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School violence, depression symptoms, and school climate: a cross-sectional study of Congolese and Burundian refugee children

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Conflict and Health volume 16, Article number: 42 (2022) Cite this article

Abstract

Forcibly displaced children are at increased risk of violence and mental health disorders. In refugee contexts, schools are generally perceived as protective environments where children can build a sense of belonging and recover from trauma. Evidence shows that positive school climates can support student skills development and socio-emotional wellbeing and protect them against a host of adverse outcomes. However, schools are also places where children may experience violence, from both teachers and peers. Prevalence estimates of violence against children in humanitarian settings are scarce and evidence on the relationship between school climate and student outcomes in these contexts is non-existent. The aim of the study is to estimate the prevalence of school-based violence against children and to explore the association between perceptions of school climate and students’ experiences and use of violence and their depression symptoms. We relied on data from a cross-sectional survey of students and teachers in all primary and secondary schools in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania, conducted as part of a cluster randomised controlled trial, to compute prevalence estimates and used mixed logistic regression analysis to assess the association between school climate and students’ outcomes. We found that students in Nyarugusu experienced high levels of violence from both peers and teachers in both primary and secondary schools in the camp, with little difference between boys and girls. Nearly one in ten students screened positive for symptoms of depression. We found that opportunities for students and teachers to be involved in decision-making were associated with higher odds of violent discipline and teachers’ self-efficacy was a significant protective factor against student depression symptoms. However, generally, school-level perceptions of school climate were not associated with student outcomes after adjusting for potential confounders. Our findings suggest that interventions to prevent and respond to teacher and peer violence in schools and to support students’ mental health are urgently needed. Our results challenge the assumption that education environments are inherently protective for children and call for further investigation of norms around violence among students and teachers to better understand the role of school climate in refugee settings.