School’s Out, But Violence Is In
Schools in Serbia & Montenegro saw an alarming escalation of brutality this year, and experts say that something needs to be done. by Davor Konjikusic 27 June 2005
BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro | It started when a group of students at Belgrade’s Sveti Sava High School beat a fellow classmate to death.
Nikola Kovacevic was only 16 years old when he died on 17 March after being assaulted by his schoolmates.
Then, at a scheduled “hour of love and tolerance” held to commemorate Kovacevic a few days later, violence erupted again. A juvenile identified only as N.B. – juvenile victims are often identified by initials only to protect their identities – was seriously injured after some classmates stabbed him and stole his mobile telephone during the memorial.
Within weeks, the local media was reporting that another group of juveniles had thrown a child off of Belgrade’s Branko Bridge after school and that two other youths had thrown 17-year-old M.S. off a moving train in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica. During a school recess, a classmate threw a 14-year-old girl down a flight of stairs at her school.
Except for Kovacevic, none of this school year’s incidents resulted in death, but the Interior Ministry says violent crime among juveniles is increasing. And experts say that the relatively mild statistical increase is overshadowed by the nature of that crime: kid-on-kid violence is becoming increasingly brutal and deadly.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
No serious research has been undertaken in the area of juvenile crime and violence since 1995, according to psychologist Zarko Trebjesanin. And while the Interior Ministry will not turn over records for comparison, police records indicate that juveniles last year were charged with nearly 2,000 crimes. In 2004, the Regional Court in Belgrade handed down 1,264 disciplinary measures against juveniles.
The president of the Pedagogical Association of Serbia, Sonja Zarkovic, was among the first to react to the apparent escalation in juvenile violence, telling local media that the country’s institutions tend to react to violence among children and the young only during crisis situations. Timely prevention is lacking, she added.
Other experts hearken back to planned solutions that were never carried out – or have seen few results.
Education professionals have proposed ideas on several occasions for putting out the fires of juvenile violence. A Political and National Strategy for Mental Health Care – drafted by the Serbian Government Committee of Expert Mental Health Professionals in 2004 – was supposed to examine the problem and propose solutions. The Pedagogical Association of Serbia, working together with the Special Education Faculty in Belgrade, also proposed a one-year program aimed at providing theoretical knowledge about delinquent behavior and about programs of prevention that are successfully being implemented elsewhere. The program has been approved and is in progress, but experts say that measurable results have so far been thin on the ground.
More successful but still not without problems has been a school policing program, which was an offshoot of a highly touted community policing program rolled out in 2001. Belgrade’s chief of police, Milorad Simic, has said that the program – which began in 2002 – is already producing results, but a lack of consistent funding may doom the effort. Still, officials announced in the wake of the March and April violence that school policing would be expanded.
WHEN A CURFEW IS NOT A CURFEW
In the absence of much measurable action, however, educators and the public at large have sharply criticized Education Minister Slobodan Vuksanovic, who organized the “hour of love and tolerance” where the other student was stabbed. When it was announced, many observers complained that the idea was no solution and was instead designed only to promote the minister’s popularity.
In response to the criticism and to the additional spate of violence, Vuksanovic proposed limits on the hours that juveniles can spend on the street and curfews for those underage – although he has bristled at the ‘curfew’ label.
Under the current proposal, a juvenile found in a public place after midnight should be brought to a police station and their parents called in to come and pick up their child.
“This is not a curfew, but care and guardianship. Children are ensured the right of movement, but only with their mom or dad or [another relative]. This is how it’s done elsewhere, and no one calls it a curfew,” Vuksanovic told local media.
An assistant to the education minister, Dejana Milijic Subic, said that parents, teachers, and students will have an opportunity to voice their opinions about the new proposed law. If in public debate the citizens of Serbia support the idea, the Education Ministry says it will ask that the law be proposed in parliament. Until then, education minister told local media that he expects that his recommendation will be followed even without the law, although police technically have their hands tied until a law is passed.
One Sveti Sava High School student, Ivana, is already skeptical.
“Since I’m 17 years old, I will take it easy this year and will not go out, but next year, when I turn 18, I will be allowed to go out,” Ivana says. “It’s not possible to make such sudden breaks. We have our habits. I think that it’s not possible to force this upon our generation.”
POLICE, DRUGS, AND APATHY
In the meantime, a crisis headquarters has been established at the ministry, headed by Education Inspector Bora Mitrovic. The new center provides a place for police, school psychologists, and teachers to gather to discuss the issue.
Within the government and society as a whole, theories abound as to the root causes of violence in schools.
Announcing the expansion of the school policing program, Police Minister Dragan Jocic blamed parental negligence and the failure of schools to enforce disciplinary measures adequately. His proposed solution was to announce rigorous measures in the battle against narcotics and guns. “Police presence during peak hours will be pervasive: changes of shift, lunch hours, and end of school, with a view to monitoring schools as much as possible,” Jocic said.
The mayor of Belgrade, Nenad Bogdanovic, blamed the government for inaction on the matter, opining that the latest crimes represent “the last signal for the authorities to finally do something with respect to safety of children in schools.”
Psychologist Jelena Vlajkovic also warned against societal and governmental apathy, saying that without consistent attention to the issues facing schools, “the latest tragic events will eventually be forgotten until the next appeal by educational and other institutions.”