‘As a mother, I hurt’: Latino families fear for children’s safety in Norfolk’s public schools
Editor's note: This article recounts and includes video of violence against children and includes profanity. Please read, listen and watch with discretion.
This article also includes information from interviews conducted in English and Spanish with the help of a third-party translator. The translations have been reviewed and confirmed by Spanish-speaking WHRO Journalism staff.
Martin Martinez-Bautista and three friends were walking to soccer practice after school.
The Norview High School freshman had headphones on and didn’t realize what was happening when his friends took off running down the sidewalk.
Martin said he hardly had time to look around before a group of 15 middle school students surrounded him and started hitting him, unprovoked.
They knocked him to the ground and beat him for several minutes.
Eventually, Martin’s attackers noticed a teacher watching them from the doorway of a nearby school building and fled.
They left Martin lying on the ground, bleeding from the ears. He’d shielded his head with his backpack — and the laptop inside was destroyed.
Martin didn’t know the kids who attacked him. They didn’t take anything from him.
The only thing they told him was that they were beating him up because he was Hispanic, Martin told WHRO through a translator.
Martin was one of several Latino students from Norfolk City Public Schools who told WHRO they’re being targeted, robbed and attacked by their Black classmates.
Their families say school officials and law enforcement have not taken their concerns seriously even as videos of the vicious assaults circulate online. Some families don’t feel comfortable raising concerns for a number of reasons, including their immigration status.
Families are also worried the violence is escalating while the perpetrators face few or no consequences.
Norfolk Public Schools declined multiple requests for interviews from WHRO about the assaults.
‘Rather have dumb kids than dead kids’
Many of the Latino families who spoke to WHRO are afraid to send their kids to school following altercations with other students.
One family even sent their child back to their home country, believing he’d be safer among unrest in Honduras than Norfolk’s public schools.
Others, like Martin, go back despite their attackers promising to target them again so they can work toward the better future their parents immigrated to the United States for.
In Martin’s case, it took him so long to feel comfortable returning to school after the February 2023 attack that he had to repeat the ninth grade.
“[I’m] very uncomfortable, ” Martin said through a translator. He said when he sees the people who did this to him around school, he's worried what else they could do to him.
These students’ experience follows a nationwide trend of increased crimes targeting Latinos based on their race.
Researchers said bigoted rhetoric from politicians, national media reports focused on Latino immigration and a proliferation of conspiracy theories help fuel the increase in violence. Hate crimes against all demographics spiked dramatically across the country since 2019. Department of Justice data shows race-based hate crimes in Virginia jumped more than 64% between 2021 and 2022.
It’s impossible to tell from public school incident data whether attacks on Hispanic students are on the rise in Norfolk’s schools.
Data published by the state doesn’t include demographics of students involved in fights or assaults, so the public can only get a glimpse of the total numbers reported.
During the 2022-23 school year Norview High School, where many of the students interviewed for this story go to school, reported one assault and 33 fights, two of which resulted in students being injured.
The area of the city around Norview has seen major growth in the Hispanic population over the last 20 years — a fact that advocates said may be fueling the violence and could make it worse as the Latino population continues to grow. The school’s population is currently 16.8% Hispanic, according to state data, almost triple what the percentage was 10 years ago.
Patricia Bracknell is the head of the Chamber for Hispanic Progress. She’s an immigrant from Mexico and the person many Latino families have turned to as they’ve grown frustrated at the lack of response from the schools and police when their children are attacked.
Bracknell said she’s heard of students afraid to go to the bathroom at school, parents seeing their children retreat inward as a result of the violence they’ve experienced and families trying to find any way forward they can.
“They're coming from countries where they’re running away from violence. And I know at least one parent that sent their son back to South America, because they'd rather deal with that violence than the violence that these kids are experiencing in the most developed country in the world,” Bracknell said.
She said many families she’s heard from aren’t comfortable going to the authorities. Some have pulled their children from the schools altogether, telling Bracknell, “they’d rather have dumb kids than dead kids.”
Bracknell is worried about what will happen if the Latino students escalate things to defend themselves. She said she’s heard stories about students seeking help from gangs in instances like this.
“Do we need to wait for this to happen or are we responsible enough to try to mediate this?”
“Como un madre, me dolió”
“As a mother, I hurt.”
In December, 16-year-old Derick Santos-Rodriguez and a friend were sitting in class when students came to the classroom door and told them to step outside to fight.
They didn’t, and the teacher called school security. No security guard ever showed up but it was enough to shoo away the other kids.
When school let out that day, Derick and his friend were followed by a large group of kids they didn’t know. Derick thinks maybe they confused him with another Latino student or wanted to fight and randomly picked him.
Derick called his stepbrother, who was already on a school bus in the parking lot. The stepbrother, Leo Medina, got off the bus to defend the two boys.
All three were beaten by the larger group of students. A video taken by another student shows Derick pinned to the grass outside the school by a teenager who punches him while three others kick Derick in the head.
The video pans over to show Leo getting hit in the head, and the student behind the camera runs over to taunt him.
“He just smacked you in your shit,” the student says. “I heard that shit from over there.”
Derick found the video online after the fight, but doesn’t know who filmed it originally. He spent that night in the hospital and had a broken finger.
Derick’s mother Teresa Rodriguez told WHRO she doesn’t feel like the authorities are listening to them or doing anything about the violence.
She and Derick’s stepfather, also named Leo Medina, tried to file a police report at the police station. They said they spoke to an officer through a translator over the phone. The officer took notes but didn’t give them any kind of formal complaint and never followed up with them. They went back with Bracknell to push for action earlier this month.
Norfolk Police said they did have a record of the assault report from December, and a follow-up investigation was completed on Jan. 13. Police could not confirm the current status of that investigation as of press time.
Medina and Rodriguez also tried to get Derick and Leo back into school without signing a document they said misrepresented what happened. The disciplinary action forms reviewed by WHRO say Derick and Leo “engaged in a physical altercation with students.”
Rodriguez and Medina worried that signing something saying the boys were in a fight will be entered into their records and they’ll be branded as violent for the rest of their academic careers and beyond. Derick and Leo went back to school after a month, once the school agreed they could go back without signing the paperwork the family said included an incorrect translation of a witness statement.
Now, Rodriguez is afraid every time her boys leave in the morning, but the couple feels like they have no choice.
Medina said through an interpreter his children’s future depends on them being in school. Plus, he’s worried for his other children who are set to start at Norview over the next couple of years.
Derick returned to school earlier this month. The school implemented a “safety plan” that allows him to leave his classes five minutes early to avoid potential conflicts, he said.
Thirty minutes into his first day back, three students showed up to Derick’s class looking for him. He felt unsafe even as his teacher chased the kids off.
Derick called Rodriguez to pick him up and left before the first period was over.
“¿Cómo puedo estar tranquila cuando uno quiere un mejor futuro, que sus hijos estudien? Hace todo lo posible para que ellos estén ahí,” Rodriguez said. “Otras madres a la edad de mi hijo — ya no los tienen en la escuela, los mandan a trabajar, nosotros no. Hacemos todo lo posible, trabajamos para que ellos estudien, pero ¿cómo estar tranquilos con lo que pasó?”
In English: “'How can I be calm when one wants a better future, [wants for] their children to study? I've done everything possible for them to be there. Other mothers [with children] my son's age — they already don't have them in school, they make them work, but not us. We do everything possible, work so [the kids] can study, but how can we be calm with what happened?
Disclosure: Norfolk Public Schools are a member of the Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association, which holds WHRO’s broadcast license.