Helping Students Heal Through Love and Trust: A Social Worker's Perspective on Serving Immigrant Youth

During the past few years, a number of students from Central America have enrolled in Santa Cruz City Schools in California. Most of the teens have limited educational experience, are fleeing violence, and have endured numerous kinds of hardship and trauma before arriving in California.

Nereida Robles is a school social worker in Santa Cruz for middle and high school students. In this in-depth Q&A written for Colorín Colorado, Nereida describes why these students fled their hometowns, what they have been through, how the district is working to address their needs, and what she has learned from them.

Tell us about your district, your current role and the students you serve.

I am a school social worker in Santa Cruz City Schools (SCCS), the public school district in Santa Cruz County, California. It serves 6,600 students in grades pre-K through 12, both inside and outside the city of Santa Cruz. I serve middle and high school students, the majority of whom are Latino.

For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to work with students who are new arrivals, who are primarily from El Salvador, while a few are from Honduras. Most of the Salvadorian students are from two small towns, Cabañas and La Libertad, located in Santa Ana, Morazan, San Salvador. The students came to Santa Cruz to escape violence. Many came to avoid being recruited into gangs. Some of them have been able to reunite with their parents or a relative in Santa Cruz whom they have not seen or lived with for many years. Many were infants when their parents left to seek opportunities in Santa Cruz.

When did this increase in arrivals from El Salvador to your district begin?

The school district saw a large increase in the arrival of Salvadoreño students during the 2016-2017 school year. That year, over 30 students enrolled in SCCS primary, middle, and high schools. Because of the large number of students, the district created a Newcomer program at one of the middle schools. A Newcomer program had existed for approximately six years at one of the high schools. During 2016-17, the district was initially overwhelmed with newcomer students who arrived weekly. According to a high school English Language Development teacher, she soon did not have enough chairs for her students to sit in her classroom.

What is the prior schooling of these students like?

Approximately 30% of the newcomer students have had no prior school experience before entering an American public school. Others had only attended school in their home countries to the 2nd or 3rd grade. Many of the students had very low reading and math skill levels. A majority were not familiar with the structure of high school classes, so they had difficulties sitting in a class for an hour and twenty minutes at a time.

Because of the differences in language and culture, they often felt unsure and unsafe when they were in school. Because so many had not attended school for a number of years, many had few or no high school transferable credits. Some of the older students become discouraged in terms of earning a high school diploma. This caused many to see themselves as failures once they were in the school system, even though they had no control about their prior schooling or their future schooling. Older students did not form connections to their teachers or their classes. They could not see a connection between going to their classes and being successful in school. Many stopped doing their work. Next, they stopped attending classes daily.

By June 2018, some had dropped out of school altogether and some were transferred to alternative education. Only 5% of the students had transferable credits that placed them at their age appropriate high school grade in a Santa Cruz school.

What are the typical experiences of students once they arrive at the border?

Lately, we have read and heard in the news and social media about the traumatic experiences that families are experiencing at the border. Something I would like to highlight about these Salvadoreño students is that they had to cross not just one border, but three. The traumatic events that we see occurring in the news were experienced twice by Salvadoreños.

My students and their parents have shared with me the frightening and horrific experiences they went through when crossing the Guatemalan/Mexican and then the Mexican/American borders. Several of the female students were raped, but they were able to stay with their families to continue their journeys and cross the borders. Others were not so lucky. Several young women were introduced to drugs and prostitution and did not make it to Santa Cruz. One student, who is sixteen years old, explained that her mother gave her and her thirteen-year-old sister birth control pills, because if they were raped, her mother did not want them to get pregnant.

A student from Honduras described how owners at Mexican stores would raise prices when they tried to buy necessities. He explained how little money they had and how painful it was to know that they were being cheated because they were powerless. Store owners told them that if they didn’t pay the prices, they would report them to the border patrol. Some students shared that they were robbed and beaten up by the coyotes (smugglers) and Mexican officials, and saw people injured on their journey to the USA border.

What kinds of trauma have these students experienced?

The students I work with have experienced many kinds of trauma from domestic violence to gang rape to gang recruitment. They have explained graphically their horrific experiences in detention centers at the American border and the isolation of being placed in Mexican jails. Some students shared that they were separated from their relatives, parents, and/or acquaintances with whom they were traveling. Some were locked up from 2 to 5 days in dark cells for something as simple as playing with other children (something that bothered the guards). Several students shared that after they were caught crossing the Mexican border, they were placed in a dark cell with no food or water or a place to relieve themselves. When they were taken back to the El Salvador border, they were taken to a hospital because they had become ill through the deprivations they suffered in the Mexican cells. One middle school boy said, “I can stand the pain, and being cold or hot in the middle of something gross; something that I can’t stand is being hungry and listening to the zipotes (children) crying for food.”

In addition to the traumatic experiences that a majority of the students experienced at the borders, many also suffered from attachment disorders because they have been separated from their parents and/or relatives since they were infants. Many of the students explained that they felt that their parents were strangers because they had lived apart for so long. The students also suffered the trauma of losing their friends, their relatives, their culture, their food, and their country when they came to Santa Cruz. The consistent trauma that these children and youth have been and continue to be exposed to not only affects their present life, but their future existence in society.

For many of them, school becomes the place where they hope to feel welcomed to feel wanted and safe – to be listened to, respected, and accepted. In addition to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms these children and youth exhibit from past trauma, an immigration raid in Santa Cruz on February 13, 2017, caused additional trauma to many, bringing fear and insecurity into the Salvadoreño and immigrant community in Santa Cruz. Twenty-two Salvadoreños were arrested during the raid and sent to ICE detention centers. A mother was deported and two of my students were detained and released after hours of interrogation.

Today, many families live in constant fear of being apprehended at any moment. Several mothers reported that they quit their jobs for fear of being deported. Children were and are fearful that their parents will be deported. Families are scrambling to complete guardian statements and other documents in case they are deported. Many are feeling traumatized again, after having fled their countries due to fear, danger, and threats to their lives. SCCS is doing the best it can to provide advocacy and counseling services to families. The district has arranged for meetings with immigration lawyers and families to help them complete documents and advise them as to what to do to protect themselves and their families.

How is the district responding to the trauma?

By listening to the students, SCCS’ Student Support Services Department staff are working to understand their needs and circumstances to figure out how best to help them during this time of great uncertainty and very real continual traumatic events. As a social worker, I learn about their struggles and needs through inviting them and their families to meet with me. SCCS’ superintendent, Kris Munro, sent messages to all SCCS school sites requesting school staff to report any struggles that Newcomer families were experiencing, so the district could work quickly to help in any way that it could.

Last year, SCCS’s Student Support Services Department staff applied for a grant to the City of Santa Cruz to provide the support of two therapists. The district was awarded the grant, so last school year two therapists provided services to SCCS Newcomer students and their families. SCCS saw the need and urgency to provide services to our newly immigrant and refugee population and acted very quickly to provide it.

The response from the SCCS leadership has been very supportive to the needs of students and their families. After the immigration raid, the middle school opened its library for families to have a meeting. This meeting was also attended by teachers and school staff at the county office level to understand the concerns and needs of the families. The Salvadoreño community felt safe to share some of their stories and it helped the audience understand more about their fears and the trauma of their children. School community coordinators have received training in how to support families and students.

The district has also instigated home visits by nurses and social workers. These visits have built trust and provided the district with more knowledge as to how the district can address the needs of students and their families. I was invited to present to the leadership team by SCCS’ superintendent, Kris Munro, and my supervisor, Eileen Brown. I provided pertinent information to staff leadership throughout SCCS about the Salvadoreño Newcomer students. This meeting caused leaders to be better prepared to help as they were now aware of their students’ struggles and traumas that were causing them to behavior in ways that interfered with their education.

In addition, students and parents at the middle school participated in group circles led by two community volunteers, Lorenia Parada and Silvia Austeric. This work allowed many parents and students to feel more connected to the school community. Also, SCCS social worker interns were trained to work more closely with the community to cause them to understand the needs of the community and to allow trust to build.

Can you tell us about the new trauma counseling program launched last year?

Eileen Brown, the director of SCCS’ Student Support Services Department, applied and received a small grant from the City of Santa Cruz to provide therapy to our families from El Salvador. Eileen and I coordinated meetings between students and parents and the therapists. One therapist conducted group and individual counseling for our families at the schools where a majority of Salvadoreño students are enrolled. The therapist is a member of the immigrant community, so she was well suited to be effective.

However, although the therapist was well versed in the needs of trauma informed services, she shared that there was a great deal for her to learn from the Salvadoreño students. Through counseling services, we were able to provide our families with hope, alleviate some of their fears and intimidation. The therapy sessions also worked to prevent some domestic violence situations.

Counseling services were available at the school sites to all families and students. Some students were open and ready to be served by the therapists; others were reluctant to participate due to fear, and shame. Male students were more likely to participate than female students. Those who were able to and willing to participate benefited since the therapist became an adult in their lives that they could count on not just for the social-emotional component, but as an academic tutor and advocate as well.

What lessons have you learned from the program so far?

The counseling program has helped students cope with and understand their schooling experiences. For example, the students were taught how to regulate their voices and verbal expressions when they ask for something. If they were triggered by something in their classrooms, they were asked to request permission and seek support in the counseling or main office. They were also taught the school attendance laws and rights, and the responsibilities held by parents and students. For example, attending their graduation ceremony was a foreign concept to these students. Students and parents learned that by attending their graduation ceremony they were celebrating their accomplishment — them completing their middle or high school education.

Students also learned about the meaning and importance of completing homework and the urgency to request support if they needed it. They learned about the negative impact/experiences that gangs have on people’s lives and that we all need to work together to make our schools a safe place where everyone learns. The counseling has also provided valuable support for students’ families. The therapists provided relevant and accurate information about their children’s symptoms who suffer from PTSD.

Many members of the families were able to understand that the traumatic experiences their children suffered would have effects in other parts of their lives – that those experiences would greatly affect how they interact with and react to adults at home, in the community, and at school. The shared information among the social workers and the therapists brought to the surface accommodations that these youth needed in schools to feel safe and accepted. Home visits and community relationships made a difference when working with the families.

What are some of the strengths that you see in these young people and their families?

The major strengths that the students and their families exhibit are resilience and a deep desire to survive. Another strength is the love for their families and for each other. They continue to show up to school day after day despite the adversities they often encounter due to the negative stereotypes that are built around them. Some students want to continue their education after high school and others want to learn English to work and communicate with others. They do want to learn. They want to leave their past challenges and struggles behind. What I have learned from the students is that they like to talk about their education. They most often talk about school and the adults in their lives.

Also, they are curious about the new culture. They want to learn English. It is a joy to see them momentarily forget their challenges when playing soccer during their breaks. The older students, the ones in high school, often drop out of school due to a need to provide income for their families.

What are some of the challenges the students face once they arrive here?

A major challenge that many face is reconnecting with their parents or connecting with new members of their families. For many, they have not lived with or communicated with family members for many years. They have to build new, trusting relationships in very unstable and often fearful situations. Language is also a major challenge. SCCS offers interpreters for them, but most of the interpreters have a Mexican background. Although they speak Spanish, their vocabulary and word usage differs dramatically from Central Americans.

In my experience, I have to continuously ask if my interpretation of what they are explaining is correct. If I don’t check with students frequently, I know that I could misinterpret the usage of certain words which could make the meaning of what they are saying very different from what they are trying to convey to me. For example, there are some words that when used are very offensive to Mexicans, but they are not for Salvadoreños or visa versa. I had to build my own dictionary to understand their word usage.

Gang activity in Santa Cruz presents another very serious challenge. The students are faced with gang recruitment on the streets by Mara Salvatrucha members and/or attacks from Sureños or Norteños gang members. Many gang members instantly think that they belong to Mara Salvatrucha just because they are Salvadoreño. Many of the students have been stopped by police gang task force members and searched because they are wearing gang symbols such as key lanyards that have “El Salvador” written on them. Female students are at a high risk of being approached gang members for recruitment and/or violence.

In addition, after the immigration raid on February 13, 2017, the Salvadorean community was severely blamed by some Mexican community members. They believed that the Homeland Security officers were in Santa Cruz because of them. The raid brought to the surface a generational history of discrimination of Mexicans and Salvadoreno youth. Parents of both groups forbade them to interact. The discrimination and the negative stereotypes make the Salvadoreño youth the most vulnerable community that attends our local schools in Santa Cruz County.

What impact will the changes to the Temporary Protected Status program (TPS) have on your population/ community in Santa Cruz?

SCCS opened its doors to the Salvadoreño community and held a community meeting to share information about TPS. Karen Mallory, an immigration attorney, was invited to share updated information about TPS. Some families returned to El Salvador due fear of deportation. People began selling the few items they owned to return to their country. Some were looking for relatives or family members who could take care of their children in case they were arrested and deported. The families began making family emergency folders to prepare their children in case of separation. They wanted to prepare themselves mentally and talk to their children to build a family plan. The parents expressed the need to talk to their children to reduce anxiety and be ready for deportation. They also expressed their generational trauma as a community. They were fearful of massive raids and who was going to help their children.

What advice do you have for teachers and administrators who are workingwith the following popopulations?

Students from El Salvador

I would advise teachers and administrators working specifically with Salvadoreño students to be patient and tolerant with their students. I recommend that they listen to them to hear their stories so they can learn to give respect and build trust. Our students have been harmed physically and emotionally and they need to heal through love and trust. Teachers need to build relationships that show that they are interested in their students. ELD and Spanish teachers have a wonderful opportunity to show their devotion and desire to teach when working with Salvadoreño students.

Teachers must understand and acknowledge that these students have lived through events that have robbed them of their childhood, that have forced them to become adults at a very young age. They have lived on their own for years and have been their own caretakers, so they will face a culture shock when they are placed in a school where bells dictate what time they eat and when they go to the bathroom.

Students from Central America

I would advise teachers not to feel pity for them, but to feel empathy. Students are great at reading body language and they can feel if the teachers, school staff, or people in leadership positions do not welcome or accept them. These students have suffered violent events in their lives and have lived through situations that have changed their lives. Some female students have experienced gang rape and they need acceptance to feel safe.

Students Who Have Experienced Trauma

I believe that the best procedure is to immediately refer the students to the school social worker to speed up any process of counseling inside school. It will also facilitate home visits to build relationships with the families. The social workers will recommend outside services to families. Erroneously, some students were labeled as defiant because school staff members had no understanding of the severity of their traumatic experiences. The stories we hear from the parents and/or students are horrific. Teachers need to approach mental health professionals in their districts to support their students’ well-being.

One of the biggest lessons that I have learned is that traumatized children should not be placed in front of a computer screen rather than in front of a teacher. These students do not know how to use computers appropriately, so trying to learn from a machine will frustrate them and leave them with a sense of disconnected hopelessness. Moreover, students will be missing the social aspect of learning. So much learning occurs through social interactions and placing students in front of computers robs them of opportunities for growth. These students have been rejected so many times that they do not need any other situations of forced isolation in their lives; they need to build their social skills.

When interacting with all students, but in particular with students with a traumatic past, we must be very cautious with the way we address them. There is so much we do not know about their lives that even the smallest thing can be a trigger. In addition, we must also be aware of the way we refer to these students in front of others. We must not refer to them as “unreachable students” or in any other deficit-thinking way.

What are some appropriate strategies for recognizing and addressing trauma at the classroom level?

Children and youth that have experienced severe trauma like most of the Salvadoreño students often become distracted or lost in thought in their classrooms. This kind of behavior is often mistaken as defiant. Also, loud noises such as the fire alarm or fire drills can affect the students very badly. The presence of police on campus becomes a trigger to the students who become nervous and often ask to use the restroom in order to hide and or remove themselves from their proximity. Students with severe anxiety and PTSD often suffer from abdominal pain and request to be sent to the office. The frequency with which this occurs often leads teachers to believe that students are pretending to be sick to cut class. Unusual student behavior is too often misinterpreted as defiance when in fact it is due to trauma.

How can educators and social workers take care of their own mental health during this time?

If educators and social workers find a safe way to share their experiences with others who understand the stress and anxiety of this type of work, that can be very relieving. The district social workers talk to each other and seek support and guidance. My former supervisor also offered time to listen to my experiences while working with the newcomer students. Teachers also need to support each other by learning how to be good listeners to their students. Because the Newcomer students’ experiences are so vastly different than their teachers, it is very difficult for teachers to step into their shoes.

One way to do so is to coach other teachers to learn to listen. It is imperative for teachers and school staff to fully realize that the behavior of these students cannot be interpreted in the same way as other non-traumatized students. Teachers can ease their stress by looking for their students’ strengths and how best to bring out those strengths in the classroom. It is also very important for teachers and staff to exercise, talk to friends, and find what gives them joy daily.

What kinds of collaboration would be most helpful among school staff on these issues?

School staff need to share both positive and negative experiences with these students. Because these students are highly traumatized, staff needs to understand the impact of their behaviors on students who have experienced repeated trauma. Talking and sharing with each other not only helps us provide better services, it could also help us understand a little bit of what these children and families have experienced if we all share some of what we learned from them.

Although the Salvadoreño students represent a small percentage of the student population in our district, I consider them the most vulnerable population we have today. To work with them and for them is a constant learning process and we all need to acknowledge that there is much to learn in order to provide the best services we can to them.

What lessons are you learning from the kids and families you serve?

These students inspire and fill me with awe every day. They are my heroes. They are my teachers. They make me see that although they have not had a lot in their lives, they can still smile and find their own way to be happy. They are creative, funny, and are willing to learn as long as you are patient and accepting. Their parents are much more than hardworking individuals who want opportunities for a better future for their children. Every day they ground me and remind me of the work that is left to be done. They humble me and help me appreciate the beauty in the smallest of things or accomplishments. They teach me about forgiveness and resiliency. They remind me that you can never finish learning new things or seeing life in different ways.

How have community partners played a role in your work?

The school district collaborates with the Santa Cruz Police Department, County Office of Education, medical clinics, other school districts, University of Santa Cruz students, cultural organizations such as Sanctuary Santa Cruz, Senderos, and the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project. Members of the community at large attend meetings to help to lead students and their families to resolve critical situations. This huge outpouring of support from so many organizations and community members causes the families to see that the community cares about their situation. It has had a highly positive impact on them. It empowers them to continue in their daily struggle to survive.

Are there any specific stories you would like to share?

There are so many stories, most of them very painful and traumatic. One is from a male student in middle school who was labeled as defiant and "unwilling to learn." This student has speech problems due to the trauma that he has experienced. He was separated from his family while crossing the American border. He was beaten up at the Mexican border. In El Salvador, he was threatened to have his head cut by two rival gangs who were recruiting. In middle school, Sureños gang members were after him for being Salvadoreño.

In addition, when he was younger, his father physically abused him. This was one of the reasons that his mother decided to abandon El Salvador. In Santa Cruz, immigration authorities put an ankle monitor on his mother, so she could not attend many meetings after 5 pm. He shared that seeing his mother sit by an electric outlet every day was humiliating for him and his mother. The relationship with his mother became very strained due to the calls from the school labeling him as a defiant “trouble maker”. This student was scared and found it difficult to trust other people. He explained that when teachers approached him, he was scared and could not think straight. He could not answer the teacher’s questions or fully participate in class. This student then was bullied by other classmates and when other youngsters learned that he was a Salvadoreño, they automatically labeled him as a gangster.

I have been working with this student for over eighteen months. I have seen him smile, cry, upset, and happy when he is with other youth his age. He quickly makes friends and most of his friends are Salvadoreño. Although his desire is not to get in trouble, negative stereotypes impact his daily life and education, as some adults believe he was recruiting other youth to join a gang. This school year, he will start a new chapter in his life. He will attend high school. This youth needs to feel safe and perceive that people believe in him - that he has a future ahead of him that is not the streets but in school with adults who care about his education and are ready and willing to listen and support him.

What are you thinking about as you plan for the new school year?

We need to learn from the students’ experiences in our schools and to not repeat mistakes that we have made in the past. We need to continue to listen to our families. There is always something new to learn from them. I am also planning to be more heavily involved with the Salvadoreño community to keep building trust between them and our schools’ staff.

Anything else to add?

Separating parents and children is a tragedy that is highly damaging to both the parents and children. It is a traumatic experience that affects children’s learning. It steals their childhood, and it has an impact in our schools with our own children and our communities. As school staff, we have great opportunities and a moral responsibility to provide these students with a nurturing culture that shows them that they are welcome and wanted – that shows them that their education is important to us and that we plan to fully support and encourage their hopes and dreams so that they and their families can prosper in this country.

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