San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bullying in Schools Lightens Up

Sandra Hidalgo relives the fight at San Pedro’s AnastasioAlfaroHigh School almost daily.

Those few short minutes have kept her from returning to school for nearly a year now, and they are also the reason she wears her hair like a shawl around her face.

At 14, she became involved in a dispute over a new sweater. When she went to retrieve it, the girl who took it confronted her. Within minutes, they were in wrestling match and the girl had Hidalgo’s ear between her teeth.

In a move that shocked the country, the girl ripped Hidalgo’s ear from her head.

A newscaster reporting on the event voiced surprise that something so violent could occur in a Costa Rican school.

“No one can imagine that a scene like this could take place in our country,” he said.

After all, most like to think of Costa Rica as synonymous with the word “peace.”

As school violence and bullying have become hot-button issues in the developed world, they are also getting a closer look here.

“Violence in schools is a very relevant issue,” said Rocío Solís, director for the protection of rights at the Education Ministry.

“It was born on the national and social level and has spread into education.”

But it seems that the educational system has effective prevention methods in place, as the number of violent incidents between students has dropped by a half in the last six years. Even as crime and theft top concerns nationwide, there were 35,000 fewer reported cases of school violence in 2009 than in 2003.

Why? Solís says it’s because the ministry has worked hard in the areas of protection and prevention by implementing appropriate protocols and educating school leaders in how to respond to violence.

Ingrid Porras, education coordinator with Defense for Children International, a nongovernmental organization, receives dozens of complaints each year and says that, regardless of the declining numbers of reports, violence and bullying still need to be treated with care.

“It is not a superfluous issue,” she said. “It requires much attention and profound analysis. Violence in educational institutions can’t be treated lightly.”

According to Porras, the worst response a school principal can take – and, unfortunately, the most common one – is to expel a student, because it sends them right back to the broken home and dangerous neighborhood where the violence originated.

“What are we proposing? Simply listen to the students,” she said. “How does it solve anything to take them out of school for two weeks? They lose their right to education and it doesn’t resolve the situation.”

While suspending a student may take violence out of the school, it often exacerbates the problem of school dropouts.

Costa Rica fell from 48th to 54th place in the United Nations Human Development Index last year because of its low school matriculation rate, experts say. Costa Rica’s 73 percent matriculation rate is behind Venezuela (85.9 percent), Panama (79.7 percent) and El Salvador (74 percent) (TT, Oct. 2, 2009).

Recognizing the problem of school dropouts, former President Oscar Arias introduced the Avancemos program, which provides scholarships to low-income students as an incentive to stay in school. The program has been widely praised as a success, but Porras said a less costly option might be to respond better to bullying.

“Conflicts are not necessarily negative. Everyone has the right to disagree,” Porras said. “What is negative? The inability to manage conflict. In a conflict where there isn’t dialogue or negotiation or mediation, that is where violence is born.”

By simply dialoging over conflicts and listening to students, Porras said, situations like Hidalgo’s may have been prevented or the school environment improved.

Nevertheless, Hidalgo hasn’t been back to school in nearly a year.

“I always feel unsafe,” she said. Her dream is to return to the United States, where her family lived for 12 years, but her parents are encountering problems with the immigration process.

Not only does she feel uncomfortable returning to school, her ear remains deformed. Her father said they haven’t been able to find anyone in the country with the training to reshape it.

“What we want more than anything is for Costa Rica to put things in order, to change the laws and make the guilty pay,” said Dennis Hidalgo, Sandra’s father. “In Costa Rica, the laws are very lenient and also very slow.” “My daughter feels awful. She is scared to be in the country. Because of what happened in the school, she doesn’t want to be here.”

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