Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Schoolchildren and Teachers Under Fire in El Salvador

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Mar 13 2012 (IPS) - Wilber Geovany Hernández was gunned down as he left his night classes at a school in the capital of El Salvador. He was the 11th murder victim among the country’s schoolchildren since the school year began on Jan. 23.

Hernández, 18, was in ninth grade at a public school in the northern Mejicanos neighbourhood. He died instantly when he was shot Feb. 29 at the school doors.

The escalating violence in El Salvador has not spared the country’s schools, where students and teachers are victims of extortion, muggings and murder.

The violence impinges on the students’ learning process, has serious consequences in their personal lives and disrupts social development in the country, where there is a high dropout rate in basic education, experts say.

The dropout rate is as high as 20 percent in the schools most heavily affected by the violence, according to figures from the Union of Schoolteachers with Community Participation (SIMEDUCO).

In El Salvador, some two million students attend 5,000 public schools, of which 340 are classified as dangerous, while 161 of these are additionally considered high risk, because of the violence within and around them.

El Salvador, a country of 6.1 million people, has one of the lowest school attendance rates in Latin America, according to multilateral organisations. There are nine grades of basic education, which is free, compulsory and normally attended between the ages of seven and 15. The first six grades are primary education, followed by three grades of middle school.

“Children and young people are trying to learn in a very inappropriate environment, in a climate of fear and repression,” Felipe Rivas, vice president of the Central American Educational Innovation Foundation (FIECA), told IPS.

In addition to the lack of resources for improving education typical of a poor country, the effects of crime and violence must also be addressed.

The country’s overall illiteracy rate is 10 percent, but in rural areas it reaches 22 percent, according to the 2010 Multipurpose Household Survey.

The Education Ministry has set itself the goal of reducing the national illiteracy rate to four percent by 2014, a target that experts view as difficult to achieve, partly because of the impact of violence on the student community.

The preschool attendance rate for four-year-olds is 32.7 percent, and on average Salvadorans only complete six years of formal schooling, according to the 2010 survey.

“The underlying issue is that the learning process has been disrupted by the problem of violence,” said Rivas.

Last year, 139 school students and six teachers were murdered, most of them in the vicinity of the schools they attended or worked in, which were mainly public schools.

A total of 4,374 homicides were reported in El Salvador in 2011. This works out to a murder rate of 70 per 100,000 population, one of the highest in the world according to several international studies, and much higher than the average homicide rate for Latin America, itself a high figure at about 30 per 100,000 population.

Some of this violence is caused by the estimated 29,000 members of the country’s two main criminal gangs, known as “maras”: Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.

The local press has reported efforts by the gangs to recruit children and teenagers from schools in the most violent areas, to draw them into drug trafficking and other crimes.

“Drug trafficking and drug consumption already occur in schools; we have even seen parents use their children to sell drugs,” Manuel Molina, general secretary of SIMEDUCO, told IPS.

The authorities acknowledge that violence has invaded the educational community as part of the maelstrom of violence in the country, but they dismiss the idea that gang members and criminals are purposely targeting students and schools.

Meanwhile, the National Civilian Police (PNC) deployed 560 officers to patrol the 161 high risk schools, as part of a government plan to prevent the deaths of students.

In March 2010, the PNC and the Education Ministry signed an agreement for a prevention and protection plan in schools which attempts to address the problem in an integral manner and includes violence prevention activities such as sports and arts.

“Some efforts have been made at the government level, but the issue is complex and it appears to us that the plans have not worked and the situation is getting worse,” Molina said.

Education Ministry officials did not accede to IPS’s request for an interview on the subject.

Some of the measures adopted by police, like searching students for weapons and drugs on their way into school buildings, have been criticised because of the potential for officers to abuse their power and even violate human rights.

Another action that has drawn criticism is sending groups of basic education students to the country’s prisons, so that they can see at first hand how the inmates live and what may be in store for them if they enter a life of crime.

The head of police, Francisco Salinas, admitted to the congressional Education Commission Feb. 29 that the visits were a mistake and were not part of the protection agreement. “We accept responsibility. It was an error,” he told lawmakers.

Teachers are also victims of violence, facing extortion by gang members who threaten to kill them unless they make “protection payments”. At several schools there is reportedly a set rate: 100 dollars a month for the principal and 50 dollars for every teacher.

This has led many teachers to leave their posts and ask for a transfer to safer areas. But transfers are delayed by red tape.

In 2011, 362 teachers requested transfers for safety reasons, according to SIMEDUCO, but only 78 percent of them were transferred.

The actual number of extortion victims could be substantially higher because some people do not complain and just pay up, in fear of their lives.

Under pressure from teachers, Congress approved transitory decree 499 in 2011, which fast-tracked transfers for teachers forced to make protection payments. The decree lapsed in November. Now the teaching profession is calling for Congress to renew the decree for three more years.

But the problem will persist, because the replacement teachers will also be threatened. “The problem will not be solved by transfers, because the teacher who takes over will also be subject to extortion,” Rivas said.

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