South Africa’s school shootings don’t attract the same press their international cousins do, so we don’t have the same understanding of the problem. Just how violent are our schools? How much of the violence is gang-related? And can anything be done about it?
School shootings are one of many incidents of school violence in the Western Cape. Previously 12,000 learners have been unable to go to school owing to gang violence in the province; teenagers couldn’t go to soccer practice for the same reason. Nationally, learners face their share of shootings, stabbings and other horrors too.
The South African Police Service failed to respond to enquiries regarding crime and violence in schools, but the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention carried out an extensive National School Violence Study in 2008 and updated it in 2012. It was written in the organisation’s research bulletin in 2013 that violence in South African schools has increased since the initial study, and that one in five secondary school learners had experienced violence at school in the 12 months between 2011 and 2012. One in 16 had experienced a physical assault and close to one in 20 learners had been raped or sexually assaulted at school.
Violence is sadly not like measles: it does not happen once and then you’re done. Violent incidents occurring at schools were often not isolated, one-off incidents. A great number of learners were re-victimised following their first encounter with threats, robberies, assaults or sexual assaults. Not only did many learners succumb to the same crime on multiple occasions, many also fell victim to different types of violence.
South Africa’s schools face various layers of violence: gang-related violence, bullying, fighting, and abuse by teachers.
A University of Cape Town (UCT) psychologist in the field of violence prevention, warns it is misleading to assume that violence in schools is only between learners. A large percentage of the violence within schools is perpetrated by teachers – learners being beaten.
In South Africa, there are significant problems with teacher misconduct, ranging from absenteeism to sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, negligence of duties and bullying. To make matters worse, perceptions of abuse are alienating those teachers who want to do good.
A key challenge is to equip teachers to manage conflict in non-violent ways.
If schools are doing their jobs and focusing on academics, properly assessing kids and giving them a reason to move forward, those schools tend to display lower levels of violence. Schools that are struggling with curriculum implementations and assessments, as well as teacher training, tend to demotivate children.
One needs to take a whole-school approach. Everyone has to be on board, from the cleaner to the principal. There must be a clear policy dealing with violence, ranging from discipline to bullying. Learners must be given alternatives, and focus on conflict resolution and assertiveness training
Discipline has an important role. School policy needs to include that aggression between learners is not tolerated.
But how is a teacher meant to tell a child politely to sit down when they have a knife in their hand? one might ask.
By the time a child has a knife in their hand, they are beyond classroom management. The process has to begin much earlier. The same techniques should be used as in child behaviour management. Praise the behaviour you want to see – praise it many more times than you would note the behaviour you don’t want to see. Catch them being good. It needs to start at a young age.
When it comes to gang violence, the territory is different.
Gang violence, although it forms a small percentage of school violence in South Africa overall, has a devastating effect. It is most prevalent in the Western Cape, where there are some 100,000 gang members and roughly one gang-related murder a day in gang-dominated areas. Here, turf wars terrorise communities. In a study they noted that the fear of gang-related violence at school can be as harmful as primary victimisation and personal experiences of violence, causing learners to drop out or avoid school, or to lose concentration in the classroom and in learners developing healthy pro-social relationships as actual victimisation… gang violence has a negative effect on the delivery of quality of education.
However, there are things that can be done. A truce can be negotiated with gang leaders, which is feasible and possible, but not necessarily within the remit of schools – it is more within the remit of police.
There is a bright spot: adolescents who are violent will not necessarily stay that way, and as the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine. A seminal study included two key findings: firstly, the majority of people who are violent in their youth are adolescent limited offenders. Secondly, youths are most vulnerable following secondary socialisation. In situations where young people are being bullied at school, living in violent communities, or simply not being taught appropriate ways to assert themselves, violence prevention is most successful at the beginning of adolescence.
Regarding gang violence, however, there is no short cut. Schools have a role to play in prevention, adding that this applies to drug abuse, unsafe sex and other high-risk behaviour as well. But if we want gangs to go away in the long run, we need to improve our schooling and the economy, so that there are legitimate ways of making an income.
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