Brenda Keith: A child lost in Newark

Brenda Keith
Brenda Keith

She could be trouble, but her teachers and other staff members at Newark’s West Side High School loved her and did what they could for her because, as one said, “She could be warm and loving.” She might run through the school’s halls spouting obscenities, but also was known to help out at a local church. Whoever Brenda Keith was, however anyone saw her,  no matter how she acted, the 17-year-old should not have died.

And certainly not the way she died. Her body abandoned like trash in an empty lot on South 17th Street, maybe a thousand feet from West Side. There, maybe for weeks. She was a child. Newark’s child.

Our child.

“I believe she was murdered,” says her cousin and guardian Tanya Perry. Tanya identified Brenda’s badly decomposed remains after the body was discovered October 16.  She identified her from Brenda’s tattoo with the name “Orlando.” Orlando–for Orlando S. Patterson, Brenda’s father, who died four years ago at the age of 38.

The suspicion that Brenda was murdered is widespread. At her funeral, the officiant, Rev. Keith Odem, told about 100 mourners that, “I don’t know who did this to her but whoever did will get what he deserves on Judgment Day.”

The Essex County prosecutor’s office won’t say Brenda Keith’s death is a homicide. It won’t confirm the rumor her body might have been mutilated. But it was so badly decomposed that it took days even to determine whether the remains were that of a man or a woman.

Whether or not Brenda Keith was murdered, it is clear she somehow got lost. Dropped through the cracks of a system that, had such an incident occurred a few miles away in, say Millburn, her story and her fate would have become national news. A missing teenager. A dead teenager. A child found dead in an empty lot.

No national news here. Just a national disgrace. A national shame.

“We tried everything we could,” says one teaching staff member who spoke to me about what happened to Brenda Keith.

The staff member–who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution from the administration of the Newark Public Schools (NPS)–described in detail how several staff members contacted school officials downtown and agencies outside the schools in a vain effort to get help for Brenda who obviously needed it.

The belief among the staff members was that Brenda Keith was bipolar, capable of moments of extraordinary warmth and affection followed by episodes of absolute rage. By  the end of the last school year, Brenda stopped coming to school–something Tanya Perry says she didn’t know.

“I thought she was going to school,” Tanya says. In any other school district, attendance officers would have notified Brenda’s guardian that she wasn’t in school. But Newark laid off all of its attendance officers and so there was no one to track down what had happened to Brenda.

And West Side especially was going through changes brought about by the central office’s reorganization of staffs at high schools throughout the city.

“We knew we had to get something done for Brenda,” said a staff member.

Brenda, say staff members, did return to school for one day in September. She showed up–although Tanya Perry says she didn’t know that. Perry says Brenda disappeared right after the school year resumed.

“We filed the missing persons report September 10,” says Perry.

More than a month later, Newark homicide detectives came to her door and asked her to come to the medical examiner’s office to identify the remains of Brenda Keith.

“She showed up and found that most of the people who were trying to help her were gone,” says a staff member. “All transferred to other schools.”

Tanya Perry is not critical of the schools. She says people at the school tried to help Brenda. “They were wonderful,” she says. But Perry didn’t know about school reorganization and ideas like “renew” and “One Newark.” She didn’t know that many of the people who helped Brenda were no longer at West Side but were scattered throughout the system

School district officials didn’t know about what had happened to Brenda until just before the funeral last Wednesday. A few showed up. One was Rashon Hasan, the president of the school board. He spoke at the services, just a few feet away from the green marble urn that contained the ashes of what had been a beautiful, vibrant young woman.

“We have a lot of work to do in this community,” Hasan said. “Newark is a beautiful place but, at the same time, lots of ugly things happen to our children.”

Lots of ugly things.

33 comments

  1. Down Brown Unafilliate

    I am deeply saddened by this tragic report, we have to pray for youth! They are decreasing their value at record numbers..

    • Jennifer

      Agreed! I am tired of seeing reports of people being shot and killed in Newark on an almost daily basis. Just yesterday after noon a17 year old boy shot and killed in the afternoon 2 others shot in the evening in the head I believe both did not survive their injuries. We as a community need to do something to to protect our brothers sisters mothers fathers aunts uncles sons and daughter’s. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is up to us

  2. DeeplyConcerned

    So tragic. Unfortunately, the political will doesn’t exist to help save children like Brenda. A child we regard as “lost” isn’t even a blip on Christie’s radar, and he’s made it clear — to applause — that the state already sinks way too much money into places like Newark. (Meanwhile, our tax dollars are flowing like candy to the Gov’s allies and backers.) Until any of that changes — and the country went even further in the opposite direction this week — children like Brenda will continue to be lost.

    • Jennifer

      I don’t believe we are even on their radar. It’s come to the point…. And I’ve met a few people that agree with me…. It’s like they have us exterminating each other. People are fearing for their children and moving away many out of state. For them those that aren’t killed off are being chased out by fear. And once that process is done they can continue to bring in big business and restore Newark to it’s “former” glory. Again this is my theory my thinking some agree some don’t. But if you look at our education system and all that’s happening there the daily killings the fact that a child can go missing for weeks with no Amber alert or so much as a report on the news. I feel they don’t help us because all that is happening here is their political agenda it’s what they want. We need to take a stand and fight for a change.

      Bob Braun: I cannot disagree with you. The words of Paul Farmer, the Harvard medical professor who works in Haiti, make sense. He said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong in the world.” I also like the words of Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

  3. Dion

    The credit need to be giving to her aunt Charlene Patterson. She the one put the missing person report in. She the one made sure brenda didn’t need anything. She the one took her to get help. She the one that was always there for her while the others lay there and talked about her.

    • AJ

      I still can’t believe it. While I was there, Aunt Charlene did so much for her. I applaud Charlene for stepping up. Rest in heaven Brenda (lil tomboy self, im gonna miss u)

    • Jennifer

      Neither did I and it’s outrageous! Had this have been any other community it would have been all over the news with in the hour.

      Bob Braun: You might want to ask The Star-Ledger or News Channel 12 why it didn’t write anything about Brenda. I know both were told.

    • karen

      True I didn’t see not one thing about this situation about Brenda being missing on news, flyers, etc…….This is a sad story….May her soul rest in peace!!!!!

  4. Jesse

    Nobody cares because the child went to West Side. Someone needs to take a hard look at the attendance of the comprehensive schools and they will see an attendance horror story. The kids don’t come to school. The district doesn’t care. How do you miss 40, 50 and 60 days of school and graduate? And go to the next grade? Brenda got lost because NPS doesn’t care about its neediest children. If this child went to Science High she would have received help. So sad and another preventable tragedy from this arrogant yet incompetent administration.

    • newark teacher

      This child was in high school, but I am sure her problems started at a much earlier age. Working in the elementary schools in Newark I see how long it takes for children to get help and services they need. It can take years for a child with educational, behavioral, or mental health issues to be classified and given services. This child unfortunately is like so many others in our district. Brenda is another student who was allowed to fall through the cracks. It is not Cami’s fault at all, and believe me I cant stand the woman. But it is the districts fault as a whole for not really giving as much as a damn as we would have had it was our own child. Very sad!!

      Bob Braun: It’s “not Cami’s fault at all” but “it is the district’s fault as a whole.” I’m sorry. I can’t follow the logic here. Cami is the ONLY person with power in the district. She can, and has, changed things at whim, with no need to check her decisions with anyone else. Brenda was classified but she couldn’t get the services she needed–and the chaos in the administration of West Side was SOLELY the fault of Cami Anderson. Many teachers–including some who knew Brenda personally–say they believe she might have been saved.

      • Justine Battle

        I also agree with you Mr. Braun, To much focus on what Cami did and did not do! Condolences to the family. On another note in October this school year Cami was not in charge when my daughter was assaulted on the Westside campus. The incident flooded Facebook news feed, I copied the video and showed to the administration, A teacher was in class when the incident of the child slapping the day lights out of my child as she sat in a chair the assault followed at least 3 minutes of the girl threading my child, the teacher intervene after the assault. Newark police and the school’s officer all viewed the interview. T ad salt to injury I attempted to get a safety transfer and no one wants to document the true reasons. I contacted the district, assistant superintendent and not one person felt a need to assist. The principal signed off the transfer with no safety reasons and I have heard nothing from him since. My love for children would not allow me to press charges on the child who assaulted my daughter for I honestly feel she’s standing in the shoes reflecting what can happen to a child as it has happen to Brenda. In conclusion yes staff may have been moved around the district but it’s apparent that those left behind are also afraid of losing jobs. If anyone would like to see the video contact me. Oh by the way her I phone was in her book bag when they escorted her out of class without her belongings no one seems to know how her things were stolen “But” a teacher was in class who was also assaulted by the child who return to school 7 days later the parent who chose not to meet with me might one day see things from a parent’s perspective of a child being harmed while in class. All my statements are documented but swept under the rug and my daughter has not been given a chance to transferred her grades are a disgrace not because she can’t succeed of could she when being physically harmed at school and no one seems to care?

    • Jennifer

      I can not disagree with you but as a science high allum I know first hand that its the staff within the building that would make sure something is done. Our public schools are failing our children. I am a product of that system and it was bad when I was in it its ten times worse now. I graduated with people that could not read. How do you graduate yet you can’t read a kindergarten story book?

  5. Mrs.Blessed

    May God be with her family in these days of grievance. Also may God be with all of Newark children and parents. I am not sure if her Aunt Tonya Perry whom lived on Dayton Street.

  6. Jennifer

    I have to say I do not understand how this happens. When I first saw the story reporting a body found badly decomposed I thought how can someone not notice that not smell that it was still warm outside so it had to have an odor right? Have we become that scared that blind that we even turn a blind eye? I watched and waited to see if identifaction was made and never saw another report on it again. Not on the local fb news page nor on news12 or any other media outlet for that matter. Now to come aacross this article I’m glad that she was identified but this was a child how does she disappear for weeks and no one notices? I never saw them looking for her on media outlets or being shared on social sites. I never saw rally’s never saw search parties being organized. In my opinion we here in Newark have reached an all time low. Had this happened any where else it would have been handled differently. We have seen it handled differently time after time. City officials aren’t doing anything our police departments even less. We need to take a stand and change this no one is going to do it for us. Nor do I believe that they care to. I pray this child rest in peace I pray for all our children and their safety. This is not acceptable this should not have happened. It’s time to fight back.

  7. Michelke

    It amazes me that so many people at school was trying to help….who did they speak to in the family then??? Words ARE just that words. Where was the actions, the real outreach? Brenda is missed but we don’t need any fake heros that were/are passing out empty words to a child in need.

    • Sara her sister

      at that time we didn’t need y’all to speak I just don’t understand how the hell do I teenage girl go missing an u don’t work your asses to find her I guess they didn’t try hard enough to look disgraces

  8. Myra

    I too left Newark for reason of fear, My prayers are with the family, to many young people are dying before time, we as a whole need to come together to save our children that young lady (child) wasn’t given a chance she disappeared and nothing was done Nothing at all, I believe children should be in the house at a decent time 10ish or 11ish on the weekend who needs to be out in the streets at night anyway nothing good is done at night!!!! Newark should have working camera’s on every corner, police officers walking the beat, patrol cars riding the old saying it takes a village to raise a child, We must take our streets back if the streets will take us.. Praying for everyone who has to raise a child in Newark/East Orange, Trenton, Irvington, Camden, or anywhere that is out of control, Don’t let the streets get hold of your child…….

  9. True K.B.

    First and foremost my condolences to the deceased and family bearing this loss. I hear alot being mentioned about the failing school system. I hear how the school district allows out children to fail etc etc. I dont hear the unification plan. I dont hear about what the parents do in the household to assist..checking school work….allowing reading for an extra hour a night to improve reading scores. The responsibility to educate the youth is everyone’s. When we begin to place value on our youth and ourselves so shall the rest.

  10. LaVette

    It’s just so sad I can’t believe it I live right on that block &knew nothing until going to the store last Wed.&saw people gathered, balloons, candles &T-shirts but I thought someone had gotten shot there.Nothing from the Mayor or North Ward council person &these are the ones people voted for &won.Just collecting a paycheck or don’t care because it’s not one of their own or in the clique.

    • Chazzie

      But, that’s the point, LaVette. As you said, you didn’t know about this and you live on the block. They mayor and city council might not have known either. There are many, many runaways, and children whose families are just not keeping track of their whereabouts, in Newark (and all cities). So, in general, unless there is an opportunity that brings it to someone’s attention (i.e. someone seeing foul play in action), and it is a troubled child, the police just assume it is one of those situations. I follow many missing persons cases and it is not just poor, urban youth who don’t generate publicity when they go missing. It can happen to anyone. Unless, and this is huge, the family makes an outcry. Where was the outcry? A missing persons report? I’m not trying to victim blame, but if someone on this child’s own block didn’t know about it, who else would? Where were the posters (almost always can find a print shop to donate them for free)? Was there a Facebook page asking for help (there may have been but that’s not what I’ve been told)? Where were the t-shirts when she went missing rather than as a sad memorial? Again, I am not in a position to judge anyone, nor do I want to, but to me the key to a high profile missing case is usually not the police, mayor, etc., but the family, friends and neighbors who refuse to take “she probably just ran away” or some such statement as a stop sign. They organize their own publicity, searches, etc. Would I like the police to follow up and solve every missing person case, even if it is a runaway? Of course! But, let’s not just say “Oh, the mayor didn’t do anything.” There are quite a few people who didn’t do much of anything in this case. Rest In Peace, Brenda. You really deserved better.

      Bob Braun: I’m sorry. This is far too glib. From what I have heard from school staff members, they did indeed try to alert various agencies, including the police. One school staff member who called the police said the officer slammed down the phone rather than listen. Google the case of Hannah Graham at the University of Virginia to see the difference when the victim is white and affluent. And you don’t explain the complete lack of coverage since her body was recovered.

      • Chazzie

        I’m sorry you took my remark as glib. It wasn’t meant to be. In fact, I think the school, from everything I’ve heard, went the farthest to get help for Brenda. I’m not absolving the police. I’m simply pointing out that in many, many cases, including those with victims who were white, roadblocks have been put up by police, agencies, etc., and the family, friends and neighbors were still able to get the word out, and get much needed grass roots support. In this case, the word did not seem to go out, beyond the school. Her own neighbors never knew there was a problem.

        Bob Braun: I think you are missing a very important point that explains why the governor can impose his plans on Newark with impunity–and how the state and its administration can break scores of laws without ever fearing the judgment of a court or the interference of the Legislature. The people of Newark most affected by One Newark are poor and they are economically stressed. They are suppressed. They are black. They are immigrants. They are powerless and vulnerable to the sort of bullying that has characterized Christie’s tenure. They are, in short, the very sort of people who are trying to survive–and are barely surviving–under conditions many, if not most, people would find unbearable. You wrote: “Again, I am not in a position to judge anyone, nor do I want to, but to me the key to a high profile missing case is usually not the police, mayor, etc., but the family, friends and neighbors who refuse to take ‘she probably just ran away’ or some such statement as a stop sign.” Yeah, but you are judging. I just the institutions that this child. I judge Christie and Anderson. I won’t judge the family.

        • Jennifer

          I didn’t want to play the race card I am highly against that…..but….I too believe that if she were white her missing persons report would have been taken more serious and would have received a lot more attention. Let me be clear and state that I myself am white born and raised here in Newark. I also believe that had this happened anywhere else it would have recieved more media attention. I fear for our children as they say it takes a village and its time for this village to come together and fight for the future of this village and so that our sons and daughter can have a future.

  11. Source1

    Thank you Bob for putting a face to disastrous result of Superintendent Anderson’s chaotic debacle that she attempts to proffer as school reform. It is too late for Brenda and for other nameless young people whose lives have been forever altered by Anderson’s experimentation in Newark. However, the fight must continue for those who follow Brenda.

    The constant churning of Newark staff members and Newark students creates an environment of instability and chaos….an environment where young people fall through the cracks. Where like in Brenda’s case, follow up by school staff members is extremely difficult at best.

    Anderson exudes the sureness of a tyrant. She booms out certainties that make the ideas of others appear weak and misguided. However, let’s not forget the words of Erving Goffman, Canadian born social scientist and writer:

    “Whatever it is that generates sureness is what will be employed by those who want to mislead us.”

    God Bless you Brenda…

  12. newark teacher

    This child was in high school, but I am sure her problems started at a much earlier age. Working in the elementary schools in Newark I see how long it takes for children to get help and services they need. It can take years for a child with educational, behavioral, or mental health issues to be classified and given services. This child unfortunately is like so many others in our district. Brenda is another student who was allowed to fall through the cracks. It is not Cami’s fault at all, and belief me I cant stand the woman. But it is the districts fault as a whole for not really giving as much as a damn as we would have had it was our own child. Very sad!!

  13. Jon Smith

    Bob – Can someone please OPRA any email communication between West Side staff and the Central Office school officials?

  14. Maggie

    God bless Brenda and her family. I was born and raised in Newark, suffer from bipolar disorder, and can relate to this going unnoticed and unaddressed.
    In my opinion, the major responsibility for this beautiful child lies with her parents. Since Brenda had a guardian, I assume they were not able to care for her. I am reading that her guardian did care deeply, and that is good.
    The schools anywhere will never take the place of even ONE relative who lobbies for the proper care of a sick child. If her moods were as tormented as the behavior suggests she needed serious help. Yes, the school should have called on dyfs or the church and kept Brenda’s guardian aware of the dire need. I do wonder how friends and relatives did not try to reach out and intervene on her behalf.
    Not pointing a finger – it is so true that this would have been national news and gone social media viral in almost any other community. Save the Children and many other charitable organizations are needed in Newark, Paterson, Camden and many other areas. As are programs that help families support their children, particularly those with physical, mental and behavioral special needs.
    God bless Newark – love this amazing city and pray for its citizens.

  15. yessenia

    May this young lady rest in peace. May her family find peace. So sad that this young lady did not get the help she needed. We as a community must watch over our young people. Enough is enough these are our kids.

  16. Diesel

    Maybe there was no pub because it was thought she was off doing her own thing. Based on her behavior/bipolar I can understand thinking maybe she just took off maybe change of scenery/location. If that’s the case it would be reason why there wasn’t attention on her absence.
    Rip girl

    Bob Braun: She was a child, a minor, and her family filed a missing persons report about her. Teachers and other staff members were contacting various agencies trying to get help for her.

  17. First Hand

    My heart goes out to Brenda’s family. I hope they find out what happened to Brenda. This is very sad and very disturbing.

    I wonder how many children are not in school because of The One Newark plan that no one knows about> I know teachers had students on class rosters that never showed up. After 15 days the names were dropped off the rosters with the school assuming the students enrolled in another school and/or moved. Since there are no longer attendance people in NPS there is no one to actually track down the families of these students to see if they did transfer / move or just aren’t coming to school.

    How many other young people do we need to lose track of before something is done about The One Newark Plan and what is happening in Newark Public Schools?

    Why is it that Newark seems to be the forgotten city when it comes to what is happening to the public education system? Yet, this is only the beginning of what will happen to other towns in New Jersey.

    How do we get the attention of the national media? I am struggling with this question each and every day.

    Thank you Bob for being on the side of the Newark students, their families and the dedicated teachers than work with these students.

  18. NPS Exile

    Has the mayor ever spoken publicly about this tragedy? He needs to accept some responsibility, not for the murder, but for failing to call attention to the situation. His background as a principal should make him even more sensitive to such tragedies.

    Bob Braun: I don’t think he has spoken specifically about Brenda Keith but he has in many forums and in letters to relevant officials, including the president of the United States, warned a bout the consequences of the state-operated system’s plans to change the school system.

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