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School Bullying, a Reflection of Society in Latin America

Credit: Pipe/CC BY 2.0

SANTIAGO, Aug 17 2012 (IPS) - Because “schools reflect what is going on in society,” an analysis of what is behind the high rates of bullying in Latin America is urgently needed, says Marcela Román, an expert on education in the region.

The Chilean anthropologist told IPS that “we should also question ourselves and study why the system, our educational policies, are generating and tolerating these levels of mistreatment in schools” in the region, where more than half of all students suffer some kind of bullying.

Some of the most common forms of bullying in schools are insults, name-calling, physical aggression, threats, theft or destruction of a student’s possessions, rumours, exclusion and social isolation. But cyberbullying is also becoming more and more common.

Román, with the Centre for Education Research and Development at Chile’s Alberto Hurtado University, said bullying had become a serious problem throughout Latin America that must be urgently tackled in order to achieve quality education.

The 2011 study “Latin America: School Bullying and Academic Achievement” by Román and her colleague Javier Murillo found that 51 percent of sixth grade students in the region, who are generally 11 and 12 years old, had been insulted, threatened, hit or robbed by classmates.

Román said bullying was a cross-cutting phenomenon that affected children from all socioeconomic levels and in all kinds of schools, as reflected by her study, which was published by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

“The form and prevalence can vary,” she said. But she added that one constant is that bullying is less frequent in rural areas, “which means we have to analyse what aspects of urban society” lend themselves to this phenomenon.

Román said that one central characteristic is that educational systems have started to become more and more competitive, more success- or achievement-oriented, thus openly or implicitly fuelling competition among students, which led as a result to “less tolerance and respect and appreciation of ‘the other’, which facilitates the emergence of more violent interactions.”

The study found that the most common form of bullying was theft (reported by 39.4 percent of the respondents), followed by verbal bullying (26.6 percent) and physical violence (16.5 percent).

But the phenomenon varies widely from country to country. The highest proportion of children who said they had been insulted or threatened was in Argentina (37.1 percent), followed by Peru (34.4 percent), Costa Rica (33.2 percent) and Uruguay (31 percent).

Argentina also headed the region in terms of physical bullying reported by the children surveyed, with 23.5 percent, followed by Ecuador (21.9 percent), the Dominican Republic (21.8 percent), Costa Rica (21.2 percent) and Nicaragua (21.2 percent).

Cuba had the lowest proportion of students who reported being struck recently: just 4.4 percent of respondents in that country.

“In general, in all of the countries except Cuba, half of the children admitted to having been a victim of bullying – a proportion that goes up when you ask if they have witnessed bullying. The interpretation, from an anthropological or psychological approach, is that it is always easier to see what is happening to others than to admit that you yourself have been a victim as well,” Román said.

The case of Chile helps ground the data from the regional study in concrete realities and with respect to the policies that some countries have begun to adopt to combat bullying.

The National Survey on Coexistence in Schools 2011, whose results were reported by the Education Ministry on Jul. 30, found that 10 percent of students in the 8th grade (ages 13 or 14) said they had been victims of bullying. And 25 percent of the victims said they suffered the problem on a daily basis.

Bullying is all too familiar to Magdalena Velázquez, whose seven-year-old daughter Antonia was repeatedly bullied in one school, and continued to be targeted when her desperate mother put her in a different school.

“Antonia would come home with bruises on her arms,” Velázquez told IPS. “Her classmates (other girls) would charge her money or candy to include her in their games, and once they even dragged her across the floor. A group of three girls also grabbed her once, while one of them punched her in the stomach.”

But she said the worst thing was the response from the school authorities when she sought support. “I was shocked when many of them accused my daughter of failing to ‘integrate’ and of bringing money to school. They blamed her for the bullying she was the target of,” she said.

Sociologist Carolina Bascuñán told IPS that one aspect that tends to be forgotten is that bullying not only affects the way students get along, but also has an impact on the quality of education.

Alan Wilkins, regional secretary at Chile’s Education Ministry, told IPS that the government was seeking to combat bullying, which he said affected 20,000 students, by implementing a National Policy of Coexistence at School, “which establishes the foundations for bringing about a new understanding of what it means for students to get along.”

He said another strategy that was being implemented was the Safe School Plan, aimed at strengthening prevention and protective measures in schools against all risks, including bullying, sexual abuse or alcohol or drug use.

But Bascuñán, who has a master’s degree in the needs and rights of children and adolescents, said the public policies were falling short, because they were more focused on damage control than on prevention.

One example, she said, was the Law on School Violence, in effect since 2011, which she said basically focused on punishment for offenders.

But when it comes to bullying “you not only have to work with the children, but with the entire educational community and the family, because it is the entire system that excuses and encourages the violence, and that must be in charge of preventing and eradicating it,” she said.

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