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UNESCO Probes Links Between Absenteeism and Violence

In the United States, the push to improve school attendance often focuses on outreach efforts, better monitoring, and parent education. But in much of the world absenteeism is a matter of life and death.

"Children Battling to Go to School," a report released this morning by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's Education for All initiative finds half of the world's out-of-school children, 28.5 million primary-school-age kids, live in a country affected by conflict, from civil war to extreme gang violence. For adolescents, who were last measured in 2011, 69 million are not attending secondary school, and 20 million of those out-of-school students live in conflict zones.

Nearly all of these children live in middle- to low-income countries, UNESCO found, with more than 12 million in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Moreover, the report found schools and other education centers often become direct targets of fighting, as "Sita," a 12-year-old refugee in Sevaré, central Mali, reported:

"On Monday I went to school. They came into the school. It made me scared. They broke our school desks, destroyed our school books and our things. I didn't like what they were doing at all. School is supposed to be a place where we learn things. They came in and chased us all out. They shot at the doors. When we left the school, we all ran straight home and stayed there. We didn't go back. We stayed at home from then on."

The report notes that less than 1.5 percent of international humanitarian aid goes to education—virtually none is used for education in unstable, violent regions or the refugee camps to which children often are forced to live for months or even years.

"Education seldom figures in assessments of the damage inflicted by conflict," said Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, in a statement on the report. "International attention and the media invariably focus on the most immediate images of humanitarian suffering, not on the hidden costs and lasting legacies of violence. Yet nowhere are these costs more evident than in education."

Closer to Home

The United States has its own share of gang and drug wars and other violence that can interfere with students' willingness and ability to learn at school. A study published online last month in the American Journal of Community Psychology looked at 500 urban schools and their communities. It found that as crime, particularly violent crime, rose in the surrounding neighborhoods, the socioemotional learning and academic achievement in the schools went down over time, even if academic rigor in schools remained high.

In an earlier article in the same journal, researchers led by Arizona State University psychologist Craig R. Colder noted, "A child with strong perceptions of neighborhood danger may develop hypervigilance to hostile cues or attribute hostile intent to others, or adopt aggression as a strategy for protecting oneself." Colder and his colleagues argued that these behaviors could be reasonable coping mechanisms, rather than simply defiance or hostility, and school administrators should consider the surrounding environment when planning interventions to improve attendance or behavior.

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