The boys had once been friends before MS-13 began recruiting one of them. Now, as other students streamed to class one April morning at William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale, Md., the two teens squared off in the third-story bathroom — a fight captured by another student on his cellphone.
The MS-13 recruit threw a punch at his former friend’s head. His opponent ducked and tackled the 15-year-old, their sneakers squealing as they tumbled to the green tile floor.
“I like that,” someone shouted off-camera as the recruit tried to cover his head.
“That look like it hurt,” someone wrote under the video, which was uploaded to Instagram on April 19 and has been viewed more than 400 times.
Gang-related fights are now a near-daily occurrence at Wirt, where a small group of suspected MS-13 members at the overwhelmingly Hispanic school in Prince George’s County throw gang signs, sell drugs, draw gang graffiti and aggressively recruit students recently arrived from Central America, according to more than two dozen teachers, parents and students. Most of those interviewed asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs or being targeted by MS-13.
Although administrators deny Wirt has a gang problem, the situation inside the aging, overcrowded building has left some teachers so afraid that they refuse to be alone with their students. Many said they had repeatedly reported incidents involving suspected gang members to administrators, only to be ignored — claims supported by documents obtained by The Washington Post.
“Teachers feel threatened but aren’t backed up. Students feel threatened but aren’t protected,” one educator said. “The school is a ticking time bomb.”
The gang’s presence at Wirt comes at a time when the Trump administration has declared war on MS-13, and communities throughout the country are confronting a surge in MS-13-related violence.
Nearly a dozen parents told The Post that they were worried about gang activity at the school, which is 10 miles from the White House. Many said they were intent on transferring their kids. Several said they were scared their children would be killed.
One eighth-grader said she had been raped in the fall by a schoolmate in MS-13 — an attack that took place off school property and that she reported to police but then recanted out of fear of the gang. Prince George’s investigators concluded the report was unfounded, but the girl said she now lives in fear the gang will stab her as she leaves school.
Rhonda Simley, the principal at Wirt, declined repeated requests for an interview.
“The principal is aware of concerns about gangs in the community, but has not experienced any problems in school,” John White, a spokesman for the county school system, wrote in an email.
Prince George’s police, which have an officer stationed at the school, declined to discuss the allegations of gang activity.
“This is their house, so we’re going to defer to school leadership,” said police spokeswoman Jennifer Donelan. “If school security isn’t telling us about something, then we don’t know.”
As of May 1, police had been called to the school 74 times this school year, according to a police tally requested by The Post.
Five students had been arrested for assault, drug possession and bringing a BB gun into the building, White said in an interview.
Although teachers estimate that there are only a dozen or so MS-13 members at the school, other students have banded together to resist them, leading to an arms race of sorts. Teachers said at least four knives and four BB guns were found at Wirt this year, although White put the tally at two knives and one BB gun.
“If someone doesn’t do something soon,” said the eighth-grade girl’s father, “there’s going to be a tragedy at that school.”
Evidence of MS-13’s sway at Wirt isn’t hard to find. Just follow the dirt path that winds from the edge of the school’s parking lot into the woods, across a stream and toward the rear of Parkdale High.
Here, a few hundred feet from both schools, the trees are covered in MS-13 graffiti. Empty beer cans, candy wrappers and crumpled assignments surround a stump blackened by fire. One tree trunk appears as if it has been used for knife practice.
Ten MS-13 members attacked a gang rival in these woods in February, hitting him in the back of the head with a baseball bat before stabbing him three times in the stomach, according to police. Eight Parkdale students were arrested, although only one had attended Wirt. Two months earlier, a shooting involving another Parkdale student and MS-13 sent both schools into lockdown.
Dozens of schools from Northern Virginia to Long Island to Boston are dealing with a resurgence of MS-13, which has been linked to a string of grisly killings throughout the country. The gang’s growth has been fueled by a wave of 200,000 teens who traveled to the United States alone to escape poverty and gang violence in Central America. The vast majority enroll in school and stay out of trouble, but a small percentage get involved in MS-13 here.
Nearly 5,000 of those unaccompanied minors have arrived in Prince George’s since 2012, affecting schools in Langley Park, Hyattsville, Beltsville and Riverdale. Wirt was struggling before the influx of so many vulnerable children helped swell the school’s population by 50 percent.
About 1,200 students now pack a building designed for 750, many housed in a dozen dilapidated trailers. Nine out of 10 students who walk up Wirt’s rainbow-colored front steps receive free or reduced-price lunches and most are not reading or doing math at grade level.
They are being educated at one of the county’s oldest middle schools, slated to be replaced by 2020 after years of leaks and mold. Simley, a first-time principal who arrived at the school in 2016, is the school’s third leader since 2014.
Many teachers said they care deeply about the school’s unaccompanied minors, who are often traumatized by the journey to the United States, alienated from relatives here and isolated by their limited English. But they also said a small number of these children are more than troubled: They are MS-13.
One educator was stunned when, at the beginning of the school year, a handful of students continually shouted obscenities and threw objects around the classroom. The educator soon noticed the same students scrawling “MS-13” on papers, desks and their skin. They bullied Spanish-speaking classmates and sexually harassed the girls in class. Several students openly counted cash, allegedly money earned from selling marijuana in Wirt’s bathrooms, transactions that a student and several parents also described to The Post.
But administrators brushed aside complaints, the educator said, and the behavior spread to other students.
White denied that administrators have ignored complaints of gang activity, adding that neither school security guards nor the police officer there had reported problems.
Documents obtained by The Post supported the educator’s account, however. And other employees offered similar stories. One recalled how MS-13 members bullied a girl so badly she dropped out of the school.
Fights have increased dramatically as MS-13 pressures recent arrivals to join the gang, teachers said. Several said suspected MS-13 members have burst into classrooms and attacked students.
“We now have two to three fights per day,” one instructor said. “At this point, it’s completely out of control.”
White played down those reports.
“Do fights occur at the school? Yes, but they occur at schools across the country,” he said. “Until we have evidence that [gang activity] was the cause of the fight, we don’t know. And so far, we haven’t found that evidence.”
White said there have been 32 suspensions this year for fighting.
In a recent emergency staff meeting, the principal attributed an uptick in violence to a “race war” between Hispanic students — who make up roughly 80 percent of the school population — and black students, according to people present.
White acknowledged Simley used those words but said she was urging her staff to intervene to prevent a “race war.”
Teachers said the fights haven’t been over race but resistance to MS-13.
One Hispanic eighth-grader told The Post that he and other U.S.-born students — black and Latino — banded together after an attack by knife-wielding MS-13 members last summer.
Many fights are arranged ahead of time via social media, filmed in the bathroom and then uploaded to private accounts on Instagram or Snapchat with names like “William Wirt Fights.” The videos are a recruitment tool for MS-13.
“They only post them when they win,” the eighth-grader said.
White said the school is aware of the videos but does not consider them gang-related.
Fighting tends to intensify in the spring, which teachers call “recruitment season.” They described seeing older kids — including former students now at Parkdale or other local high schools — loitering just beyond the boundaries of the school.
In the past, officers from the Prince George’s police gang unit came to the school to teach employees to recognize indicators of MS-13 affiliation, such as hand signs, light-blue clothing, colored rosaries and Nike Cortez shoes.
But this year, the gang unit never came, leaving first-year teachers to figure it out on their own — in some cases, too late.
“The jumping, the recruitment, they are trying to do it here,” said Maureen Williams, an eighth-grade science instructor. She said she was familiar with MS-13 from years of teaching in Los Angeles, where the gang was founded in the 1980s. But at Wirt, she said that administrators and police didn’t seem to be taking the issue seriously.
“They are not doing enough,” Williams said. “They need to get a grip on it before it proliferates.”
One of her colleagues described the administration’s stance on gangs as “don’t ask, don’t talk about it.”
White said that the school takes gang activity seriously but that the situation has improved since last year to the point that the principal no longer felt the need for a gang unit meeting.
Some employees said they are worried the school’s inaction will result in bloodshed. One recalled watching school officials pull a large folding knife from a student’s pocket after receiving a tip he intended to stab someone. But that student was back in class two weeks later.
“These kids are getting a slap on the wrist,” that educator said. “The school has enabled the gang through its lack of enforcement.”
Teachers said that they frequently aren’t informed when students have been suspended — even for bringing weapons — and that serious incidents often aren’t entered into students’ records.
White said that the school follows county guidelines on discipline and that teachers aren’t required to be notified why students are suspended. Students had been suspended 168 times this year, he said, but none had been expelled.
“Without metal detectors, which we do not have, we do our best . . . to identify any dangerous activity at schools,” he said.
Several educators said they have been threatened by students in MS-13. Two teachers said they are worried gang members have identified their cars and could follow them home. At least one female teacher was sexually harassed by a suspected gang member, her colleagues said.
“There is a genuine risk,” one said, “but the school is pretending the problem doesn’t exist.”
It began with a photo.
The girl had recently arrived in the United States, one of about 1,000 unaccompanied minors placed with relatives in Prince George’s County last year. When her uncle gave her some Nike Cortez sneakers, the 14-year-old posted a picture of herself wearing them online.
Then the threats began.
“Which [gang] do you represent?” asked an older girl in Spanish on Facebook last fall. “If you wear Corteses you know what kind of trouble you’re in.”
The girl said she didn’t mean anything by it, but it was too late.
“I already have you being watched,” the older girl said. “You go to William [Wirt] and you’re in 8th [grade] and I also know where you live.”
Days later, the girl was sleeping when she began receiving messages from a boy, she recalled. It was well after midnight, but the seventh-grader told her to come outside, where he and some friends were waiting in a car. When she didn’t reply, he began angrily calling her. They were MS-13, she recalled him saying, and if she didn’t come out then they would come in and kill her and her family.
They took her to an apartment where the boy showed her an array of knives.
“He said he could cut my guts out,” she told The Post.
The girl described the attack to Prince George’s and Bladensburg police that day. She said her assailant chose her from several girls at the apartment.
“He said, ‘I’m taking this one,’ ” she told a female officer, according to a recording her father made of the interview. “He began to touch me. The other ones left, and he began to take off my clothes.”
When she told him to stop, he took out a knife and said, “Look what I have here,” she said.
“Then he began to rape me,” the girl told police. “I began to cry because it hurt.”
But later, when a male officer questioned her, the girl began to worry the gang would come after her so she recanted, she told The Post.
The girl spent the next couple of weeks at home, angry and depressed, she said. When she returned to school, she and her father met with school officials. She said she told them that she had been raped by a student in MS-13, and identified him, but the school took no action.
White said the school was aware the girl had disappeared from home but not of her rape allegation. It was up to police to investigate incidents outside school, he said, although the school offers students counseling and support.
Other families told similar stories about MS-13 violence and intimidation. One Honduran mother said her 15-year-old son came home with a broken hand at the beginning of the school year. When he was injured a second time this year, she pressed him for details. The eighth-grader eventually told her that MS-13 members had made him fight another student in the bathroom.
Then he suffered a concussion after another fight this spring, and she took him to the hospital for the third time. A psychologist who spoke to her son came away so worried, he gave her a note to take to school.
“He said, ‘If you don’t protect your son, the next time you bring him to the hospital he’s going to be dead,’ ” the mother recalled.
The school assigned one of its three security guards to watch over her son when he changed classes or ate lunch, she said. But as soon as the guard was absent, her son was jumped by MS-13, she said.
She has seen videos of him fighting inside the school and fears that he is now being pressured to join the gang. When she peeked at his phone, she found a message from an MS-13 member saying the devil was angry with him and to watch his back. “I don’t know how to make him understand that I’m worried about him, worried for his life,” she said.
Another mother said she had brought her son to the United States as a baby to escape gang violence in El Salvador. So she was shocked when her boy, now 13, told her that MS-13 was trying to recruit him at Wirt.
“They told me if I didn’t fight, they’d stick the knife in me,” she recalled him saying. She, too, saw videos of her son fighting in the school’s bathrooms. And she, too, went to the school to demand it do something.
“Many kids have disappeared because of this gang,” she said she told a school counselor. The school assigned a security guard to watch over him, too, she said.
Some parents said they had tried taking away phones or deactivating social media accounts to prevent their kids from being recruited. When one mother let her son use her phone, she received a message from an MS-13 member saying the gang was going to cut out his tongue.
The girl who alleges she was raped said the same boy also threatened her with a gun he brought to school, and another MS-13 member put two bullets in her hoodie as a warning.
The girl said she reported the gun incident to security but not finding the bullets. White said the gun incident was not reported.
The girl is now being recruited by members of MS-13’s rival, 18th Street gang, her father said. He panicked when she disappeared from school in early May. Police found her at an 18th Street hangout.
Her father has started driving her to and from school each day for protection. Next year, he said, she will be attending a high school where the gang has less of a presence. But first, she has to finish eighth grade.
As she walked down Wirt’s rainbow steps one May afternoon, she passed the MS-13 member who had left the bullets in her hoodie.
“I’m going to give you such a beating, girl,” he muttered in Spanish, she said, as a Prince George’s police officer sat in his squad car a few feet away.
Before she could react, her father appeared at the end of the stairs. He put his arm around her and guided her to the car. She slid into the back seat and slammed the door, staring out the window as Wirt slipped out of sight.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.