Violence in Kenyan schools spreading

News and Press Release
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Following the wave of post-electoral violence in Kenya earlier this year, violence has again erupted, this time in Kenyan schools. Several secondary schools' dormitories and administration blocks were set on fire in the last few months by students whose indiscipline continue to be a source of concern in many parts of the country. Characterised by the destruction of school property running into millions of Kenyan shillings, loss of study time and even death, this unrest spread spontaneously like a bush fire in the dry season. One student was burnt to death while he sacrificed his life in an inferno to save another student.

Akin to some of the violent episodes witnessed during the post-election violence, over 300 secondary schools were closed following violent students' unrest between July and September. Several students are serving suspension orders from their schools while others are still in police custody awaiting trial. Parents now suffer the humiliating experience of having to visit schools seeking readmission for their children expelled elsewhere.

Violent strikes were a common phenomenon at the Kenya national universities in the 80s and 90s when students went on the rampage for a wide range of reasons including power failures; cafeteria menus and poor diet; protest against political manipulation and general discontent amongst students. Over the past decade, university strikes have ceased but the trend has shifted to affect secondary schools.

The violence witnessed in schools this year reminded Kenyans of past bloody episodes, which, though rare, caused pain, loss and destruction. A number of parents are likely to still be struggling to come to terms with the loss and destruction of those events.

In 1991, male students in a mixed high school invaded the girls' dormitory and raped more than 70 girls. At least 19 female students lost their lives at a tender age of 15. In yet another incident in 1999, a group of male students locked up 4 prefects in their cubicles at night and doused them in petrol killing them instantly.

The worst calamity was in 2001 when 68 students were burnt to death and scores injured after their dormitory was set on fire by two boys who petrol bombed the school. In 2006 a mass rape again occurred against schoolgirls, this time approximately 15 girls were raped as other students staged a protest march in the middle of the night.

Several reasons have been advanced by different stakeholders as the underlying root causes: overloaded curriculum; autocratic school administration; drug and substance abuse; poor living conditions in schools; excessive use of corporal punishment; lack of an effective school guidance and counselling service; pressure for excellent academic performance; abdication of parental responsibility; incompetent board of governors; culture of impunity in the society; adolescence identity crisis; mass media campaigns and the prefect system. The strikes were also attributed to the post election violence that affected the country at the beginning of this year. A detailed professional applied research could help unveil other underlying root causes of the problem.

Determined to arrest the situation, the Minister for Education listed a ban on cell phone use in schools; removal of videos and DVDs from school buses; the expulsion of student culprits; and belatedly; a ban on extra tuition. The assumption was that these measures would stem the tide of the unrest. This appears to have been a knee-jerk reaction that does not address real causes of the strikes.

Teachers warned that the situation was beyond their control and observed that their hands were tied with regard to enforcement of discipline. The Association of Professional Teachers noted that the government was not acting fast enough on the matter and that is perhaps the reasons why more schools were being affected. They also noted that the government was not committed to addressing the root causes of the strikes in schools. Teachers also cited the Children's Act that was passed in 2001 and states that "you can neither cane nor punish children by giving manual work." This has obviously created an impression amongst the students that they could break school rules and go scot-free. When disciplined, a number of students have sought redress in court.

Students interviewed by a special commission instituted by the government to investigate the causes of school unrest, called for scrapping of mock examinations saying that they were too difficult and only served to demoralize them ahead of the national examinations. They also blamed school administrators for what they said was a failure to give them an avenue of expressing their grievances.

Though not a panacea, several options need to be explored towards providing sustainable solutions:

- Review the current education system and curriculum that is rather loaded and could better focus on talent development with less emphasis on high academic performance. The need to incorporate specialisation and balanced curriculum in terms of time. Extracurricular activities and practical subjects should not be over emphasized. Indeed, students need balanced growth - emotionally, socially, intellectually, physically and morally.

- Strengthening guidance and counselling service is one of the most effective proactive ways of deflating potential violent student unrests. Emphasis needs to be placed on career choices, good study habits as well as value support systems.

- Schools need to create regular forums where students are given an opportunity to raise their concerns, issues and sentiments with the administration. Times have changed and dialogue should be the norm.

- School management structures needs to embrace participatory, consultative and respectful decision-making approaches.

- Global trends should also to be studied and adopted accordingly.

Indeed, the violent events currently taking place in Kenyan schools are not good for the economy and for the future of the students. The events are a security threat that must be addressed urgently. Kenya's strategic position could suffer while the fire started by the students in Kenya might soon spread to the neighbouring states. Importantly, many students are spread across the region, with Kenya hosting some students while Kenyan citizens are studying in Uganda and Tanzania. Hence a regional approach is crucial.

Jacinta Juma, Programme Administrator, Mifugo, ISS Nairobi