EL UNIVERSAL - Saturday October 10, 2015 12:00 AM
A week into the beginning of the school year at the República del Ecuador school, in the San Martín neighborhood (downtown Caracas), and classes are taught only until 10 am. Thieves who broke into the school this summer caused major damage when they stole copper wiring and air-conditioning units, resulting in a power outage leaving classrooms in the dark(especially preschool classrooms, which are affected the most).
Similar cases of schools that started classes with some constraints(or did not start at all) due to burglaries were reported in several states like Aragua, Bolivar and Lara (where 13 schools were burglarized during the summer break, as reported by the regional media).
In all, 294 school burglary incidents have been recorded so far this year, by Centro Comunitario de Aprendizaje (Cecodap– Community Learning Center),on the basis of information published in the press. This figure, three months before year end, already surpasses last year's total (282 incidents), and by far the total recorded in 2013 of 182 incidents, says Oscar Misle, director of this NGO dedicated to the promotion of education.
This is the only nationwide informal figure there is (albeit not the official one) on school burglary and their negative impact on the related communities. The figure is not recognized by Vice Minister for Educational Communities Soraya El Achkar. According to her, "the reporting system is very lame. Sometimes an item is initially reported stolen but, as it turns out, it was taken home over the weekend by a child's parent to be returned a few days later."
In the words of Leonardo Carvajal, a leader of the non-government organization Asamblea de Educación (Education Assembly),"schools are imbued in the insecurity problems that beset the communities around them." Schools are very attractive targets for thieves simply because they contain high value items such as desktop computers, audio visual equipment, laptop computers known as Canaimitas, photocopiers, printers, TV sets); also because of school canteens appliances (stoves, mixers, refrigerators and their motors); and last but not least, because of the food that is stored there.
A closer look at this problem shows that at least 102 burglaries have been recorded in Miranda state - one in every six schools, according to Director of Education for Miranda State Juan Maragall.
The tip of the iceberg
Misle, Carvajal and Orlando Alzuru, the President of the Federation of Venezuelan Teachers (FVM), agree that school burglary is the least of the evils facing the education sector. The most serious problem concerns violence in and around schools, and it is likely to be further exacerbated.
A study conducted by the FVM last July on 1,064 junior cycle students (first to third year) from across the country, claims that 95% of the children surveyed have witnessed acts of violence occurring at their school (57% every day, 23% at least once a week); up to 41% have seen weapons (firearms or knives) in their schools, and 77% know about robbery at or around their schools.
Fifteen months ago, a 15-year-old was killed by a fellow student at a school in the El Junquito neighborhood. And before that, in 2013, a girl was shot to death in the courtyard of Andres Bello high school in La Candelaria (downtown Caracas). Fortunately, violent crimes like these have not occurred again. Misle says that in most schools there is a categorization of forms of peer aggression ranging from harassment or bullying to overt aggression – violent acts which, according to José Betancourt, the Coordinator of the Miranda State Police (Polimiranda) Communal Police, warrant criminal prosecution channeled through special prosecutor's offices for children and adolescents, which happens in one in ten or fifteen cases Betancourt's police force is involved in. "We normally act before it gets to that," he says. Betancourt adds that community involvement in school safety encounters the problem that the role of the family has changed, and "respect for the figure of the teacher has been lost."
A five-point agenda to change
Vice Minister El Achkar's office is currently located at the Andrés Bello high school (she formerly occupied an office within the Fermín Toro high school in downtown Caracas). From there, she monitors the "Schools as Peaceful Territories" program, which began implementation two years ago on the orders of President Nicolás Maduro, and is currently under review, after moving on to the operational phase two months ago in 20,000 schools run by the Ministry of Education throughout the country. El Achkar reported that high schools principals across the country are being taught a course, and that the preliminary results of the program have shown a significant reduction in burglaries (and in school violence in general) in about 1,800 high schools in which assessments have been made.
Of course, the program, implementing UNESCO recommendations, stems from the acknowledgement that there is violence in schools, even if Vice Minister El Achkar declares that she cannot endorse the statistics in the FVM survey, "I should have to look at the survey poll and the established methodology," she says.
A first school will be declared "a peaceful territory" in Yaracuy state, after meeting the five points of such a program. The first one has to do with organizing the school by drawing up a more compact schedule for the benefit of students, thus avoiding idle time; also by establishing school councils in which teachers, parents, students and the communities participate applying collegial decision-making in general, and decision-making regarding monitoring mechanisms and penalties in particular. "The aim is to improve governance of the schools," says El Achkar.
The second point of the program is educational in nature. "The school will be a peaceful territory only if it is interesting, if it is loving, if it sets an example." The third item is about the lengthening of school days, with students staying to participate in after-school programs providing them access to new technology, sports and cultural activities. The "César Rengifo" theater program and "The Orchestra Goes to School" music program provide culturally relevant examples. This aspect of the program also contemplates three physical education sessions per week in every school and the expansion of the School Feeding Program.
The fourth item in the program contemplates partnerships between school districts and community-based organizations to share school facilities during afterschool hours and on weekends as an effective strategy to promote sports and cultural activities.
"The goal is to declare every public school the center of their communities, leveraging existing infrastructure for the community to engage in their activities there." And the fifth item involves relations with enforcement authorities. As it has been found that "schools are targeted by drugs micro trafficking, there must be stronger alliances with the justice system, involving intelligence and, when there is no other recourse, repression," says El Achkar.
Translated by Sancho Araujo