David, 12, an unaccompanied minor from Honduras, begins school Monday in the District. He hadn't seen his mother for 8 years.
Since the beginning of the year, nearly 40,000 Central American minors detained after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have been reunited with their parents or relatives in the U.S. About 6,000 of them are in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Hundreds will be attending local schools while they wait for their immigration cases to conclude, and most area school systems are gearing up to address the educational and emotional needs of these often traumatized kids.
The conference room in an Adelphi Elementary School is where Prince George's County residents enroll children who come from all over the world into the school system. As in years past, the largest number of foreign born students come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
“We're seeing a very high number of students, they have all arrived either early in the spring or the last few weeks," says Dianne Yohi, a teacher in Prince George's County.
She helps assess the English language skills of the unaccompanied minors from Central America when they enroll.
"They don’t speak any English, many of them have not completed a grade level equal to their age," she says.
A lot to cope with for kids
That’s because a lot of these children stopped going to school at an early age to support their families, avoid being recruited by gangs, or worse. As they get ready to enter local schools, they bring trauma similar to that experienced by 15-year-old Mario, recently arrived from El Salvador. He plans to enroll in Gaithersburg High.
“There’s so much violence, I was even afraid to go to school, in El Salvador many students on their way to school are disappearing," he says. “When you're trying to survive, get to the next day, eat, find a place to sleep, you really don't have a lot of time to process the emotional impact of the things that have happened to you."
Robert Hull is a school psychologist with Prince George's County schools and an expert on traumatized children. He says that once children find a safe place, they begin to dwell on the terrible hand that life has dealt them.
“Abandonment issues, separation issues, danger issues and you start thinking about those and those cause a lot of emotional reactivity," Hull says.
Steffany Aramallo counsels recently arrived Central American students in Montgomery County public schools.
“A lot of them were left by their parents at the age of 2, 1, months, and they come here to a complete stranger, so they're trying to adjust to a new culture a new family, a new language all at once, so it’s very frustrating," Aramallo says.
David, 12, arrived from Honduras a few weeks ago. He is watching other boys play soccer but doesn't join in.
He came looking for his father and his mother, because the person who abused him then abandoned him.
Dilma his mother, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, was shocked to learn David had decided to leave Honduras on his own. It had been almost eight years since she had last seen him.
“He was a baby when I left him, now he is almost a young man," she says.
But it seems the money Dilma was sending back home to support and educate David was being embezzled by the boy’s aunt, Dilma’s sister, for drugs, booze and parties.
“She would beat me with a telephone cord every day, I don't know why," David says.
David says the last beating and the prospect of being homeless is what drove him on a dangerous 3,000 mile journey to find his mother.
“She insulted me and hit me and I said, 'That’s it, I'm leaving,'" he says.
Today is David’s first day of class in a D.C. middle school. Along with notebooks, pencils and pens, David brings emotional and physical scars to school, but says he is looking forward to it.
“I like natural sciences and social studies, I want to be a policeman," he says.
Students represent challenge for local schools
For some of these Central American children, there are educational barriers that go beyond not speaking English, explains school counselor Aramallo.
“It’s very challenging to have them in a classroom sitting down for 45 minutes because they are not used to it," she says. "They're used to being in the farm with their cows and their horses, so it’s very hard to get them to understand what the school structure is. The teachers are very stressed and frustrated. They don’t know how to deal with this population.”
It’s also challenging for teachers, explains Robert Hull. Over the past six years, the psychologist has taught about 200 Prince George's County teachers what not to do when traumatized children act out.
“Teachers would immediately refer the students for special education consideration or they would provide discipline techniques that were totally ineffective in changing the behavior," Hull says.
Hull says detention or other punitive measures can be counterproductive. His course suggests that the best approach is to encourage students to understand their trauma.
"It’s not about the event that happened to the child, but the meaning of the event they carry with them," Hull says. "And teachers have the ability to give meaning to all types of things — that’s what they teach."
This year, local teachers will have at least 1,100 opportunities to put Hull’s theory into practice. That’s how many additional students from Central America have enrolled in the systems that provided data. Prince George's County had the largest enrollment with 565, Montgomery had 316, the District had 100 and Arlington 74. Exactly how many of these 1,100 Central American children are unaccompanied undocumented minors is unclear, because the schools systems don’t ask about immigration status.
Fairfax schools said it had no numbers for the new school year and Prince William said its increase was not significant.
Most of the undocumented Central American children who crossed the border illegally and are now sitting in local classrooms will likely face deportation, because under current immigration law, they do not qualify to stay.
That is yet is another trauma for them to absorb, and it could be fatal. Dr. Hector Hernandez, the morgue director of San Pedro Sula — Honduras' deadliest city — told WAMU last week that five youths recently deported from the U.S. to Honduras had been murdered shortly after arriving.
“They died as a result of gunshot wounds," Hernandez said.
The deported youth were between 12- and 18-years-old.