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Grief wracks parents after Brazilian axe attack kills 4 kids

Mourners at the cemetery barely spoke with the press as they grieved. All of Brazil was struggling for answers in the face of violence against the most innocent

Relatives of one of the victims of an attack perpetrated by a man that burst into the Good Shepherd Center private preschool attend the funeral at the Sao Jose Cemetery, city of Blumenau, Santa Catarina State, in southern Brazil, on April 6, 2023
Relatives of one of the victims attend the funeral at the Sao Jose Cemetery, city of Blumenau, Santa Catarina State, in southern Brazil, on April 6, 2023.ANDERSON COELHO (AFP)

They sent their seven-year-old to day care Wednesday and plunged into the deepest nightmare of any parent’s life.

A man with a hatchet jumped over a wall and burst into the Cantinho do Bom Pastor children’s center in southern Brazil, killing Larissa Maia Toldo and three other children. On Thursday, Larissa’s parents held hands over her white-draped coffin, decorated with a few bouquets. She was one of the four victims being buried Thursday.

Relatives remembered the small joys of their children’s lives. Five-year-old Bernardo Cunha Machado loved pets and his family brought his beloved toy turtle to his burial. He was talkative and had many little friends, relatives remembered. Bernardo Pabst da Cunha, 5, loved Spiderman. His father came to his funeral wearing a t-shirt emblazed with the superhero.

Parents and other mourners at the São José cemetery barely spoke with the press as they grieved. All of Brazil was struggling for answers in the face of violence against the most innocent.

All four of the victims had been only children, Mayor Mário Hildebrandt told reporters.

On Thursday, mourners had to either drive or climb up a steep ladder to the burial site in a private room of the cemetery. A middle-aged woman cried as a casket went by in a black van.

“My nephew! My nephew! My nephew!” she cried.

Dozens of mourners gathered at the day care center in the area of German-descended families, to pray, lay flowers for the victims and to weep.

“I will never forget this father in tears screaming, ‘Wake up, Bernardo, it is time to go to school!” said Rose Silva, a day care staffer at the funeral. “Why did he do that to children who were just playing at school?”

The assailant, who got inside by jumping over a wall, turned himself in at a police station, officials said. He did not appear to have any connection with the center, which offers nursery services, preschool education and after-school activities. Police said the 25-year-old man from neighboring Parana state will be charged with murder and attempted murder. Police believe the attack was unrelated to any other crimes.

Carlos Kroetz and other parents collected backpacks left at the center during the mayhem.

“My daughter thinks a thief came in and ran away without harming anyone,” Kroetz told The Associated Press while holding his 6-year-old’s Minnie Mouse bag. “She knew kids who died. We still have to figure out a way to tell her. For now, she is afraid of going to the bathroom by herself, because she thinks the thief will be there.”

At least four other children were wounded in the attack, the second at a school in Brazil in the past week. Last week, a student in Sao Paulo fatally stabbed a teacher and wounded several others. School attacks have happened in the country with greater frequency in recent years and authorities have struggled to marshal responses to a problem no one seems to understand.

From 2000 to 2022, there were 16 attacks or violent episodes in schools in Brazil, according to a report from researchers led by Daniel Cara, an education professor at the University of Sao Paulo.

Blumenau’s mayor said on Thursday that the municipality will install 125 security cameras in all schools and daycare centers. Education Minister Camilo Santana announced the creation of a group to address school violence, and Justice Minister Flávio Dino said he was directing 150 million reais ($30 million) to shore up school safety. He said that money will pay for both heightened policing and an expansion of a Brasilia-based team for the monitoring of deep-web communities, places on the internet where hate speech and violence can be glorified.

“There are no words to console the families. Anyone who has lost a relative knows that there are no words,” a teary-eyed President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said Wednesday at the start of a ministerial meeting. In 2019, a bacterial infection claimed the life of Lula’s grandson, who was 7.

Often, the killers are young people who engage in misogynistic or racist speech, employ neo-Nazi and fascist symbols and enter online communities where violence is lauded, Cara told The Associated Press.

The attack took place on the center’s playground, according to the local affiliate of television network Globo. NSC, the affiliate, showed a photo of the suspect with a closely shaved head.

Troubled young people often seek shelter in online communities, said Cleo Garcia, a member of the GEPEM research group investigating bullying and violence in schools.

“In the United States, this is already considered an epidemic and we hope it doesn’t reach that point here,” Garcia said.

Simone Aparecida Camargo, a teacher at the day-care center attacked Wednesday, told the AP that she was skeptical of any push by authorities to boost the number and frequency of patrols around schools.

“How long can we have police near schools? A week? They need to look deeper,” she said.

Camargo locked dozens of children in a bathroom to protect them after she heard a colleague screaming about a man who had broken into the day-care center.

“We didn’t think there was a massacre happening out there,” said Camargo, who has worked at the day-care center for five years. “We see this abroad and never thought it could happen here.”

April sees the anniversaries of the 1999 Columbine school shooting in the U.S. and a shooting in a school in Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan area in 2011, events that are glorified in many violence-prone communities, Cara said.

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