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Schaerbeek school closed for week to halt parent protests
The mayor of Schaerbeek has closed the Ecole No 1 pre- and primary school on Rue Josaphat for the rest of the week to try to diffuse the situation that has followed a suspicion of sexual abuse.
Last Thursday, a mother discovered blood in her four-year-old daughter’s underwear after school. The school immediately contacted the police and sent the child to the hospital for an exam.
The news spread like wildfire through the school community, and about 200 parents protested outside the school on Monday. They were angry that they had had no communication from the school on the situation and that the authorities had not yet released any information.
Mayor Bernard Clerfayt (Défi) was on site to address the protestors. “We are all concerned about this,” he told them. “All medical services, the police and the school are mobilised. This case has been handed over to judicial authorities, and we are now waiting for information from them. We live in a democratic state; that’s how it works.”
In the meantime, the girl was questioned by personnel specialised in working with children. Both the talks and the physical examination determined that there was no abuse but that the child was bleeding due to an infection. This information was released on Tuesday, but there was a feeling of disbelief among the parents, who were convinced that an infection would not cause the girl to bleed in this way.
Protestors were back on Tuesday, with some of the school’s windows being smashed, and the crowd chanting “école de pédophiles!”. Police dispersed the crowd with tear gas. Later Clerfayt announced that the school will be closed until next Monday.
Why the parents continue to believe that the girl was sexually abused has been questioned by school staff and other residents of the community. According to social psychologist Frank Van Overwalle, speaking to Bruzz, it’s a matter of distrust in the justice system but also of how information is passed on.
“When a message is relayed, there is always the danger that it comes out the other end in a totally new light,” he said. This phenomenon is amplified by social media. “As the message continues to be passed on, it becomes more and more altered until it is totally misunderstood.” And then, he said, “the whole body is mobilised to get you out of the danger zone”.
Van Overwalle also noted that once you’ve decided to distrust something, no amount of proof is going to change your mind. He used climate change as an example, pointing out that scientists have been ringing the alarm for decades. “Even in my own faculty there was a discussion about whether climate change was dangerous or not. If your own colleagues are telling you that the situation is extraordinarily urgent, why do we keep questioning it?”
Photo: The relatively peaecful protest on Monday got out of control on Tuesday, leading the mayor to close the school