How to address School Violence: The case of Romania

Two partners in the Arguing at School project are Romanian. This article describes how awareness is developing in educational institutions about school problems related to violent behavior.

By Enrico Fabris – Freref

The problem of bullying and violence at school in general is not something new for our society. However, the same cannot be said for the beginning of the millennium. At the time, people were starting to discover this “new phenomenon” and just how deeply rooted this issue is. Dr. Ciprian Fartusnic has spent twenty years studying the subject in his country and agreed to share his expertise. Policy makers as well as challenges differ from country to country.

In the case of Romania, in the early 2000s, according to surveys conducted in schools, the phenomenon of school violence appeared as “non-existing”. However, it can be considered “non-existing” only because the majority of people working in the educational system ignored the indicators that would have highlighted the presence of a real problem.

As reported by Dr. Fartusnic, even before the extensive analysis conducted in 2004, there were some instances of violent behaviours and bullying in schools in Romania.

However, no one knew how to address them. The situation is particularly worrying if considering the difficulty of facing an issue that the majority of the population tends to dismiss as non-relevant.

On a similar note, the response from the ministry raised some concerns. People in charge saw the outcomes of the surveys as a positive indicator, since it depicted a situation where violence was nowhere to be found, and wondered why they should even be acting over something “positive”. However, experts expressed their skepticism over the results gathered and decided to thoroughly investigate the subject of violence at school, with the help and support of UNICEF Romania.

In 2004 the first report on school violence was published and shed some light on some of the issues hidden underneath a facade of near perfection.

During the creation of this report, experts realised the importance of enlarging the subjects of this study. Differently from the surveys, they decided to focus not only on school principals, but also on some other key figures (such as school counsellors, parents, students with an aggressive behaviour…) to provide a better coverage of the topic. Soon enough, they realised that the results obtained in the past were completely misleading and Romania did have a problem with violence at school. In addition, the perfect timing of this study helped unveiled the reality of the life inside schools.

Thanks to technological development, students were starting to own and introduce personal device inside the classroom. This factor allowed for the documentation of what was happening in the building without the presence of an external person to monitor everything. Researchers had access to new data and new testimonies that would have otherwise been impossible to gather. Following this innovation, experts were granted the possibility to highlight a structural problem that until this moment had been greatly overlooked.

Media and authorities realised that this issue was more relevant than they thought and were now obliged to acknowledge its existence. Thanks to the new and revamped attention on the subject, some of the myths around it began to collapse.

Firstly, people realised that the approaches adopted so far were in most cases useless. The punishment of aggressive and violent students was not the real solution. The study revealed the importance of assisting kids with this behaviour, instead of focusing on repressing with punishments their actions.

This realisation was so innovative that it sparkled a huge discussion on the topic, bringing together different points of view. Different opinions aside, the report managed to demonstrate the correlation between being a victim of violence and developing violent conduct. In fact, more than 80% of the violent students in the past had been victims of violence. With this fact came the realisation that a change in the approach was needed.

Secondly, although the reality inside schools had been exposed, nobody offered teachers and principals training and resources to help them tackle this issue. Some of them confessed how frightened they were of having to deal with this problem. The lack of programs and support contributed to this feeling of inadequacy to solve conflicts and, in some cases, even to teach a class. The reason behind the absence of programs was linked to the fact that not all violent students acted violently all the time. Hence, this casted some shadows on the overall issue, since it was marked as a personal problem of teachers, rather than a behavioural issue of these students.

In light of these discoveries, the Ministry of Education was forced to acknowledge the fact that violence is a structural problem inside Romanian schools. A European project led by the Ministry was proposed in 2007 to begin training school principals. The decision to start with them was not based on hierarchical reasons, but on the position of relevance of principals in the educational system.

The program revolved around a set of guidelines, that later on was introduced in the schools’ curriculum, to help schools build their proper anti-violence program. By the end of the project, partners not only managed to raise awareness on the topic, but small independent helping programs started to appear all around the country.

When it comes to the progress made by the country, in less than ten years, Romania went from not considering violence at school like a relevant problem, to introducing several training programs to combat this issue. Thanks to the report made in the mid 2000s, people started acknowledging the importance of acting for a safer and more responsive educational system.

From the policy point of view, this report represented the basis to the creation of a framework for all schools to implement and adapt to their own needs. Ever since its publication, schools are required to monitor and come up with alternative ideas to improve their own situation.

The idea for the future would be to take the lessons learnt during these ten years and create a new national plan for violence in schools. There are already some actors in motion, hoping to present in the future another successful program that changed the living conditions of so many people and, who knows, maybe even inspire other countries to follow their example.

[Dr. Ciprian Fartusnic is senior researcher within the Education Research Unit, National Centre for Policies and Evaluation in Education (former Institute of Education Sciences). Member of national and international research teams on various topics including rural education, participation to education of children and young people at risk of exclusion, integration of children with disabilities and / or special education needs in mainstream education, funding and educational management. Since 2014, he was involved in developing a competence-based curriculum in primary and secondary education and in implementing national in-service teacher training programs in this area. Extensive project management experience, co-ordinating research projects financed by UNICEF Romania, the European Commission, Council of Europe, UNEVOC, International Bureau of Education – IBE and the World Bank. Member of various professional groups, including EPAN (Council of Europe), REFERNET (CEDEFOP) networks and the Learning and Teaching, Bologna Follow-Up Group (European Commission), UNESCO 1974 Recommendation revision Expert group.]