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Brazil’s school violence mirrors the US. Not his response


About two weeks after a man murdered four children at a Brazilian daycare center, authorities have already detained several children…

About two weeks after a man murdered four children at a Brazilian daycare center, authorities across the country have already detained some 300 adults and minors accused of spreading hate speech or inciting violence in schools.

Little has been revealed about the unprecedented crackdown, which risks taking justice too far, but it underscores the determination of the country’s response at the federal, state and municipal levels. Brazil’s efforts to halt the emerging trend of attacks against schools contrast sharply with the US, where such attacks have been more frequent and deadly for a longer period of time, but where measures are now incremental.

Measures taken in the US — and some of the perceived shortcomings — are the basis for Brazil’s response, said Renan Theodoro, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of Sao Paulo.

“We have learned from the successes and mistakes of other countries, especially the United States,” Theodoro told The Associated Press.

Brazil has seen nearly two dozen attacks or episodes of violence in schools since 2000, half of them in the past 12 months, including the attack on the nursery on April 5.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said the idea of ​​schools as safe havens has been “ruined”. His government has sought input from independent researchers and this week convened a meeting of ministers, mayors and Supreme Court judges to discuss possible solutions.

Some of the measures already in place are consistent with those implemented in the US over time, such as establishing hotlines, safety training for school administrators and teachers, federal funding for mental health, plus security equipment and infrastructure.

Other measures – such as the nationwide search for allegedly threatening suspects involving more than 3,400 police officers, or the newly intensified pressure to regulate social media platforms – have not been implemented there.

The arrests are intended to allay fears among Brazilians, said Luis Flávio Sapori, a senior associate researcher at Brazil’s Public Security Forum. “The priority is to reduce the panic,” he said.

In the weeks since the nursery massacre, unconfirmed threats and rumors have circulated on social media, fueling fear among students, educators and parents – including Vanusia Silva Lima, 42, the mother of a 5-year-old son at the center from Sao Paulo.

“I am afraid to send my son to school. Not just myself, my friends, women I’ve met at the salon,” Lima said.

Many Brazilian states have not waited for the federal response. Sao Paulo, for example, temporarily hired 550 psychologists to attend the public schools and hired 1,000 private security guards.

While shootings in the US often lead to discussion, at the federal level it usually ends in a stalemate. Democrats focus on gun control, while Republicans push for tighter security measures.

Brazil’s push has received widespread support, in part because proposals do not include restrictions on access to firearms, which is increasingly a hot-button political issue here as it is in the US. However, the attacks on schools in Brazil are more often carried out with other weapons, especially knives.

Legislation is rarely passed in the US. There have been notable exceptions, however, including a bipartisan compromise passed last year following a Texas elementary school massacre and other mass shootings. The bill tightened background checks and barred firearms from more domestic violence offenders, and allocated $1 billion for student mental health and school security.

Other changes have come more gradually since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. In almost every state, schools are now required to have safety plans that often include target practice. Many individual school districts have their own safety hotlines, and some use software to monitor social media for threats, with mixed results.

And many US states have given schools money to “harden” buildings with metal detectors, security guards, bulletproof doors and other measures – fueling its own debate about police oversight of US schools.

Lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Lula’s far-right predecessor, was one of the few prominent voices to call for detectors and armed guards, citing some US states as an example, and introduced a bill to make them mandatory in all schools.

Lula has said his government will not consider detectors or backpack inspections.

Sapori said Brazil has taken a mixed approach, emphasizing mental health care, preventive monitoring of threats and training for teachers in addition to policing.

“In Brazil, we have a clear understanding, based on the US experience, that investing in armed security alone in schools does not work, that police presence in schools does not prevent attacks,” Sapori said. “It only works to turn schools into prisons.”

For Brazil, the second most populous country in the Western Hemisphere, there is a risk that the search for quick fixes will lead to an abuse of power.

As for the suspects arrested over a two-week period through Thursday, Theodoro noted that authorities have not spelled out criteria for detentions and that the investigation has been sealed. At the request of the AP, the Justice Department declined to clarify how many of the 302 people detained were minors.

The ministry has also authorized a national consumer agency to fine tech companies for failing to remove content seen as glorifying school massacres, inciting violence or making threats.

And there seems to be widespread support for holding social media platforms to account. At this week’s meeting in the capital, Lula, his justice minister, two Supreme Court justices and the president of the Senate expressed support for regulation of the platforms, arguing that speech that is illegal in real life, online cannot be allowed.

“Either we have the courage to discuss the difference between free speech and stupidity, or we don’t get very far,” Lula said.

The Rights in Network Coalition, an umbrella group of 50 organizations focused on basic digital rights, has expressed concern about giving government the power to decide what can be said on social media.

Some social media platforms that initially resisted complying with takedown requests have bounced back, removing or suspending more than 750 profiles in the past 10 days, Justice Minister Flávio Dino said.

When a man jumped over the wall of a nursery in Santa Catarina state on April 5 and killed four children with an axe, prosecutors called on the news media not to share any footage or identify the killer, citing investigations that this is another can encourage attackers.

The behemoth media conglomerate Grupo Globo announced it would no longer name or portray perpetrators of such crimes in its broadcasts or publications. O Estado de S. Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest newspapers, followed suit. CNN Brasil and Band also made the change.

Such a broad shift in media has yet to be seen in the United States, though outlets have begun efforts to use shooters’ names sparingly and focus on victims’ stories, thanks in large part to advocacy by victims’ relatives . Some US news organizations have discontinued the previously routine profiling of school shooters.

The developments in Brazil are reminiscent of a tidal wave of US federal support for school safety following the Columbine shooting, said Ken Trump, president of the Ohio-based National School Safety and Security Services consultant.

“It’s gotten a lot more choppy since then,” he said.

The success of Brazil’s efforts will depend on its ability to maintain momentum even after public attention shifts away from school violence, he added.

“The key question is: will it be sustainable?”

___ Binkley reported from Washington, DC AP journalists Eléonore Hughes, Maurcio Savarese and Carla Bridi contributed from Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Brasilia.

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Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.