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  HOME | Central America

Guatemala Back to School Hoping to Change Prevailing Threats and Violence

GUATEMALA – During the Christmas holidays a couple of bombs blew holes in the roof, something pointed out to returning students Monday by second-grade teacher Raisa Palala at the La Paz Official Rural Mixed School, named after the settlement in Villa Nueva municipality where it is located.

The nine girls and 19 boys who had just sat down at their desks looked up and joked about what had happened shortly before the start of the 2018 school year in Guatemala.

“I’ll have to borrow my mom’s umbrella,” one of the girls laughed.

There were no windows either, because after the classroom was built on the second floor of the school, multiple holes measuring around 25 centimeters (10 inches) each were blasted in them.

“That’s how it’s been left,” the teacher told EFE, adding confidently that “it normally doesn’t rain in the morning.” She does, however, advise her students to come “well wrapped up because it really gets cold in here.”

Villa Nueva is one of the 17 Guatemalan provinces and among the most dangerous in the Central American country. According to data of the National Civil Police (PNC), there were 4,410 homicides in 2017, at a rate of 26.1 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants, chiefly due drug-running and the people’s sense of abandonment.

La Paz School, which has 581 elementary-school students, is located on El Zarzal Ranch, in Zone 4 of the violent municipality, and was built at the start of the 21st century with the challenge of bringing education to an area dominated by street gangs.

Raisa Palala recalled that a few years ago some gangbangers were in a vicious fight with one of her students and she came out to defend him. She told them she would speak to him to resolve the conflict.

“Children need a lot of love, they need to be listened to and our challenge is to teach them that with education, whatever they want can be achieved without the need for immediate things like the gangs are out to grab,” she told EFE.

The teacher applies special methods for resolving conflicts in the classroom, which several years ago won her a prize (a plaque and a bookcase) for taking part in Education for Peace with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“They generally don’t threaten the children or the teachers – they somehow respect us and leave us in peace,” the teacher said about the gang members in the area, the country’s main security problem.

Also in the classrooms after school vacations are “new dreams, new resolutions and wishes in the hearts of the children and of us, the teachers,” Raisa Palala said, certain there have been more changes “in me and my students” than in the harsh realities around them.


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