SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Hundreds of Salvadoran youths are dropping out of high school because of gangs’ harassment and the violence generated around schools, according to parents and high school officials.
About 292 students stopped attending classes in 20 of 300 secondary schools during the first half of 2013 because they were threatened by gangs, according to a June poll conducted by the Salvadoran daily La Prensa Gráfica.
This year, 165,809 young people enrolled in public secondary schools and 53,645 in private secondary schools, according to the Ministry of Education (MINED).
“The crime problem is a cause of dropping out,” Education Minister Franzi Hato Hasbún said. “We have to fight this together. It won’t be done overnight and without everyone’s cooperation.”
Despite the March 2012 truce between the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs, disputes over territory and the recruitment of minors undermine the peace of thousands of families who send their children to school, according to reports from residents who live in areas where maras operate.
Guadalupe, a 45-year-old mother, has been on edge since Sept. 18. Leaders of the Barrio 18 gang in the department of La Paz threatened her son, Marlon, 17, if he didn’t join the gang. Their names have been changed for security reasons.
“They harass my son on the way to school. They surround him in the street and pressure him to join the gang,” Guadalupe said. “I haven’t let him go out for weeks. I’m afraid they might hit him or even kill him. Sometimes, he takes another route to avoid them, but we’re always afraid.”
Sergio Mejía, the director of the Francisco Menéndez National Institute (INFRAMEN) in San Salvador, said gang members harass many of his students.
We let them go to school without uniforms, give them tips on security measures and suggest transport routes that gang members hardly frequent,” he added. “Nevertheless, we have fewer young people in classrooms every year. The harassment is aggressive and parents are afraid.”
In 2009, 3,000 students enrolled in INFRAMEN. In 2010, the figure fell to 2,500, and in 2011, only 1,800 enrolled.
Last year, there was a slight increase in enrollment to 1,960, and this year, 1,900 are enrolled.
Six of every 10 adolescents in El Salvador don’t attend high school due to the insecurity and poor infrastructure of high schools, according to Gordon Jonathan Lewis, the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) representative in El Salvador.
“Many young people have been threatened because rival gangs in their neighborhoods are concentrated where their schools are located,” he said. “Parents decide to take them out of school because they’re afraid something might happen to them. In some cases, they can be transferred to another school, but in others, they don’t [continue studying].”
In November, to counter this situation, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security launched the program “Summer Schools, Coexistence and Culture of Peace” to engage 1,700 students in recreational activities such as sports, music, vocational workshops, first aid, and traditional games during vacation.
In addition, the National Civil Police (PNC) is running the “Safe Schools” and “School Police” programs since last year. Both are part of the Inter-institutional Plan for Prevention and School Protection that the PNC is carrying out in conjunction with MINED.
“Safe Schools” provides police and soldier surveillance in 345 schools nationwide. Meantime, “School Police” sends PNC officers to carry out sports activities to strengthen values and forge a closer relationship between the police and students.
“Through sports and strengthening students’ values, we are preventing students from committing crimes or entering gangs,” said Juan Carballo, a “School Police” officer responsible for students at INFRAMEN. “However, many have told us that gang members harass them on their way home. We alert police patrols and they carry out preventive rounds.”