School Climate & Safety

‘Anywhere I Go, I Feel Threatened': Schools Encounter Latino Students’ Fears in Shooting Aftermath

By Stephen Sawchuk, Denisa R. Superville & Héctor Alejandro Arzate — August 06, 2019 9 min read
Olivia Attaguile holds her brother Jonny Attaguile during a candlelight vigil for victims of the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

Another wave of mass shootings. Thirty-five people killed in three separate gun rampages. And a resurgence in racist rhetoric that prompted the deadliest of the attacks, in El Paso, Texas.

Now as school begins again in El Paso and nationwide, Latino parents and students alike are grappling with a new, awful possibility: If they can be targeted in public places like a Walmart—where many families from El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, just over the Mexican border, had gathered to do their back-to-school shopping on Aug. 3—could they also be targeted in schools?

It’s a real fear for Roman Pastrana, who began his senior year at Eastlake High School in the Socorro school district in southeast El Paso just two weeks ago.

“I am Hispanic, and this was solely targeted toward the Hispanic culture and Mexicans,” said Roman, 17. “My family is documented and we’re residents, but regardless of that fact, we’re just scared. We’re afraid that something can go down. Personally, I didn’t want to go to school. Anywhere I go, I feel threatened.”

“A teenager shouldn’t have to be saying this,” Roman continued, in a poignant echo of the Parkland, Fla., students who made the same point after the massacre last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school. “A minor who hasn’t even voted yet shouldn’t have to be afraid of being in school or afraid of being Hispanic.”

The sentiment is shared by superintendents in school systems serving many U.S.-born Hispanic and Latino students, as well as immigrant and undocumented youth.

“It’s the first catastrophic, mass-killing event that targeted individuals—adults, children—just on the basis of being Hispanic, being Latino, during a time when everybody knew that these individuals were preparing for school,” said Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of the Miami-Dade district, where 71 percent of students are Hispanic. “That to me is a very sad and disturbing game-changer. This external threat against a thriving community of minority groups coming together and celebrating their diversity is an awful, awful novelty that should concern all of us.”

President Trump condemned the racism behind the shootings, though his post-shooting remarks stand in sharp contrast to the frequent anti-immigrant rhetoric that he’s used since he announced his candidacy for president. Trump has referred to Central American migrants crossing the border as an “invasion.”

Schools and Students Touched by the Violence

Schools are statistically among the safest places for children to be. Despite the tragedies in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, last year, school shootings remain exceedingly rare, and there is no evidence that schools were a target in last weekend’s bloodshed.

Investigators in the El Paso shooting have focused on a racist screed echoing white nationalist grievances about a “Hispanic invasion” in the country. The mass shooting, in Gilroy Calif., on July 28, is also being investigated as domestic terrorism, while authorities say the killings in Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 4, do not appear to have been racially motivated. Police are still looking for clues in the shooters’ online footprints and social-media postings.

All three of the largest El Paso-area school districts were touched in some way by the violence there.

Both staff and students in the El Paso district had relatives who were affected. A high school student attending the Clint district, to the east of El Paso, was killed, according to the district’s Twitter feed. Students and their families in the district held a vigil in a high school stadium to commemorate their slain classmate, 15-year-old Javier Amir Rodriguez, where Superintendent Juan Martinez broke down.

“Not one more,” he said. “Please, not one more.”

And the mother of an elementary student attending the Socorro district in El Paso was hospitalized, officials there said.

The targeting of the Hispanic community there was wholly unexpected, education leaders said.

“I don’t think any of us has ever felt unsafe being a person of color in this community, because we are the majority in this community,” said Melissa Martinez, a spokeswoman for the El Paso district. “That’s just a conversation we never, ever thought we would be having. It’s unimaginable to us.”

While families had been unnerved by the TV images and tenor of the debate around immigration and border detention centers, the shooting definitely ups the ante, said Socorro Superintendent José Espinoza.

“It has been heartbreaking to say the least thinking there are students, parents, and employees who may think we now have a bullseye on our back,” he said. “It does cross your mind. I’ve got two little ones, God forbid; it is just heartbreaking.”

People visit a memorial to pay their respects to those who were killed in the mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart.

Other leaders worry about the long-term effects of that stress on student learning.

“This level of the rhetoric, this type of verbal assault, this type of verbal battery is, in my opinion, the equivalent of extreme child abuse,” Carvalho said.

“Children do not deserve this, or need this. This is reprehensible. It has immediate emotional impact on their lives. It is fear-causing, it is anxiety-causing, it is stress-causing. It is one more important element that gets in the way of learning,” he said. “Children are listening, children are watching, children are learning, and it’s very difficult to unlearn the hatred, intolerance, and the fear instilled in you as a young child. That’s my fear.”

In Dallas, whose student population is 70 percent Hispanic, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa had to confront the awful idea that the alleged shooter, who drove to El Paso from Allen, Texas, just northeast of Dallas, could easily have made his district the target.

“The fact that he was such a young age and 21 and something possessed him to drive 700 miles when he could have driven seven was really disheartening and disconcerting,” Hinojosa said. “We feel like we do everything we can to be prepared, but you know, there by the grace of God go us.”

Responding to Tragedy

For the El Paso-area superintendents, two main goals have taken precedence: Reassuring parents that their children are safe in school, and making sure kids feel loved and taken care of while they’re in the classroom.

Many Texas districts, including Dallas, Clint, Socorro, and El Paso, took steps in the wake of the 2018 Santa Fe, Texas, school shooting to beef up security, like hiring police officers, installing cameras, and requiring all visitors to show identification.

“We must ensure that our actions as school superintendents speak louder than words,” said Superintendent Espinoza. “Our parents heard from me via Twitter, a recorded phone message, and a written letter before the first day back after the tragedy. I wanted to give parents and students peace of mind.”

Christina Pipkin, right, embraces Alex Briseno, at a makeshift memorial at the site of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. "It's hard to see it, it's heartbreaking," said Pipkin about visiting the memorial.

All three El Paso area districts interviewed by Education Week said they would have counselors on hand for students in the days and weeks to come. And El Paso has already dispatched counselors to those who requested help, Superintendent Juan Cabrera said.

The Socorro district’s counseling staff quickly put together guidelines for teachers on how to help traumatized students, along with another set to send home for parents.

The district advised teachers not to wade into graphic details of the event with their students, but rather to respond to the signs that students needed to talk about or process their experiences—and to let students take the lead in determining responses, like writing thank-you notes to first responders.

National Reverberations

Leaders in other districts outlined steps they want to take to help assuage fears and keep their Hispanic students feeling safe and ready to learn.

In Miami, Carvalho promised there would be “age-appropriate” discussions of the tragedy when students return to school on August 19. Students will have the opportunity to voice their concerns and be reassured that school is a safe zone, he said.

“Let’s not make believe that somehow because it did not happen here our kids are not thinking about it,” he said.

A teacher at a Chicago school with an almost entirely Hispanic population said on Twitter that she would simply try to convey to her 3rd grade students that bigotry is not an American value and wouldn’t be tolerated in her school.

“We will teach them to speak up when something seems dangerous or wrong,” she wrote. “We will continue to tell them that their families and their communities are important.”

In Elk Grove Village, Ill., principal Paul Kelly and his staff have spent years building a trusting bond between the school, parents, and the community. About half of Elk Grove High School’s 1,950 students are Hispanic, and this will be the first year that the school’s white student population has fallen below 40 percent.

Amid heated national rhetoric, school leaders can model inclusive environments in schools so that parents and students know that their children are safe and welcomed inside school buildings, Kelly said.

“No one can guarantee everything is going to be perfect for every kid,” Kelly said. “But what we can do is to have our kids feel like while they are here, there is emotional safety, and they can focus on their long-term goals, be successful, and reach the outcomes that their parents dreamed of for them.”

And because school leaders are closer to students, they can play a large role in countering the negative language that students may hear outside school walls, Kelly said.

“We have the ability to talk to them very frankly and personally,” he said. “And here’s the good part—they know us. They don’t know national politicians. They don’t know the people who say the things that make them worry. They do know us. It’s not unlike a parental relationship, where someone in the outside world does something, but it always seems like mom and dad can make it feel a little bit better. That’s our every-moment-of-every-day job. Our job is [to ensure that] our kids feel... this noise of hate and division is not going to come into play here, and anybody with any ounce of authority and influence is going to be modeling positivity and affirmation as opposed to division and isolation.”

Some curriculum providers were also putting out tools for educators. Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit provider, issued new guidelines for teaching in the wake of violence. It too emphasizes reassuring students that they’re safe and that help is available at school.

But, the organization said, there may eventually be an opportunity for students to engage in deeper learning—for example, learning about how the federal government defines a hate crime and analyzing the factors that contribute to one.

For students like Roman Pastrana in Socorro, it is still a terrifying moment to be standing on the cusp of adulthood, unsure of what comes next when racism and white nationalism are resurgent—and in a country being led by a president who routinely uses racist and divisive language about people of color and immigrants.

“This is what will destroy our country,” said Roman. “Frankly, this is destroying our country.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as Schools Face Latino Kids’ Fears After Shootings

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