Monday, July 16, 2007
Gangsterism In School
For months, school officials have been denying that student violence had become a problem, with some saying that it was just the usual school fights and a few cases of truancy. But these same officials are now having a hard time saying the same thing, following a series of assaults involving students in various schools in the last several weeks. Some say what has been happening can no longer be explained as ''indiscipline'' or ''juvenile delinquency'' or even ''bullying''. Rather, they say, the more appropriate term is ''gangsterism''. After all, argues retired primary school official Ravinder Singh, ''These boys are not doing things individually at the spur of the moment. They are doing things in groups. They organize and plan''. In mid-May, for example, police in Butterworth in mainland Penang state arrested 14 teenage schoolboys who had apparently assaulted four of their schoolmates. According to the police, the suspects believed the victims had ''ratted'' on them to a teacher for leaving school earlier than usual. For this, they rained punches on their victims and hit them with sticks. One of the victims ended up with a head injury and had to be admitted to hospital while the others sustained minor injuries. In another recent incident, this time in Ipoh city, north of Kuala Lumpur, 16 schoolboys allegedly beat a 17-year-old student unconscious after accusing him of stealing 100 ringgit (about $26) from the class fund. The boy's father said his son, Mohammad Razin, ''still has bruises all over and the doctor says there might be internal bleeding''. Razin, a high achiever, has said that his schoolmates assaulted him for four hours - and even after he passed out - to make him confess to stealing from the class fund, which he kept. In another incident, a 14-year-old schoolboy was also found unconscious in Alor Setar, the capital of northern Kedah state, following an apparent assault by schoolmates. Authorities have detained seven teenagers in connection with the incident. ''The problem started 15 years ago at least,'' Ravinder, now a consumer rights activist, says of the violence in schools. ''But at that time, there were not many incidents and they were not as serious as now.'' Ravinder claims school heads, district education officers and probably even those in the state education department knew what was going on, but failed to give correct feedback to those at the top.''They didn't want to show they had problems in the schools,'' he says. Officials in fact are still saying that 0.8 percent of students have disciplinary problems, although the government has been alarmed enough to direct an independent study on ''gangsterism'' to be carried out. Says Ravinder: ''The figures they are getting are not accurate and very much played down. Those cases that don't reach the police or the press are swept under the carpet.'' This is because, he says, schools fear adverse publicity will tarnish their image. Ravinder insists though that the problem is quite widespread and affecting many schools in major towns. He also says it began growing after teachers were barred from using the cane and were instead expected to counsel problem pupils in school or send them to the principal. But social worker Catherine Selvam says sterner modes of disciplinary action merely tackle the symptoms and not the root cause of the problem. She says what should be addressed is the ''automatic promotion'' in schools that she says is to blame for what is happening. Under the system, pupils advance to a higher grade annually regardless of their performance in a particular year. According to Selvam, those who are weak academically usually become frustrated when they find it more and more difficult to cope as they go up to the higher grades. ''They are automatically promoted every year and they cannot cope,'' says Selvam, a former schoolteacher who now provides remedial education to disadvantaged children. ''Deep down, their self-esteem and self-worth falls instead of building up and they think very poorly of themselves.'' She adds that these pupils eventually get lost in their schoolwork, especially when they reach their teenage years. They then feel they are not respected by their schoolmates and their teachers, who have to cope with large classes of students of mixed ability. ''Because these children have so little self-worth, they feel that the only way to be recognized and to have a sense of belonging is by belonging to a gang or group that they feel is 'powerful','' says Selvam. ''Like anybody else, these children also want to prove that they are good at something.'' Peer pressure also comes into play, points out Selvam. ''They feel that if they are called to belong to a group or gang, they will get the recognition they don't find anywhere else.'' More disturbing are the indications that it does not take much for violence to flare. Says one teacher: ''They fight about minor things - maybe there is shoving or staring.'' In May, for instance, an apparent showdown between two teenage pupils outside their classroom led to a bloody battle involving some 40 of their schoolmates in Sungai Petani in Kedah state. The boys used bricks, bottles, screwdrivers, sticks and even chairs from the faculty room to fight each other on school premises, which happened to be barely 500 meters from a police station. The scuffle, which led to three pupils sustaining injuries to their heads and bodies, ended only when police rushed in and detained 30 of the students. Sixteen of the boys were later held for questioning.