Baseline Study Prompts School Officials to Counter Violence in Honduras
Too often, in our experience as development professionals, baseline surveys can seem like proforma exercises—dry, mechanical constructs conducted at the beginning of a project, shelved almost as soon as they are done, then dusted off for the midline survey. By the time we conduct the endline, the project is closing. Baseline findings don’t drive programming.
That is far from the case with Asegurando la Educación’s baseline survey of school-based violence in Honduras.
Asegurando la Educación (Securing Education) is a five-year, U.S. Agency for International Development project designed to improve access to quality education—ensuring student retention, course completion, and academic performance—by reducing school-based violence in five major cities with the highest incidence of gang- and drug-related violence: Choloma, La Ceiba, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, and Tela.
Conducted in April and May of 2018, the survey has become a roadmap for schools to design violence-prevention activities. The survey asked some 6,000 educators, principals, and students from fourth to ninth grades in 66 Honduran schools about their perceptions of security and their firsthand experience of the types and intensity of violent incidents in schools.
Beginning in August, just three months after the completion of the survey, Asegurando teams began presenting the findings to the schools: teachers, parents, students, and community members. The response was startling. Below are just four examples of local schools and communities mobilizing to address the challenges facing children and teachers.
San Pedro Sula
One school in San Pedro Sula, Cortés, borders territory claimed by both the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs. Territorial disputes have spilled onto the school grounds. In addition to gang violence, students must contend with violence based on gender, sexual orientation, race, or other social dynamics that adversely influence their behavior and academic performance.
In August, when staff reported that 87 percent of boys and 74 percent of girls feel unsafe going to the restroom, at first the teachers were in denial. Yet students confirmed the finding. “We were shocked to hear about some of these incidents,” said one fifth-grade teacher. “We will take action with the administration and parents to mitigate these instances.”
Since then, the faculty has increased the monitoring of the restrooms and begun sending students to the washrooms in pairs. “I feel better now that the teachers understand what happens in the bathrooms… Going to the bathroom in pairs will help,” said the student government president.
Upon learning that 46 percent of female students and 36 percent of male students feel unsafe when leaving school premises at the end of the day, the community approached the local authorities. The police responded by sending officers to patrol the area at dismissal times.
In addition to insecurity at school, young people face poverty, problems at home, and challenges in the broader community. The survey also identified high levels of bullying. These and other factors likely contributed to the survey finding that, in the month leading up to the study, 36 percent of boys felt that life was not worth living. In an attempt to address the bullying at school, the student council got involved. “Student government members will go to classrooms to talk about creating a culture of respect in this school,” said the student government president.
At one high school in Tegucigalpa, six out of seven teachers reported that drugs such as marijuana and crack cocaine can be found just outside the school walls. Three out of seven said that drugs are available inside the school and four out of seven said alcohol is available at school. And three out of seven have witnessed students taking drugs or alcohol at school, all in the first three or four months of the school year.
But even before hearing the survey findings, parents and teachers of the high school knew substance abuse was a problem. Drugs are available on the school premises, but educators themselves feared broaching the subject of substance abuse because the drug dealers often misinterpreted counseling as law enforcement. “Most teachers are afraid to talk about drug sales. We have to be very careful,” said one teacher. “Last month, I went out in the hallway to answer a call from my husband and at that moment three students ran past who were being chased by the school guard. Other students immediately accused me of calling the police, and I had to give them my phone to prove that I didn’t. They returned the phone saying, ‘that’s what we like.’”
After Asegurando shared the survey results, school officials sought assistance from the National Directorate of Social Intervention (DINIS), the government agency responsible for social protection. DINIS launched an initiative at the high school to train teachers how to conduct practical lessons on substance abuse without raising the suspicions of drug dealers. DINIS is also now providing clinical therapy to students most affected by substance abuse. “We will now be able to give talks to the students on the dangers of drug use,” said the teacher.
Parents and teachers at Marco Aurelio Soto Primary School in Tela, Atlántida, learned that 60 percent of boys and 35 percent of girls had fallen victim to verbal assaults and 40 percent of boys and 25 percent of girls had been slapped or struck with a fist. In addition, 47 percent of male students had performed some type of self-mutilation with razor blades while 43 percent of the boys and 30 percent of the girls had felt that life was not worth living, all in the previous 30 days.
Mirna López, the school principal, called the findings eye-opening. “Students don’t usually share thoughts of suicide or incidents of physical violence with teachers,” she said. Supported by Asegurando’s university fellows, the Community School Committee—made up of parents, teachers, and students—and Asegurando-trained Educators for Peace conducted the school’s first anti-bullying workshop in October. The project will soon support a school-driven anti-bullying awareness campaign, including a film to be followed by discussion groups to attempt to confront the causes of, and offer solutions to, bullying.
The survey revealed widespread bullying at Marco Antonio Ponce Primary School in La Ceiba, Atlántida. Some 60 percent of the students had been insulted, 43 percent called names, and 34 percent struck. Finally, 48 percent of boys described themselves as sad and felt life was not worth living while 33 percent had mutilated themselves with razor blades, all in the 30 days prior to the survey.
Alerted to the rate of bullying and suicidal thoughts in primary schools, parents and teachers decided to show an anti-bullying film, followed by discussions. School officials have also planned an anti-bullying awareness campaign in an attempt to change behavior and attitudes.
Educators themselves cannot help but be affected by school-based violence. Three out of seven of the teachers at Marco Antonio Ponce school report that, at times, the classes are uncontrollable and students bully other students over their sexual orientation. Four out of seven report that students fight at school. And three out of seven teachers fear they might be harmed en route to or from school.
To reduce stress resulting from a work environment replete with violence, Asegurando is supporting a teacher well-being day that focuses on physical and psychological activities designed to ease stress and strengthen resilience. Principal Thelma Clavasquín said that the administration is well aware that it has neglected the mental health of its teachers. Teacher wellness will be “one of the primary tasks for the 2019 school year… and designing strategies that respond to the needs mentioned in the baseline,” she said.
Responsiveness is Key
Asegurando la Educación’s baseline survey has become a tool that shed light on legitimate opportunities for short- and long-term interventions. We are discovering countless programmatic applications for the data and exploring new ways to interpret and analyze the numbers.
The responsiveness of school communities to the survey findings has become the impetus for grassroots conflict-prevention activities driven not by Asegurando, but by the school community itself. Teachers, parents, students, police, and other community members across the country are identifying measures to make schools safer and healthier spaces for students to learn and teachers to teach.