Tackling violence in our schools

2011-07-06 00:00

AN estimated 40% of children are victims of violence in South African schools, while over a fifth of sexual assaults on South African children take place at school.

School violence in our country sadly reflects a growing global phenomenon. It includes violence between pupils, attacks on staff members by pupils and even attacks on pupils by staff members. Increasingly in South Africa, but also in other countries, knives, firearms and other weapons are a part of daily school life.

The South African Human Rights Commission found that a staggering 40% of children interviewed admitted to being victims of crime at school and that more than a fifth of sexual assaults on South African children take place at school.

Claire O'Connell, conference director of African Education Week, says: "South Africa is not alone. In April 2009, a United Kingdom survey showed that of 1 000 teachers interviewed, nearly a third of them had been the victims of physical violence [committed] by a pupil."

In 2009, the education minister for the state of Queensland in Australia admitted that "rising levels of violence in schools are totally unacceptable". In the 2008 academic year, 55 000 pupils had been suspended across the state's schools and nearly a third of these were for physical misconduct.

So what is the ultimate impact of violence in schools and other educational institutions? O'Connell says: "Children and young people who fall victim to violence may withdraw or respond by perpetuating the violence they have suffered. School work consequently suffers and many will drop out of school altogether."

Another problem that is rife in South African schools is gender-based violence, where girls are sexually harassed or abused by male pupils or teachers. Recent studies in Africa report that bet­ween 16% and 47% of girls have reported harassment in one form or another. While education authorities strive to increase access to education among females, violence leads to non-attendance and early school dropout. The socioeconomic consequences of low education levels are widespread, including unemployment, more violence and increased crime levels.

Other countries are being proactive in terms of employing safety measures. Programmes in Mexico, Cambodia and Nigeria aim to promote gender sensitivity and violence awareness, as well as modifying school buildings to promote safety (for example, separate toilets for boys and girls). In Tanzania, the government has introduced a guardian system in which a dedicated teacher is available for girls to report sexual harassment to. Furthermore, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has introduced a Safe Schools Programme piloted in Ghana and Malawi, which adopts a holistic approach, including lifeskills training, violence awareness and psychological support for survivors of violence.

In the U.S., the University of Michigan lists initiatives used by different school districts to reduce violence in schools. These include, but are not limited to:

• suspension or expulsion;

• staff training and development;

• conflict resolution and mediation;

• mentoring programmes;

• multicultural sensitivity training;

• parent-skill training; and

• support groups.

O'Connell says: "Whatever approach is adopted in South Africa, it is clear that punishment alone will not stamp out the scourge of school violence. A holistic approach, which includes punishment, sensitivity and awareness training, parent involvement and conflict resolution, will need to be developed.

"We can draw on international experience and trends, but in the end a home-grown solution involving all parties is likely to provide the most satisfying outcome."

One of the themes of the upcoming African Education Week is safety and security in schools. African Education Week runs from today to Friday in Sandton and will feature a range of speakers tackling current issues in South African education. — Mediaweb. 

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