Richard Barajas, a retired Texas Court of Appeals Judge, teaches classes in victimology Aug. 22 at his alma matter, Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas. Because of the close proximity to the border with Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, where many students commute from daily, Barajas felt such a class was necessary for the students to better understand how violence affects them, their classmates and their families.
CNS photo/Joe Kolb
EL PASO, Texas (CNS) -- A retired judge and alumni of Cathedral High School in El Paso teaches a class to help students better understand and cope with the daily violence they are exposed to from nearby Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Richard Barajas returned to his alma mater after retiring as a Texas State Court of Appeals judge in 2006, and recognizing the growing trend of students directly or indirectly affected by the violence in nearby Juarez, launched a class called the "Principles of Victimology."
"It is truly one of a kind in our country's secondary schools," Barajas said.
His class, which started as a theoretical exercise, rapidly took on real-life applications by giving students an opportunity to discuss what has happened to them, their families or friends in an environment that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and has left nearly as many children orphaned since 2008.
Of the 35 students in Barajas' class two-thirds cross the border daily into El Paso, one of the safest cities in the U.S., from Juarez, until recently known as the "Murder Capital of the World." And some 15 percent of the 480-student body at Cathedral crosses the border each day.
"Of the students in my class I would say 5 percent have been directly involved and affected by the violence," Barajas said in an interview with Catholic News Services.
He was quick to point out that doesn't take into consideration the spill-over effect to classmates who hear of the harrowing or tragic events.
Barajas said because of the demographics of the student body, possession of cellphones while in school is permitted.
"When a student's cellphone goes off, it has a chilling effect because you don't know what happened," Barajas said. "Teachers aren't trained to understand what these students have or are experiencing."
In February 2011, two Cathedral students were gunned down while at a car dealership in Juarez. One had been carjacked and another forced from his home by armed intruders looking to steal his vehicle. There are many more victims among the class roles.
"We take apart what happened to the students and apply the theory of victimization so they can better understand and cope with what has occurred to them," Barajas said.
In some small way this is where his class has benefited the students at Cathedral, LaSallian-run high school on a bluff in downtown El Paso.
Barajas agrees these children are highly susceptible to the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, but very few are diagnosed and receive the necessary treatment.
He said one of the biggest obstacles public schools face when dealing with immigrant students who may be suffering from the disorder is that officials are legally not permitted to inquire about any subject that may indicate what the student's immigration status is.
"There is also the real fear among many of these kids they will be deported so they don't speak to anyone about what is bothering them," Barajas said. "If you can't acknowledge a student has a problem, then you can't care for them and they become lost."
This manifests itself in poor attendance and academic performance, behavioral issues and difficulty concentrating.
Alan Garcia, 17, a senior at Cathedral was a victim of a carjacking in Juarez, during which a gun was put to his head and his vehicle stolen. On another occasion he saw two men in a vehicle pulled to the side of the road, similar to his experience, but they were executed.
"It affected me a lot, I got into fights and didn't want to be bothered by anyone," said Garcia, who has since come to grips with his experience and discusses with others the importance of moving on with their lives.
Much of Garcia's recovery was attributed to learning the three stages of victimology in Barajas' class because now he was able to understand what he was experiencing.
The "impact stage" is when the individual is directly subjected and affected by the criminal element. The second stage, or "recoil," is what happens next, and in this phase, Barajas said, returning the victim to a state of "normalcy" is crucial. Lastly, is the "reorganization stage," where the students begin to put their life back together but at the same time are extremely vulnerable to "triggers" that remind them of the traumatic event.
What Barajas has noticed is that students can be affected vicariously by the violence.
"The kids talk in the halls, read the newspapers, or see the violence on television, and that has an impact on them even though they were never personally victimized," he told CNS.
He said a student who has never been in Juarez but who knows someone who was victimized, say by a carjacking, could essentially become anxious if his vehicle is surrounded by vehicles with Mexican license plates without ever leaving El Paso.
"This happens all the time, all the time," Barajas said.