BEHIND THE BULLYING: DEEPER ISSUES OF CONFLICT IN SERBIA
In January 2012, Serbia was galvanized by reports of a shocking bullying case that took place in the town of Pozarevac, in southern Serbia. A thirteen-year-old boy, a seventh grade student, raped his slightly mentally retarded schoolmate of the same age. The rape happened during the school break in the King Alexander I primary school. The story was spread by the raped boy’s best friend. The police gathered the evidence and presented it to the District Attorney’s Office.
Has anything happened to the rapist? Is he in trouble? He has not appeared at school ever since. His grandmother withdrew him from school during the disciplinary action that was brought against him.
What has happened to the victim? He still attends the same school trying to overcome the fear, shame, and humiliation on his own.
What does the law say? Children cannot be prosecuted until the age of fourteen. “The wrongdoers are treated through advisory activities, with the aim of enabling them to understand the seriousness of the offence, thus preventing them from repeating it. Schools cannot suspend a student or transfer him to another school without the permission of the child’s parents and the consent of the school supposed to accept him,” according to the head of the Social Welfare Center in Belgrade, Miroslav Stojimirovic.
This was not an isolated incident. Headlines about bullying and school violence appear with disturbing regularity in the newspapers.
Outside St. Sava primary school, also in Pozarevac, a group of underage boys beat up a fourteen-year-old boy, injuring him severely. The minors escaped, and the injured boy was transferred to hospital. The police are still investigating the case.
An eleven-year-old boy was beaten up by a group of children of the same age in Prokuplje, a town in the southern part of Serbia.
Three 14 -year -old girls beat up another girl in Kikinda, a town in the Vojvodina region.
An underage boy beat up a boy of the same age because of a necklace. Srecko Bogosavljevic, a 15- year- old boy, was beaten up with a baseball bat by his schoolmate N. R., a 14-year-old boy. He often feels dizzy, he still can not feel a few of his teeth, and the injury bleeds from time to time. The doctors estimate his injuries will leave serious consequences.
“I am terribly afraid …… Everybody is laughing at me for being too thin. My friends often tease me, beat me, they tie my hair to the desk legs. Once they tried to strangle me with a shoelace,” Jasna Zivkovic, a 10–year-old girl attending Bora Stankovic primary school in Belgrade, told “Press” magazine.
Aleksa Jankovic, 14 years old, committed suicide, nine months ago, to escape his bullying tormentors. This happened in the town of Nis, in southern Serbia. His teachers,
together with the headmaster of the school he attended, are still in their positions without any punishment. Silence reigns. The headmaster of the school does not answer the phone, nor does the head of the school board. The spokesperson for the Nis police department promised to answer questions, but to date, has not done so. The Ministry of Education did not want to answer questions because “the proceedings against the headmaster and the school itself are in procedure.”
What is behind such aggressive and tyrannical behavior of children? Do these headlines reflect a growing problem, or are they only sensational, designed to boost newspaper sales? Is violence at schools really increasing, or are people just talking about this issue more freely? Several teachers at my son’s school felt that the incidents reported in the press are just the tip of the iceberg.
The parent of my son’s schoolmate said, “My teachers used to rap me on the head. When I complained at home, my parents also beat me because I was not good. I am endlessly thankful to those teachers today.” Another cited the Serbian saying, “The stick came out of paradise” (equivalent to “Spare the rod, spoil the child”) and complained that if an adult were to hit a child nowadays, the child could report the adult to the police. In this view, such a role reversal could lead to the anarchy among minors.
Yet other parents and teachers I spoke with believe that children learn violence directly from the family and from society itself and that, given the history of conflict in the region, there is nothing unusual about it. Serbia is still a traditional and closed society. Violence has been the model of behavior for at least 20 years, beginning in 1991 with the conflicts that split up Yugoslavia and continuing to the present day. According to this theory, violent behavior has permeated Serbian society, from orthodox priests to politicians, from business associations to football fans. The young people who were brought up during these decades experienced great instability, high levels of criminality, and a degradation of social morality. The actions of certain political figures and the lionization of criminals in the media sent a message to young people that violence and aggression are worthwhile and that violence is a normal and acceptable way of solving conflicts, leading to success in society.
Violence in schools has existed since the early beginnings of the school system.
Despite what seems like an epidemic of school violence in Serbia, it has to be said that school violence is nothing new. Students used to come to school armed in France in the 16th and 17th centuries. Violence in schools was evident in America from colonial times to the present. A Google search quickly reveals that many countries in Western Europe are dealing with school violence. Studies of Western European school systems suggest that around 5% of students experience bullying at least once a week. Interestingly, there are three or four times more aggressors among boys than among girls.
Fortunately, nations that experienced this problem in the extreme woke up and started searching for solutions. Beginning in the 1970s, social scientists began quantifying, describing and analyzing youth violence in the Nordic countries, the US, Australia, Japan and Israel. Beginning in 2003, surveys were also carried out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, including one by “Save the Children”. The results were disheartening, documenting high levels of violence with no adequate system to respond.
As a result, seven years ago, in 2005, an ambitious project called “School without Violence” was started in Serbia, aimed at ensuring safe and stimulating surroundings for children. Thanks to funding and cooperation from UNICEF and a number of government and scientific institutions, by mid-2009, 165 Serbian schools had joined the program.
These schools have a lot of work to do. According to the UNICEF's research for the “School without Violence” program, 40% of surveyed children reported being mistreated by one peer; 46% of the children were mistreated by two to three peers; and 14% of the children were mistreated by more than three peers.
These are shocking numbers when one considers the impact of schooling on an individual's life. School is a public institution charged with supervising the development and well-being of students from the ages of 7 to 18. For many of them, however, their memories of school will be connected to bullying, ridicule, and torment, rather than to learning, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. Some will remember how they suffered beating, isolation, fear, and humiliation, rather than healthy relationships and social connections.
The “School without Violence” program includes training for teachers in conflict resolution, mediation, and related topics that help them to create guidelines for solving problems constructively. However, one of the program’s main innovations is its inclusion of students in the conflict resolution process through the creation of “peer teams”. These teams are composed of students who have high social skills. Among the criteria listed in the program’s literature, students selected for the team should:
• enjoy cooperating with others to solve problems
• be communicative and friendly
• tend to find solutions which are acceptable by all
• not belong to „enemy camps“
• not be violent, but still be able to protect their convictions and values and thus to find the way to fight for the things important for them
• exhibit patience and tolerance
• enjoy the confidence of the other students
The activities of the “peer teams”, as set forth in the “School without Violence” literature, are: attending workshops, acquiring knowledge and skills which enable them to organize school activities that promote the values of the society, namely cooperation and mutual support. The members of a “peer team” promote actions which foster cooperation, mutual support and assistance, healthy life-styles, and quality leisure activities.
As wonderful as all this sounds on paper, and as engaged as the students may be, there is still the issue of government oversight of the school system. In Serbia, schools are ultimately controlled by the political party in power, which appoints the higher level administrators as well as the headmasters of individual schools. While school boards are made up of a certain number of teachers, parents, and the representatives of the local community, it is the mayor of each municipality who appoints the board, and again, s/he is likely to be a member of the ruling party. This situation is best illustrated by the fact that after each parliamentary election, as a rule, the headmasters of the primary and secondary schools are replaced. The regime exerts control over schools, not taking into account the competence of the headmasters in terms of their teaching, organizational, problem-solving and leadership skills. In practical terms, this means that a wonderful headmaster may find himself out of a job, while an individual with no connection to the community takes over his position. In addition, the uncertainty about a school's leadership leads to lower levels of commitment, continuity, and cohesiveness among the staff, qualities that are essential for creating a stable, safe, well-organized learning environment.
I talked to a Serbian primary school teacher about violence in schools. In her opinion there are a number of inter-related factors that contribute to the climate in the classroom: the relationship among the teacher and the students; the school rules and parental involvement – both influenced by the headmaster; the expectations and grading of the students; and, of course, the attitude of the individual teacher. She went on to say that teachers play a key role in preventing the kinds of conflicts that lead to peer violence. The way a teacher manages the class, not just in terms of instruction, but also in the way s/he praises or criticizes, responds to outbursts, and promotes respect in the classroom, can create cohesion or divisiveness among the students. She also thinks that in schools where positive relationships among children and parents, parents and staff, students and teachers, are nourished, and the children have a sense of loyalty to their school, the level of violence is minimal.
Society as a whole must do a better job of supporting the all-important work that occurs in schools. A school where violence is rampant cannot be effective. Teachers and students require support and training on how to deal with bullying, both physical and psychological, and other potentially dangerous and violent situations. There must be firm school policy against violence in schools. The teachers themselves must be aware of the dangers of violent behavior and they have to treat this problem seriously. The School without Violence program is a good start, but funding for it must continue, or the progress made so far will fade away.
In the end, there are no good or bad children; however, there are good and bad parents, good and bad teachers; and good and bad administrators. There is the authority of knowledge, respect, love, trust and creativity. If we manage to bring back these values to our homes and schools, the violence will disappear. I am happy about the fact that children and youth (in Serbia) themselves realize the seriousness and danger of peer violence and are being empowered to fight against it by learning powerful new conflict resolution skills and mediation tools. This gives me hope for a better Serbia, a Serbia without peer violence.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.