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In Rio's Favelas, Schools Caught In Crossfire

Daily life in Favela do Alemao, Rio de Janeiro
Daily life in Favela do Alemao, Rio de Janeiro
Luiza Franco

RIO DE JANEIRO — "Stray bullets invading Rio's schools." "Under threat, schools are closing." "Students injured in shooting." These were titles of articles published by Folha de S. Paulo, respectively in 1996, 2003 and 2006. But they would fit in well with the current outbreak of violence in Rio de Janeiro.

Of the first 100 school days in the city this year, there were 93 in which classes were interrupted or canceled because of violence in at least one school, according to the Education Ministry. In other words, there were only 7 days without any schools having to remain closed or suspend classes in the middle of the day.

In total, 381 schools (25% of those registered across the whole city) were affected by shootings occurring near their premises, involving some 129,000 children.

One of them was 13-year-old Thayanne Galati, who attends a school in Rio's northern zone, in the neighborhood of Acari, which was the most affected this year. Thayanne was friends with Maria Eduarda da Conceição, also 13, who was killed in the playground as drug traffickers and the police exchanged gunshots nearby.

"School at the Favelas' Photo: Lucy Alice Gibson on Instragram

"There are so many shootings that it's a wonder it's taken so long for somebody in school to get killed," says Thayanne's mother Viviane, 30. She's been trying to have her daughter transferred to another school. According to her, all pupils in Thayanne's school would leave if they could. So far, 76 have done so.

Both areas have in common the fact that they're controlled by more than one criminal group and they frequently provide the stage for police operations. Acari is located in one of Rio's most violent districts, where several groups are fighting each other for control of territory. It's also where the most deaths have occurred during confrontations with the police.

Faced with a 21-billion-real ($6.5 billion) hole in its finances, the Rio de Janeiro state has been forced to make cuts in its public security spending. There's no money left to hire newly-qualified military police officers, and some are still owed back-pay.

If the child's mind is focused on fear, he or she can't think.

Beyond the deaths and injuries, the violence also affects how children learn. "Studies have shown that a child's ability to focus before and after such an event is completely different," says Barbara Barbosa, a researcher at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation and one of the authors of a research paper that cross-referenced the location of shootings and day nurseries in Rio de Janeiro.

Dr. Brian K. Perkins, a professor of education from Columbia University, who is studying the effects of violence in schools in Rio, told Folha de S. Paulo in a 2015 interview about the physiological impact of violence on children. "When the adrenaline enters the system, it causes the cerebral cortex to disconnect," Perkins said. "Language, process and analytical abilities all take place in the cerebral cortex. If the child's mind is focused on fear and surviving all day long, he or she can't think."

Throughout the city, several schools have been trying to deal with the situation with their own, limited means. In Isadora Souza's school in Complexo da Maré, three teachers created an app for pupils to be able to download the material for the lessons they've missed. In the western neighborhood of Paciência, where trafficking and militias also are rife, Roberto Ferreira, a 56-year-old music teacher, gathers the children in one of the school's corridors to play musical instruments when a shooting takes place outside.

"The one thing we can't do is surrender," says Isadora Souza. "The problem isn't limited to the shootings, it's the general state of things. In the favela, the children don't have anywhere to play. So the school becomes this place and is all the more important as a result. We're not just here to teach, but also to make these children aware that there is a world out there, beyond the favela and the gun violence."

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