Preventing Violence in Schools through Student Councils
"Violence is not a solution for anything", says Burbuqe Mikulovci, a student at the secondary school Frank Bardhi in Mitrovice/Mitrovica. She is a volunteer of the Student Council and she distributes leaflets on prevention of violence and bullying in her school.
Frank Bardhi is the biggest secondary school in the area which accommodates around 2000 children. The school is overcrowded and the infrastructure is poor. There is a lot of young energy in the school yard, but unfortunately not so many opportunities to channel that energy towards anything creative, sports or leisure activities.
"This is one of few school-based initiatives that we have. We organise debates and I’m very happy to participate in all debates organised by our Student Council. Violence is one of the topics that interests me most", says Burbuqe.
Violence in schools is becoming a recognized issue in Kosovo. Since UNICEF published a report on children’s perceptions on violence in schools back in 2006, the public is becoming increasingly worried about the issue. Media are reporting more and more cases of violence against children or bullying in and around schools, and police records show a doubled number of children who have been in contact with the police in a period of one year.
On the 2nd of September, the Student Council of Mitrovice/Mitrovica organised a debate at the Municipal level to discuss the prevalence of violence in their schools and come up with recommendations for next steps. Around 50 representatives from five schools were present at the meeting, and the Municipality offered its Assembly premises for this purpose. Other relevant participants were present including the Chief of Executive, a representative of the Municipal Education Department, the Human Rights Officer, representatives of Parent Teacher Associations and members of local NGOs.
One of the participants, Shqipe from the Medical school said: "Children cannot talk to anyone, sometimes they cannot talk to their parents and they need to talk to someone when they have problems. There should be psychologists or trained teachers children can talk to. Sometimes children simply don’t know how to exhaust their energy and they start bullying each other."
Sheribane from the Parent Teacher Association said that "there is less physical violence, but there are a lot of insults in the classroom and this represents a verbal and emotional violence. Very often parents do not talk to their children and they think that the education of children is only the responsibility of the school. The school on the other hand doesn’t involve parents either, and school management is not properly trained. We are facing tremendous changes in a society which is in transition and no positive changes will be made unless every individual contributes to those positive changes."
It was not a common practice in the previous system in Kosovo for school children to organise themselves and raise issues that concern them. Sometimes if they did so, they could even get punished. Therefore it is difficult for adults who grew up in the previous system to understand that creating opportunities for children to express themselves is not an act of good will but a responsibility. "We often misinterpret democracy:, says Sadete, a Civic Education teacher. "All of us – adults and children alike – need to understand that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand".
The available data about young people in Kosovo is suggesting that their ability to have an impact on the decision-making of institutions related to their lives is very low. This is happening mainly for two reasons, the institutions do not feel obliged to respect the right of young people to participate, and the young people themselves do not consider their participation to be a civic responsibility. This situation, coupled with lack of available services and information sources for youth, is making them more of a liability for the society rather then an asset for development.
While every forth Kosovan is a young person aged 15-24 years, 49.5 percent of them are unemployed, only 74 percent are enrolled in secondary education and 17 percent in tertiary education. Only 4.1 percent of youth have stated that they have been part of any youth initiative.
The UNICEF Representative in Kosovo, Robert Fuderich, says: "Throughout our work in the past we have found that involving youth is a win-win situation. When youth are significantly involved in the process, not only are they given meaningful roles and a chance to contribute in their communities, but organizations, and government agencies are finding that young people offer fresh ideas and energy to any decision-making process."
Thanks to UNICEF’s support, young people in Kosovo were able to establish Student Councils in 100 upper secondary schools for children from 15 to 18 years of age. The Student Councils are functioning in 30 Municipalities. The aim of the Councils is to enable conditions for young people to actively participate and raise their voices in front of education and other authorities but also to meaningfully participate in designing and implementing youth activities at the municipal and central level.
The three young activists Dren, Genta and Fjolla are running the debate in Mitrovice/Mitrovica Municipality with full confidence and they believe that change is possible by facilitating dialogue and involving everyone in that dialogue.
Mitrovice/Mitrovica is a multiethnic municipality but any sort of contact between the Kosovo Albanian and Kosovo Serb communities is very rear to notice. Asked why there are no Kosovo Serb peers in the debate, Fjolla says: "Yes, we meet with our Kosovo Serb peers from the other side of the Ibar river when the meetings are facilitated by some NGO, we have joint activities but the activists are not in town today". Fjolla is positive that they will be able to organise joint student debates on violence in schools with Kosovo Serb peers very soon.
Student Councils are breaking the silence on violence in schools in Kosovo, if they are given the opportunity there is no doubt that their power can be strong enough to expand the discussion beyond school level and create space for tolerant inter-ethnic dialogue between the two divided communities in Kosovo.