Mexican Students Cope With Trauma Of Drug War

Advisory: This story contains a graphic description of violence.

Standing in the main foyer of Burges High School in El Paso, Texas, it's easy to think you had accidentally crossed the border into Mexico. Left and right, students are greeting each other in Spanish and kissing each other's cheeks, as they would in Mexico.

Drug violence has forced thousands of Mexican families to seek refuge in the U.S. As a result, some students are entering U.S. classrooms along the Southwest border with traumas that schools have never seen before.

And with so few people willing to talk about it, many aren't getting the help they need.

An 'Atrocious' Experience

In border cities, it's common for students from Mexico to go to school in the U.S. Some were born in the U.S. but raised in Mexico, and their families feel they'll have better opportunities if they go to an American school.

But in recent years, motivation to cross the border has changed. Horrific drug-related violence in Mexico is forcing some families to flee, often in a hurry.

Susan Crews, lead counselor for the El Paso Independent School District, has seen what witnessing that violence can do to a child.

"I have students whose mothers have been decapitated," Crews says. "I have a student in one of the middle schools — when he visited his family in Juarez there were three heads on sticks along the path were he goes."

Crews is a grandmotherly figure who wears her hair in a bow-shaped bun atop her head. She says never in her 43 years as a counselor has she encountered such hellish stories.

"The counselor had contacted me because this eighth-grader was having a trauma reaction," Crews says. "He was not able to control his bladder; he was not sleeping at night."

Crews is the woman the district sends when there's a major trauma at a school. In the past two years, she's responded to the deaths of four students — all killed in Mexico.

"My experience has been atrocious," she says. "I mean it's just been overwhelming in my opinion."

The Effects Of Bearing Witness

Most school counselors are not trained to handle the psychological needs of these new students, and many students are fearful about sharing their stories and don't ask for help. So they often suffer in silence.

Burges student Jorge Esquivel is from Ciudad Juarez, where four months ago his uncle was murdered for refusing to pay criminals an extortion fee to keep his business open. His uncle was like a father to him, so the loss cut deep.

"I couldn't concentrate at school," Esquivel says. "It's something I couldn't control. I can't just say, 'I'm not gonna think about it anymore.' You just feel so bad."

To make matters worse, when Esquivel first enrolled at Burges High School, most of his credits didn't transfer. At 18, he had to enroll as a sophomore.

Burges High School counselor Michelle Barron says that's happening a lot.

"That used to be a very rare occasion," Barron says. "If you had a student who was 17 years old and was about to graduate high school in Mexico, usually they would keep them there. Now, it doesn't seem to matter. It could be midyear; it could be during their senior year. Families are bringing over their kids and saying, 'Well, you know, whatever it is that we have to do; we're not going [to stay] there.' "

Dealing With Trauma Right Now

Because El Paso is home to the Army's Fort Bliss, local school districts offer counselor training in post-traumatic stress disorder for children of military families. Some school counselors are applying that training to students from Mexico, but counselor Crews thinks the district needs programs designed specifically for survivors of Mexican violence.

"If you don't deal with trauma right away, it's going to come back," Crews says. "You're going to have more violence; you're going to have children repeating the violence that they've seen."

As long as the violence in Mexico persists, Crews says, schools will continue to see students with related trauma — ignoring the problem, she says, won't make it go away. Copyright 2011 KRWG-FM. To see more, visit