Sexual abuse and harassment, crimes that also lurk in schools

A teacher would have abused three minors between the ages of 10 and 13 at the Venecia Nuevo Muzú District Educational Institution, in the south of Bogotá; A teacher was dismissed from his post for being involved in several complaints of harassment at the renowned Marymount Girls’ School and another, from the Colsubsidio School, was captured in the country’s capital. A former rector of the Inem de Cali school was disqualified by the Personería on February 22 for alleged sexual exploitation of minors. Dozens of students protested at the Antioquia Training Center (Cefa), in Medellín, for alleged harassment by a teacher.

(Also read: Minieducation clarifies what to do in case of sexual abuse in schools).

All these cases that have come to light so far this year involve teachers and directors from both public and private institutions. In some, there have even been accusations against officials of the institutions for allegedly having hidden or ignored the complaints.

But this problem, which has recently become more visible due to the latest complaints, is more common than is believed. In fact, according to a consolidated report prepared by the Ministry of Education, based on information from 81 of the 96 secretariats of education on alleged abuse in school settings, there are 876 cases, of which 65 proceeded to sanction, 127 have been archived and 684 are currently under investigation.

(You may be interested: The worrying panorama of Colombian childhood).

Likewise, the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF) reported nine processes for reestablishing the rights of minors affected by the cases of Marymount, Colsubsidio, Venecia and Cefa.

According to the authorities, the real number of cases could be much higher due to the lack of reporting that persists in this crime. Paula Andrea Bernal, a child psychologist specializing in abuse cases, explains that “this is not a recent phenomenon. Moreover, many of the complaints that are known today occur after years in which the accused commits this action. And in addition to being a recurring theme, it happens in a space that in theory should be safe”.

The accusations range from harassment, abuse and even sexual exploitation. The latter is the case of Argemiro Méndez Hernández, ex-rector of the Inem de Cali, disqualified for twelve years because he would have paid two minors under 15 years of age to take them home and abuse them. The paradox of the matter is that five years before Méndez was the winner of the Share the Teacher award, being recognized for an initiative with which he sought, in his own words, that his students “feel well treated, loved and respected”.

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Non-compliance and omission

Consulted by EL TIEMPO, two young people behind the sit-ins at Cefa, in Medellín, pointed out the complicity of the institution by not paying attention to constant complaints by the students. By the way, the Minister of Education, María Victoria Angulo, told this newspaper that for nine years there has been, by law, a care route that every school must follow: “Law 1620 of 2013, through which the National School Coexistence System was created, is very clear in pointing out that the omission, non-compliance or delay in the implementation of the comprehensive care route gives rise to investigations and sanctions of a disciplinary nature and penal”.

The protocol defines the attention route for extremely serious crimes, which indicates that these situations must be brought to the attention of the protection and justice authorities, and in these cases, the educational institution must report in the alert system and immediately notify the Secretary of Education and within the framework of the protocol, make complaints according to the competence to the Attorney General’s Office, the Police for Children and Adolescents and the ICBF and, in parallel, initiate disciplinary processes.

Despite this, institutions often prefer to handle accusations internally, either by omission or ignorance of the norm. Given this, Angulo highlighted: “To reinforce the norm, Directive 01 of March 4, 2022 was issued, which gives guidelines that must be taken into account by departmental, district and municipal administrations, as well as official and private educational establishments, to strengthen pedagogical actions for the prevention of sexual violence, as well as to provide attention to cases of sexual violence in the school environment”.

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In this way, it is urged to take measures to prevent violation and protection, as well as to provide real guarantees to the complainants that their case will receive immediate attention following the route established by law.

The Secretaries of Education must organize an internal committee, which must periodically and constantly monitor the cases of reports of sexual violence”, says the minister.

And he adds: “The policy of the National Government is one of zero tolerance for any act that violates the rights of children and adolescents. Within the framework of the mission of the Ministry of Education, and as indicated in the issued directive, we must redouble efforts at the national level, local governments, rectors and other instances and authorities to guarantee that in all public and private schools in the country, the protocol is known, the coexistence manuals are adopted and revised”.

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Sexual violence against minors

Despite the recent scandals in schools, experts warn that the current state of childhood in relation to sexual violence is not encouraging. According to ICBF figures, of the 37,567 administrative processes for the restoration of rights opened by the entity in 2021 in cases of violation of minors, 18,616 correspond to acts of sexual violence. In other words, every day this entity opens 51 proceedings for minors who were victims of a sexual crime. Of these, 87 percent were against women.

For its part, according to a recent report by the Javeriana University’s Educational Economics Laboratory (LEE), based on data from the Attorney General’s Office, 61 percent of the 43,993 complaints of sexual crimes in 2021 correspond to cases against children and adolescents. Of them, only 13 percent are brought before a judge.

The report explains that many of the cases of child abuse occur by people close to them, such as in school and family contexts, where the perpetrator takes advantage of his position or hierarchy to commit the crime.

(Also read: School in Bogotá would not have received a girl for having gay parents).

The researchers also maintain that the foregoing is the result of multiple variables, including the lack of sexual education, since this would allow children and adolescents to have tools to identify when their rights are being violated. “For this reason, it is essential to implement a sexual and reproductive education strategy in Colombia, which gives tools to minors and their families to protect themselves from abuse and make better decisions for their physical and psychological well-being.”, affirms Luz Karime Abadía, co-director of the LEE.

‘Rectors cannot be judges’

Lina María Arbeláez, director of the ICBF, responds regarding the cases registered in schools.

What has been done in these particular cases?

We have activated all the necessary routes to protect and guarantee the rights of those who have seen them violated by recent complaints. There are care routes that already exist but that must be used in schools, and for this President Duque will be issuing a decree that will strengthen what is in Law 1620, but will also give more tools to administrative authorities such as family defenders to act immediately.

Can schools skip this protocol?

A teacher or a principal cannot be both judge and party. He cannot review the complaint and assess whether what the student says is a lie. You must immediately activate the rights verification scheme and the health route, which is where part of the evidentiary material is collected in 72 hours. Failure to apply the protocol has administrative and criminal implications.

(You may also be interested in: The subjects that should be compulsory in school, according to Bessudo).

What is the attention that the minors of these schools will receive?

The damage of each individual is verified and a particular route is initiated from that damage generated to restore their rights. We are talking about psychological accompaniment, social workers, and, in the case of indigenous communities, anthropologists.

How do you explain the high figures of sexual violence against minors?

Unfortunately in Colombia sexual violence has become naturalized and has become an everyday phenomenon. 72 percent of these events occurred in homes. This makes us think that we are an unviable society that does not respect the most sacred that children are.

Many times the version of minors is not believed…

The message here is very clear: a minor does not tell lies to get into trouble, they tell the truth to get out of it. Parents and adults have to be co-responsible in guaranteeing the rights of children.

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Sexual abuse and harassment, crimes that also lurk in schools