- Some schools in Venezuela hold shooting drills for students.
- The principal says teaching students how to protect themselves is just as important as reading and writing lessons.
- Similar security drills are taking place in other Latin American countries with high levels of violence.
Children throw themselves on the floor and cover their heads with their hands when loud claps are heard in the classroom. A firefight exercise is taking place in one of Venezuela’s most violent neighborhoods.
Three boys beat on a metal sheet, simulating shots. Their peers – from the first grade of school to the last – react quickly.
Some take refuge in classrooms, others in the hallways or in the courtyard of the Manuel Aguirre Primary and Secondary School in the sprawling, crime-riddled slum complex of Petare in the capital Caracas.
Just a few days prior, there had been a shootout between gangs nearby that caused classes to be suspended.
The exercise takes about 20 minutes.
Manuel Aguirre’s school is in Petara, an area where violence between drug gangs is so common that children can tell the difference between gunshots and from what distance with frightening ease. Source: Getty, AFP / Miguel Zambrano
For the youngest kids, it starts with playing with hoops in a sports class. They fall to the floor and crawl towards the demarcated “safe space” against the wall.
Some babies scream while curled up, face down and covering their ears.
Finally, the school bell rings three times, signaling the end of school.
It will be repeated in two months.
“Just as we teach to read and write, we must give children the tools to protect themselves,” Janet Maraima, director of the school with 900 students, told AFP.
It is also important that children can apply what they have learned “at home” if needed.
I’m afraid to go to school
The training is organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Manuel Aguirra and other schools in Caracas.
Manuel Aguirre is in the Petare sector, crammed with houses with bare brick walls and zinc roofs built into the side of a mountain, connected by narrow streets and stairways.
Violence between drug gangs is so common here that children can distinguish with frightening ease the shots from different guns and from what distance.
“This is a dangerous area,” Breilis Breidenbach, a 16-year-old student, told AFP.
“Sometimes I’m afraid to come to school.”
According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a non-governmental organization, Petar had 80 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2022. There are no official statistics.
This rate is more than double the already alarming national rate of 35.3 per 100,000 people, six times the global average.
In the same area, nun Marisela Mujica leads a prayer at the Jesus Maestro School in the José Félix Ribas area, which is disputed by gangs.
“We’ve had a busy week, let’s go pray for peace,” the nun says to the students gathered in the courtyard.
“What do we want?” she asks the children. “World!” comes the answer in unison.
Students of the Jesus Maestro School in the José Felix Ribas neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela. The headmaster says gun violence is so bad it’s like “school in the Wild West”. Source: Getty, AFP / Miguel Zambrano
There are 722 preschoolers and elementary students at Jesus Maestro School, but when tensions escalate, not even 200 people attend, civilians are caught in the crossfire and many are afraid to leave their homes.
“You never get used to injections, you live with this constant anxiety,” principal Yvonne Gonzalez told AFP.
“It’s like a school in the Wild West.”
In Petara, Mujica added, “Weapons are the law. We have to fight for the kids to see him differently.”
Similar security exercises are taking place in other Latin American countries with high levels of violence, such as Brazil and Mexico.
In Rio de Janeiro, they have been active since 2009 in more than 1,500 schools in areas where drug gangs or vigilante militias are rampant.
“It’s very important to get trained to live in such an environment,” Renan Ferreirinha, Rio’s municipal secretary of education, told AFP.
“Hopefully one day this won’t be necessary anymore.”
For Ms. Gonzalez, the most important thing is that children learn what they learn.
She said that a student recently told her that she was involved in a street shootout.
“What did you do?” she asked the child. “I fell to the ground and crawled under the car,” was the answer.
Mujica goes from class to class to reinforce the lessons.
“What should we do first” in case of shooting? she asked one group of students.
The girl correctly answers, “Keep calm.”