Our Students Don't Kill

— 'We currently have 20 kids here who've committed homicides. We get about one a month. In every case except one, it was an armed assault, usually a robbery, involving money, drugs, or both. The one exceptional case involved a gay teenage boy who killed another young man out of jealousy. It was what you might call a crime of passion. As far as I know, we've never had a case in which a child killed someone for no apparent reason, or simply because he was angry with the world. We've never had a student at school kill a teacher or other students.

"But we do know that what happens in the United States affects us. Little by little, what happens up there gradually makes its way down here. After the shootings in San Diego, we're, of course, very worried."

Luz Maria Félix, a young and pretty woman with degrees in law and primary education, is the director of Tijuana's juvenile hall, a complex of white and blue buildings in a stretch of Zona Rio far from the city's center. At present there are 255 boys and 12 girls in Felix's care.

"Over the past two months, our population has doubled. Seventy percent of the kids have committed a violent crime, 80 percent have taken drugs. The big problem now is crystal meth, which the kids tell me is manufactured here in Tijuana. They steal to get money for drugs. Why are more kids committing violent crimes? We don't know. The majority of the kids tell me they started taking drugs to get their parents' attention."

An article in the local section of the April 1 edition of Frontera described how Tijuana educators, disturbed by the Santee shootings, were considering adopting a Scared Straight-type program in which troubled teens would be taken to prisons to get a good talking-to from inmates. "Such a program could be implemented in Tijuana," the article said. "But American and Mexican teenagers live in very different situations. American teenagers have access to weapons and have more liberty." The article concluded that perhaps the best means for preventing teenage violence was for parents to spend more time talking with their children.

A school in Tijuana is under the jurisdiction of either the federal, state, or municipal departments of education. There are, for example, state and federal high schools. Elementary and junior high schools are either state or municipal. No single entity oversees them all. To get an idea of what's going on in the city's schools requires talking to a number of administrators, like Luis Héctor Barajas, superintendent of the 1200 Tijuana elementary and junior high schools that belong to the State of Baja California's educational system.

"It's divorce. The disintegration of the family. The union of the mother and father staying together in order to raise and teach their children is crucial. If the family falls apart, there's no one to teach the children how to behave. If the parents don't teach them, they'll learn from outside, from the street, from television," Barajas answers when asked what he thinks causes incidents like the Santee shootings.

Tijuana's population is exploding. In the next year, says Barajas, the State of Baja will construct in the city 10 to 12 new elementary schools, 6 or 7 preschools, and 2 or 3 junior highs -- more new schools than in any other city in Mexico. Each year, Barajas says, the school system he oversees requires 200 new teachers.

"So far, our biggest problems -- thank God -- are fights and graffiti. But since the shootings in San Diego, we've been concentrating on programs we have in place that teach basic democratic values. Values and responsibilities. We have one program that's three years old, 'Culture of Equality,' that stresses very simple, basic things about what it means to be a good citizen. Not to litter. Respecting traffic lights. You start with the basic aspects of what it means to be a responsible citizen.

"What happened in Santee has us all worried. We had an incident, a few months ago, in Ensenada. A junior high kid brought a gun to school in his backpack. He didn't intend to hurt anyone. He just wanted to show it to his friends. The gun accidentally went off. No one was hurt. This was a big deal for us. We don't have that sort of problem in our schools. What happened in Santee is exactly what we don't want to become. That's precisely what we're working against."

Tijuana's educational system is unusual in that, like only two or three other cities in Mexico, its municipal government has a department of education. Ana Maria González, the department's head in Tijuana, keeps an eye on 10 elementary and 13 junior high schools. She's troubled by what she sees happening in San Diego, and she supports the controversial steps being taken by one of her principals to halt disorder.

"You can't really talk of violence in our schools, because it doesn't exist in the way it does in San Diego. Where we do have a problem is violence around the schools in some of the tougher neighborhoods. There are fights. Children have been attacked. Of course, what happens around a school has the potential to eventually get inside.

"One year ago, one of our best principals, Professor Francisco Aranda, who works at a school in a tough neighborhood, got tired of his school constantly being defaced with graffiti. So, he did something unprecedented in Tijuana -- he had a metal detector installed and he started something called Operación Mochila, 'Operation Backpack.' The way it works is that students, under a teacher's supervision, search their classmates' backpacks when they come to school. They've found knives, Magic Markers, spray paint. It's been very effective. Professor Aranda has eliminated his graffiti problem 100 percent.

"Other schools would like to adopt the program, but it has its critics. There are some teachers who oppose it. They say Operación Mochila infringes the students' human rights, that it invades their privacy. I know that in America people are very protective of their rights, and we Mexicans are too. But I think there has to be a balance between an individual's rights and safety. We try very hard to make our schools safe. We won't admit a child to school unless the parents first meet with teachers and the principal. We want the parents to be involved. We want to know who the parents are. As far as I can tell, our parents support Operación Mochila. I personally would like all our schools to adopt the program.

"I'm not so worried about guns in our schools. I think the reason there are so many school shootings in the United States is the availability of guns. Here in Mexico, we can have guns in our homes, but it's far more regulated. A kid just can't go out and buy a gun if he wants one. Still, I don't want us to wait until we have a problem. We need to have programs like Operación Mochila so we don't ever have a shooting. If you saw Professor Aranda's school, you'd see what a good idea it is. You'd ask yourself, 'How does he manage to have such a clean and pretty school in such a tough neighborhood?'"

Rubén Vizcaíno is a colegio de bachilleres, a federal high school with an emphasis on humanities, in Tijuana's Paraiso district, a middle- to upper-middle-class area. The first thing you notice about the school is how quiet it is at break time and how well the teachers dress -- suit and tie for the men, dresses or chic pantsuits for the women. Javier Santillán, who brought me to Rubén Vizcaíno, is superintendent of federal schools in Tijuana, Tecate, Rosarito, and Ensenada. In other words, he's in charge of 2 large federal colegios de bachilleres and, since private education is also supervised by the federal system, 16 private high schools. While we walk around the modest campus, he points to the kids.

"You'll notice that there aren't a lot of cliques, kids just standing around in small groups. There's a lot of interaction. Cliques, I understand, are a problem in American high schools. Here, we like to keep them busy with group activities. They don't have time for cliques. It's difficult for a kid to feel isolated. Also, all our kids wear uniforms. That gives them a sense of identity with their school, a sense of belonging. When they feel that they belong, they're protective of their school. It's their community. They don't want anything bad to happen in it. We haven't had a single violent incident in any of our schools. We want it to stay that way.

"If you'll notice, there's a guy standing in front of the school. He's a guard. Every school -- federal, state, municipal -- in Tijuana has at least one. They're private. Parents pay about $20 a year to have them on campus. They're not keeping the kids from doing something bad. They're protecting the schools from bad elements, from criminals. In the rougher neighborhoods, kids see the school as a refuge. If something bad happens, they run to the schools.

"We have problems in the schools I oversee. We have a problem with teen pregnancy. Every month or so, a girl gets pregnant. We're talking, however, about 10 girls a year out of a population of 10,000 students. We also have some problems with drugs. Not long ago in Rosarito, a student was found with a small quantity of marijuana. So, in September, we're going to start drug-testing all of our students. The principals and support staff, too, will all be tested."

Santillán tells me that his teachers make around $12,000 a year and that they often have as many as 45 kids per class. As he walks me toward the school's library, he almost apologizes -- "Of course it's nothing like what you have at your high schools in San Diego." And the library is surprisingly small and bare. In Mexico, he explains, books are very expensive. The kids milling around us are all wearing their dark navy blue uniforms. Because it's a chilly day, the girls are allowed to wear long pants instead of their usual skirts.

Outside the library, a group runs around, taking up a collection for the Red Cross. The students, all in all, are a quiet crowd. Principal Jesús Osuna lectures a group about keeping the campus tidy. A poster in a stairwell explains the symptoms and prevention of tuberculosis. This must be, I think, the way American high schools were in the 1950s.

Santillán believes trouble in American schools results from a "culture of violence."

"Of course there's violence in Mexico," Santillán acknowledges. "But even our most violent citizens, like the drug cartels, kill for a reason. For enormous amounts of money. When I think about what happened at Columbine High School and what happened at the schools in San Diego, it seems to me that America has several problems. The proliferation of arms, of course. But also, it's lost its tradition of the strong father who's the family's moral leader. American parents have become less cautious, less careful about the influences on their children's lives. There's a culture of violence all around them. On television and in movies. It's all around. A few months ago in the Union-Tribune there was a remarkable picture. It was an aerial shot taken off the coast of La Jolla. A man was swimming in the water, and the water was very clear. What the photographer, who was in the air, could see, and what the man swimming could not, was that deep in the water beneath the man was a large school of sharks."

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