Violence against children is not an isolated occurrence, it is everywhere: in every country, community and social group. It may take different forms: physical, psychological, sexual abuse, exploitation, neglect or mistreatment, verbal violence, bullying, or cyber-bullying. Violence is a problem of public health, a violation of human rights with potentially devastating and costly consequences.
There is incontrovertible evidence of the harm of violence to the physical and mental health and development of children, to their ability to learn and build relationships with other people, and to grow up as fully-fledged adults and parents. School bullying and an unsafe school environment are among the reasons for early dropout, reduced school attendance, and deteriorating performance of pupils; they have significant social and economic implications. Moreover, we know that education is of key importance for the subsequent professional fulfilment of every individual and the prosperity of societies.
Although school violence has become a major challenge, it is not the education system per se that causes it. It merely reflects the prevailing social norms, making them visible to everyone. At the same time, the education system makes it possible to address school violence, but only in partnership among all stakeholders: the school, the children, the parents, the entire community.
The situation in Bulgaria
A study of the health and behaviour of school-age children conducted by the Institute for Population and Human Studies in cooperation with UNICEF has found that:
- Bulgarian schoolchildren are among the top ten, out of 43 countries surveyed, in terms of being affected by the problem of ‘school bullying’. The discomfort with and alienation from school, the low grades and bullying are driving factors for risky behaviour on the part of adolescents.
- Over one-third of all pupils share that they have become victims of violence or bullying, of physical and verbal aggression at school at least once during the past year.
Ministry of Education and Sciences stats:
- Over 8,000 cases of bullying and violence have been recorded in the schools during 2016 and 2017 combined;
- Of these, 4,500 were cases involving physical and verbal aggression at the schools, which makes, on average, 30 such incidents per day.
- In 2017, over 80% of all schools in Bulgaria have reported at least one incident of violence against a child.
Online bullying has increased significantly in recent years, while part of the cases of online bullying occur exactly between pupils at the same school.
- Online bullying constituted 38% of all cases of violence at school in 2016, which is a huge leap of 25% compared with 2010.
What is our solution?
To develop and implement in the next three years a comprehensive program for a secure school environment and prevention of bullying and violence jointly with the Ministry of Education and Science, and with the active participation of the schools, a program that would build upon the good practices and the existing experience in this country.
What is our approach?
An all-school response: experience and surveys show that programs for addressing bullying and violence achieve utmost effectiveness if everyone at the school, from the pupils, their parents and teachers, to the school management and the support staff, would make persistent efforts to create a secure school environment and prevent violence.
Active involvement of the schools where the program is to be implemented in practice—we believe that a genuine and sustainable systemic change should come from within, rather than from outside. While UNICEF will contribute know-how, experience and expertise, the schools will be required to apply and undergo a selection process in order to be included in the program. The program itself will be developed and implemented jointly with the Ministry of Education, in order to meet the actual needs and fit the context in the various settlements where it is to be piloted and implemented, as well as to ensure its sustainability and subsequent implementation all across the country.
Building upon the good practices and available experience in Bulgaria—in addition to the experience of other countries, we will also rely on practices that have been applied and/or exist already in Bulgarian schools. Our goal is to proceed from the existing experience in the further development of approaches and mechanisms that can easily be adapted and applied by all schools.
Pupils are equal participants in the change process as the phenomenon of school violence affects most directly the children themselves. Therefore they are best positioned to know what the problem is and what could be the potential solutions for it.
Involving the parents—it is of key importance for the parents to be partners in the school life of their child and the entire school community, and not only when problems arise and need to be solved. This helps create a culture of belonging and trust for all participants in the education process.
1. Analysis of the situation at every school included in the program and drafting of a plan for building a secure school environment:
- Examining the actual situation at every school at the beginning and end of the academic year;
- Presenting and discussing the results with pedagogical and support staff, the parents and the children;
- Based upon an analysis of the discussions, developing with the participation of all stakeholders of a plan for prevention of violence at school and building a secure environment.
The plan will include the following elements, which are to be adapted to the environment and specific needs of every school:
2. Raising awareness of the types of bullying and violence, the ways of reporting and responding:
- Development and dissemination of materials and tools, including interactive and online, containing information about violence and bullying, including where children, parents and teachers can get support, and how;
- Conducting activities to raise the awareness of, and sensitize the children, parents, school management, teachers and support staff with respect to their understanding of bullying and violence, their ability to recognize different forms of violence and the related risks and implications;
- Making children aware of their rights and the rights of others, of the ways to report and seek help whenever they are victims or witnesses of bullying and violence.
3. Raising the skills to prevent and respond to bullying and violence at school:
- Training homeroom teachers how to conduct class workshops and interactive teacher-parent conferences aimed at involving the parents in creating a secure school environment;
- Supporting school specialists in applying positive forms of classroom discipline and management, dealing with students with provocative behaviour and resolving conflict situations;
- Introducing activities for children within the framework of the school curriculum (e.g. during the class workshops) as well as extracurricular activities for bolstering their life and social skills: to understand and express their own emotions and those of others, to develop communication skills, to cultivate deconflicting attitudes;
- Development and use of effective approaches to addressing school bullying and violence, such as: a recovery period for fixing damage and relationships; mediation for resolving conflicts among pupils and between teachers and pupils, development of programs for school mentors, etc.
- Development and use of new forms of involving parents in school life, such as thematic studios for children’s development and upbringing; setting up parent-teacher clubs in different subjects related to the content and organization of school life; participation of the parents in open lessons as both co-organizers and guest speakers; inclusion of parents in the Steering Committee and Public Council of the school, etc.
4. Effective participation of children and young people in all activities aimed at preventing and responding to school bullying and violence:
- Consulting pupils about school policy and procedure and taking their opinions on board in order to improve and raise the efficiency of these tools. E.g. inclusion of pupils in the Steering Committees and Public Councils of the schools covered by the program.
- Expansion of the existing and development of new mechanisms for active involvement of children in addressing all matters that concern them, and ensuring that their voice and ideas about how to deal with bullying and violence are heard and taken on board. E.g. by polling pupils’ opinions and collecting suggestions during the class workshops, organizing surveys on significant issues, etc., and presenting the findings at the Students’ or Public Council meetings, or in another format that the school uses.
5. Ensuring steady support for the school and teachers:
- Recruitment and training of school mentors to support the process of introducing and implementing the program in the participating schools, and subsequently in all schools throughout the country.
- Adoption or updating of a code of ethics for all employees of the school, so that cases of violence are explicitly identified and reported with clear consequences and penalties for the perpetrators, conforming to the school policy and the child protection legislation;
- Defining clearer roles and responsibilities while identifying training and other needs of the teachers and steering committees which every school creates for the purpose of planning, tracing and coordination of the activities aimed at preventing and responding to bullying and violence;
- Expansion of the existing and development of new mechanisms and practices for exchange of experience among teachers and regular exchange of information between the pedagogical and non-pedagogical staff on matters related to school violence;
- Ensuring professional mentorship and supervision of school specialists with a view to strengthening their skills of explaining to themselves instances of provocative behaviour on the part of pupils, of preventing and responding to bullying and violence and for prevention of professional burnout.