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.
“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.