School Safety in Georgia
School safety is becoming a more and more serious issue of concern because of the rising cases of bullying in schools. The findings collected from the surveys during the last decade show that bullying is one of the most serious problems for school children.
According to a 2008 survey conducted by UNICEF in Georgia, 77.5% of children feel safe at school. But there is still a serious concern about the other 22.5% of school children’s safety. Moreover, research shows that most of the children feel safe at school than in the family. School violence and bullying is problematic not only in Georgian schools but also in many countries of the world. Generally, school safety and children’s rights protection is a priority for many countries including Georgia, as overcoming violence and bullying is a challenge for many countries around the world.
You can find an interview below with Sophia Gorgodze, IREX Professional Development Expert for Training Educators for Excellence Project, Ms. Gorgodze is also one of the authors of the “Safe School Alternative Policy” developed a couple of years ago:
How do you evaluate school safety in Georgia? What is the main challenge in this regard?
School safety can be viewed from several different angles, but when discussing the Georgian case, I would focus on the following: safety risks for the health of the children and the school community caused by poor hygiene and sanitary conditions, physical safety endangered by physical violence/bullying; and psychological safety, often put at risk, because of psychological bullying.
Even though some schools have been renovated and built, poor hygiene and sanitary conditions still present a risk for the health of the school community in the regions and small villages with old school buildings. Such conditions are primarily caused by the lack of proper running water and sewerage systems in these schools.
When talking about physical safety in schools, we always think of violence and bullying among the children and violence on the part of teachers/administrators. The current law on education bans any type of physical and verbal abuse of children. Moreover, most schools have safety officers that also check on the enforcement of the law. Anecdotal evidence suggests that while cases of physical and verbal abuse on the part of adults is minimized, it is still a problem. Teachers who have been part of the old system, sometimes complain how they “cannot even touch or yell at the kids” because of the new regulations. In some regions, particularly in the regions populated by ethnic minorities, even parents expect teachers to punish their children; This evidence is in line with the research on child violence conducted by UNICEF in 2013, which found that using violence on children is viewed as a disciplinary measure and accepted by 45% of the respondents. On the other hand, the same research found that acts of violence are least frequent in schools when compared to cases in the family and the street.
The extent of violence in schools was evaluated approximately ten years ago through a national research on school violence. This was also conducted by UNICEF and the results showed that 47 percent of children reported both physical and psychological violence primarily from peers, but also from adults. Unfortunately, there is no recent research that describes the situation in schools right now. Following the introduction of the safety officers in schools in 2010, it is interesting to see what is the actual effect of this policy on school safety.
Generally, it is the physical violence that gets some attention in Georgian schools, while psychological and emotional violence is rarely discussed. The law of Georgia on general education makes no reference to psychological or emotional violence either. This is problematic, because psychological violence/bullying is widespread as it is tolerated more easily compared to physical violence. Psychological violence/bullying can involve repeated humiliation of a child with poor social status or academic performance, name calling, ignoring the child, threatening (threatening with bad grades in case of a teacher), inappropriately referring to kids’ family members, spreading rumors, etc.
Some schools do not realize how harmful this can be to the child’s development and others simply do not possess the knowledge or the resources to address the problem.
What is the role of school administration, the teachers and the parents in order to ensure school safety?
The school administration needs to evaluate school safety in different areas and earmark some funds in the budget for insuring a safe and nurturing environment. Teachers have a great role in modeling the proper, unthreatening and positive behavior themselves; they have a significant role in identifying bullying situations among children as well. The problem however, is that teachers are not equipped with proper skills to prevent or resolve such cases. They can only guide themselves with intuition on what they can do.
The role of the parents and the family is immeasurable in preventing bullying and violence among kids. If parents talk to their children, restrict the exposure to violent media, identify risky behaviors, and take appropriate measures, the problem can be minimized; but just like in the case of teachers, parents themselves do not have the information on how to properly work with their children and they are often helpless when such situations arise. Given a busy lifestyle, many parents also spend less and less time with their children which is also problematic. The less time parents spend with their children, the less open are the children with their parents and hide things that may be worrying them.
One of the direction of our organization is working with vulnerable and marginalized children. What are the measures taken by the state and school to meet the safety needs of these children?
The government introduced safety officers in schools with a mandate to establish law and order and control the school environment, but no external research exists as to the actual benefits of this new position. Furthermore, the work of mandatories is geared more on intervention and less on prevention. It is advisable that schools pay more attention on the processes that help improve the school climate that would minimize the chances of violence. Working on creating a positive school climate, modeling unthreatening behaviors, teaching students how to deal with the problems and implementing programs that would help students spend their extra time meaningfully are some of the measures that have proven to be successful in dealing with such problems.
How do you think, what kind of measures should the government take in order to strengthen school safety?
One system-wide problem is that there is no effective referral system in place. When schools are unable to solve the problem, they have no place to turn for guidance. The government will need to invest more resources in establishing such a system. I think it is also important that the government ensures that all schools have proper sanitary conditions and running water in the bathrooms so that the children’s health is not endangered. Also professional development of teachers and school community in preventing conflict and bullying situations as well as close cooperation with parents will help our schools minimize safety risks.
It will be also important if the government establishes grants program for school safety. Not all schools have the same safety needs, so if schools assess themselves to be particularly prone to safety risks, they could apply for certain funds and use it for creating a safer environment.