Texas schools dealing with troubled drug-war refugees
Publisher: The Globe and Mail
Story date: 29/11/2011
Language: English

EL PASO, TEX. – The classroom falls silent as the teacher explains that victims of violence go through specific psychological stages in the aftermath of an attack. Most of these students, though, don't need a lecture to understand the lesson. It's part of their everyday lives.

Many of the teens came to the United States seeking refuge from Mexico's drug war, which made violence a constant companion since childhood.

"I've been through all three stages: impact, recoil, reorganization of my life," 17-year-old Alan Garcia told the class before breaking down in tears. "My mom goes in and out of recoil stage."

As the war enters its sixth year, it's bringing a new problem to Texas schools: thousands of students suffering from emotional troubles not unlike those endured by soldiers returning from battle. In response, some districts have started offering the type of classes and counselling more common to the military.

"What you see happening in Iraq or Afghanistan is the same that's happening here in the border. This is not a war like those, but still you have people fleeing their country," said Clara Contreras, co-ordinator of the Safe and Drug-Free School and Communities program at the Texas Education Agency in Edinburg, Tex.

Many of the students were mugged or witnessed a shootout. Others have had family members kidnapped, or they have been extorted by gangs that run rampant in Juarez, a city of 1.3 million directly across the Rio Grande from El Paso.

As Mr. Garcia speaks, the class nods. Nearly all of the 17 kids with ties to Juarez have experienced the same anguish.

Since the Mexican government launched an offensive on drug cartels in December, 2006, more than 35,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.Over that time, teachers and counsellors on the Texas border have seen scores of traumatized children and teens.

The emotional difficulties affect them "in many areas of academic performance," said Alma Leal, professor of counselling at the University of Texas and head of counselling and guidance for the Brownsville Independent School District. They suffer from poor discipline, lack any sense of security and fear losing loved ones.

Mabel Avalos and other El Paso-area counsellors have used skills they originally learned to help children of military personnel from nearby Fort Bliss.

Children fleeing from the cross-border violence and those whose parents have been in combat share issues like separation or loss of a parent, she said. But unlike military children, those coming from Mexico have sometimes been exposed to violence or been victims themselves.

In the long term, if the children do not get help, victims can turn into victimizers.

"If you can't concentrate, and you can't do well in school, you can't find mastery in academics, so they find mastery using their strength" upon others, said Steven Marans, director of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence at the Yale Child Study Center.

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