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Incidences of sexual violence in schools increased 26 percent last year, the Ministry of Education's Psychological Counseling Service (Shefi) said yesterday.

Annual incidents of abuse, meanwhile, soared from 186 seven years ago to 404 last year. Shefi's department for combating child abuse is handling 24 percent more cases.

Shefi head Shosh Zimerman said sexual abuse among youths "is much more prevalent than people think, because society is not aware of what exactly constitutes sexual abuse. Comments on body parts or showing off pornographic pictures are often seen as normal adolescent behavior."

The law and the Education Ministry require the school staff to report every incident of sexual abuse to the welfare authorities, police and ministry inspectors.

Shefi is frequently called on to find educational and therapeutic ways to help the assault victim, other pupils, parents and even the perpetrator himself. Among other things, the counselors handle small children's aberrant sexual behavior, sexual harassment and serious crimes like rape and sodomy.

Out of 602 cases SHEFI handled last year, 166 involved children who were sexually abused by adults (compared to 127 in 2006), 404 involved students abused by other students (compared to 26), 321 were "general" complaints and six were cases of adults abused by minors.

Sixty-five percent of the incidents occurred in elementary schools, and 12 percent (about 70) in kindergartens.

The lowest number of incidents was reported in high schools.

Greater clarity

"Aberrant sexual behavior in kindergarten suggests the need for counseling and therapy," says Zimerman. "On the other hand, in junior high and high school there is more clarity regarding sexual harassment or abuse."

She says more incidents are being reported in part due to "increased teacher awareness about the situation and work with students to enable them to detect sexual abuse and encourage them to complain."

The figures show that more boys than girls were sexually abused by fellow students (343 compared to 287) and that the overwhelming majority of attackers are boys (482 compared to 46). Most assaults took place in schools or kindergartens.

A large percentage - 26 percent - of adults molesting children occur inside the family.

The victims in about half of these cases - usually girls - are in elementary school.