August 10, 2017
AJS has spent nearly a decade working to protect children from sexual abuse, and seven years on making the public education system in Honduras more effective and transparent. Now a new initiative combines these goals, helping to strengthen the education system’s methods of receiving, processing, and responding to cases of sexual abuse in schools.
The call came in over the Ministry of Education’s anonymous hotline. The mother of a sixth-grade girl said that a teacher had abused her daughter. The report bounced from person to person in the government agency, and the school opened a disciplinary investigation into the teacher’s behaviour – but no one reported the crime to the police, and the teacher continued to teach at the elementary school. As the investigation crawled forward, the girl’s parents pulled her and her younger sister out of school. For their own protection, their academic studies were cut short.
Their investigation not advancing, the Ministry of Education reached out to AJS for help. Immediately AJS involved the Public Prosecutor’s office, who began to investigate the abuse as a crime.
AJS sees the participation of the courts as an important piece in making schools safer for children. Crucially, within days of being accused of the crime, the accused teacher was placed into detention to await trial, removing him from the school and from other children.
These efforts are part of AJS’s ongoing collaboration with the Ministry of Education to create a National Strategy for the Prevention of Violence.
Currently, says Diana Medina, coordinator of the AJS Rescue Project, disciplinary investigations by the school are carried out before the case is ever taken to the courts. This puts the aggressor on the alert, and gives time to hide evidence, intimidate witnesses, or simply confuse the story after months of slow investigation. Furthermore, such slow investigations means that children who have been victims of abuse don’t get the immediate medical and psychological attention that they need.
“With the new protocol, we hope to find a balance, because there exists both administrative and criminal responsibility in these cases,” said Medina.
Another current flaw Medina identifies is that even when teachers are sanctioned by their schools, punishment is frequently transfer to a different school. Serial abusers in new environments, says Medina, are “a ticking time bomb.”
Where evidence of child abuse exists, AJS pushes for teachers to be fired permanently. Otherwise, “All they are doing is transferring the problem,” said Medina.
While AJS works to support criminal investigations into abuse, they also lead trainings for school administrators and parents about how to recognize and report abuse. One persistent myth they’ve found is that charismatic, well-loved community leaders “would never do such a thing”.
Tragically, when the sixth-grader in the rural village reported her abuse, “the response of the [other] parents was, ‘we don’t believe it’,” Medina continued. When people don’t fit stereotypes of an abuser, “People are not attentive and lower their defense mechanisms, because we don’t believe some people are capable of doing this.”
Protecting children in Honduran schools requires a coordination between parents, teachers, school administrators, and law enforcement. Case by case, training by training, AJS is helping build a society where abuse is identified, treated, and eliminated.
Thanks to AJS’s attention and close relationship with the sixth-grade girl and her younger sister, they were able to bring them to Honduras’ capital city to testify in the criminal case against the teacher. The girls bravely shared their experience which, along with evidence collected by AJS investigtors, was enough to earn a guilty sentence against the teacher. Now the girls are back in school, reports their psychologist, learning, growing, and healing.