friday on both sides of the tracks more than a half-mile from the Brentwood LIRR train station. The north entrance to the overpass spills out into a small wooded area littered with beer bottles, plastic and foam cups and other garbage leading to a parking lot for vacant businesses at Suffolk Avenue and Willoughby Street. The south entrance flows right onto the rear of the grassy middle school campus.
“In the interest of safety and security and at the request of the Brentwood School District, the overpass will be closed . . . until further notice,” an orange sign affixed to the north fence reads.
The closure comes two weeks after two teenage girls were found beaten to death about 1 1⁄2 miles south, near Loretta Park Elementary School. Nisa Mickens, 15, was found dead Sept. 13. Her best friend, Kayla Cuevas, was found in a wooded area behind a home on Ray Court the next day. Both girls, juniors at Brentwood High School’s Ross Center, had attended East Middle School.
At a news briefing Tuesday in Yaphank, Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini, speaking alongside Chief of Department Stuart Cameron, said the investigation into the killings of four young people is progressing, but offered few details.
“We’re working hard to get to the bottom of both the circumstances. . . . We’re out there every day working the case, putting pressure on gangs in the community,” Sini said.
Police have said they believe the killings of Mickens and Cuevas were likely linked to gangs. A law enforcement source has pointed to the notoriously violent street gang MS-13.
In the days following their slayings, investigators began searching wooded areas in and around the vast grounds of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center and found the skeletal remains of two Brentwood teenagers who had gone missing months earlier: Oscar Acosta, 19, and Miguel García Morán, 15, whose deaths have been classified as homicides. Police have not said how they were killed other than they met violent ends.
While she said she has been fighting for the overpass’ closure for two years, Martinez said she counts it as “a big win” in helping secure her community.
“We did this collaboratively. The students complained, the teachers complained, the parents complained,” Martinez said. “This is the type of cohesiveness we need to bring about positive change to help keep our children safe.”
With Nicole Fuller