From Mean Girls to American Graffiti, popular culture abounds with films that show you how to survive in the blackboard jungle. But how do you stay safe in Bulgarian schools?
For the first time, research by the Open Society Institute, or OSI – a liberal think tank, and Sofia Municipality reveals what life is really like for school pupils. The responses by 3,033 children from 128 schools paint a disturbing picture.
When answering the question about whether their safety was at risk in school, 17 percent in the 8th-12th grades and 27 percent in the 5th–7th grades said yes. "Bulgarian schools are more dangerous than those in other EU member states. They are, however, relatively safe – the second safest place after their homes – compared to the places where young people actually gather and spend their free time," said Boyan Zahariev, Programme Director of Governance and Public Policies Programme with the Open Society Institute. All of the students feel more at risk at football matches and in clubs and pubs.
The issues are different for the younger and older age groups. Children in the 5th–7th grade suggest that the problems in schools are due to the lack of discipline (60 percent), aggression and violence in school (58 percent), and students who think anything goes (53 percent). Teenagers in the 8th-12th grades blame their peers who think they can behave as they like (49 percent), lack of discipline (47 percent) and, notably, teachers' inability to deal with the situation (40 percent).
The greatest risk of violence occurs during late teens. "The evidence suggests it particularly affects children between the ages of 16 and 18, and the danger reaches its peak in 9th grade," said Zahariev. "That's when childish misdemeanours like annoying your classmates, fighting and skipping school decline, but also marks the appearance of antisocial behaviour typical of grown–ups – like driving without a license."
Violence in school takes many forms. Over 38 percent of the pupils in the 8th-12th grade have had things stolen, 33 percent have been threatened, and drugs have been offered to 33 percent. One in four pupils has been bullied and one in five beaten up.
In the street, the risk to pupils' safety fits the general European trend, with violence more widely spread in poorer neighbourhoods than in wealthy areas. Pupils in the Iztok neighbourhood feel safest, while those in Krasna Polyana feel least secure. In downtown Sofia, 12 percent of the pupils feel very insecure, while only 15 percent feel somewhat insecure. Every fourth child in the neighbourhoods of Lyulin and Nadezhda feels very insecure, and 14 percent of them feel somewhat insecure.
There is regional disparity in factors that worry pupils as well. In the neighbourhoods of Slatina, Izgrev and Sredets there are stray dogs, while in Lyulin and Mladost the main issue is carrying weapons.
The study focussed on Sofia. But in the rest of Bulgaria, the situation is no better. Zahariev said: "According to data provided by the Mediana agency in 2006, 33 percent of children between the ages of 15 and 18 smoke. Our research showed that 28 percent of the pupils in the 8th-12th grade smoke regularly, while 59 percent have lit a cigarette. Some of the basic conclusions by Mediana are the same as ours, especially with respect to the inability of teachers to impose discipline at school."
Recent events have turned dull statistics into a reality that makes the blood run cold. In 2004, two girls from Plovdiv strangled a classmate, while a pupil from Pernik stabbed one of his peers and cut him into pieces. In 2007, a boy died after a fight in a playground in Razgrad. You will regularly see headlines like "Ninth-Grade Girl Runs Into Class and Kicks 11-Year-Old," "Fighting Erupts Between Teacher and Students," "Teacher Viciously Mocked," and "Teacher Beats Up Kids." You can find videos of girls fighting, and of fights between teachers and pupils on amateur video exchange websites.
"The research shows that there are frequent incidents of bullying at school," said Zahariev. "Non-physical forms of bullying are widespread across Europe, including in Bulgarian schools. This type of bullying cannot be monitored with surveillance video cameras, and even teachers with years of experience may fail to detect it. Uncontrolled psychological bullying may escalate into harsh physical violence on the part of the perpetrator or the victim, or may be directed towards third parties.
"It can look like the violence has come as a bolt from the blue. But violence is actually the result of general insecurity, bullying, and uncontrolled behaviour and social differences at school," commented Zahariev. "Our data suggest that we will continue to see such extreme behaviour."
How does violence in Bulgarian schools fit the general EU trend? "In many member states," Zahariev said, "violence among kids is rising steadily. In 2001, a study of 11 to 15 years olds in the Czech Republic showed that about 40 percent of them have been bullied. In Sofia, 25 percent of the students said they had been bullied. But for the data about bullying to be meaningful, we need take into account both physical violence and psychological bullying. Our research has not compiled data on social bullying, which relates to class or status, since the concept itself is new to Bulgaria."
Should we be worried? "This is no reason to take a relaxed attitude. Every violent incident must worry us. Bullying in Bulgarian schools has been ignored for too long. In the 1990s, kids' violence and bullying at school were not seen as a problem. The earliest research on the subject dates from the end of the 1990s."
According to the study, 30 percent of the pupils interviewed intend to pursue their higher education abroad. Is this linked to violence in school? Zahariev said: "I think that we should seek the explanation in Bulgaria's socio-economic situation, and especially in the perception of young people that no rules apply even after graduation. But our research cannot prove that hypothesis."