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Mocked and abused / BIRN: Bullying crisis in Albanian schools

Mocked and abused / BIRN: Bullying crisis in Albanian schools

Aida [not her real name] does not forgive herself for not understanding the moment her daughter began to break down. She changed her behavior and failed her first year of high school, but her mother only learned of the problems after the 15-year-old tried to kill herself.

"When I found him at home unconscious because he had consumed tranquilizers, I can't describe the fear, the feelings that I felt in those moments," says the woman from Fieri on the condition of anonymity.

Aida says that her daughter tried to harm herself, as she was targeted with mocking comments on social networks and in student groups because of liking a classmate. She is just one of the thousands of identified victims of bullying in Albania's education system.

Teachers, psychologists and social workers interviewed by BIRN talk about a crisis of bullying in Albanian schools, where reported cases have tripled in recent years, while thousands of other cases are thought to go silently and untreated.

Bullying is not a new phenomenon and every generation in Albania has faced its own stories of psychological and physical violence in childhood or adolescence.

However, experts talk about a new form that flourished in the pandemic period; recent bullying has moved from school corridors to social networks or online application groups - which makes it difficult to identify and properly deal with cases.

"What I have noticed is that [online bullying] has increased in recent years, and I refer to the period of the pandemic when we had everything online. From that moment it is even stronger as a phenomenon," says Majlinda Ziu, director of the "Sami Frashëri" high school in Tirana.

"They often create WhatsApp groups, regardless of those school groups, or on social networks. They open pages to put pressure on," she added, noting that the bullying then moves from the virtual world to the real one.

The World Health Organization describes bullying as a major public health concern and a violation of children's rights. Persistent psychological or physical aggression according to the WHO causes serious consequences in the education and physical and mental health of children and adolescents.

Reports also show that children who are bullied perform worse in school and may suffer from anxiety, fear, emotional stress, insomnia and psychosomatic pain. Bullied children are also at increased risk for suicidal behavior.

Data obtained by BIRN through Right to Information requests from the four regional directorates of Pre-university education show a tripling of reported cases of bullying over the last five years in Albania.

From 327 cases reported at the national level in 2019, the number increased to 1077 cases at the end of 2023. In total, about 3 thousand cases of bullying were reported in the four regional directorates of Durres, Korça, Fier and Lezha during 2019. -2023.

About 60% of the cases were registered by the Durrës Regional Directorate of Pre-University Education, which also covers the schools of Tirana with the largest number of students in the country.

According to educational directorates, cases of bullying have become more difficult to address, as they have their origins in conflicts on social networks.

"Negative interactions distributed in different ways, including the situation of bullying in social networks and harmful online messages, has caused this phenomenon to have an impact on the school climate and the behavior of students," the regional directorate of Durrës told BIRN.

Online bullying has already turned into a worrying phenomenon for the Lezhë Regional Directorate of Pre-University Education.

"Teenagers are more likely to experience bullying on social networks, including online insults, sharing obscene images or being excluded from online groups," she said.

The National Platform for Safer Internet, established by the organization CRCA Albania, also reports a galloping increase in cases of online bullying in relation to other forms of child and adolescent abuse.

Ten years ago, online bullying accounted for only 2% of reports on this platform, while it currently accounts for 33% of cases.

"The issue of online bullying has become the most worrying problem among children," says Altin Hazizaj, head of CRCA Albania. "What the system manages to capture is only the tip of the iceberg," he added.

Adelina Pjetra is a clinical psychologist in Tirana and says that she treats about 100 cases of bullied children or teenagers during a year. She believes that most cases are unreported.

Pjetra also says that parents turn to specialists for help only when the situation is extremely difficult.

"They come when it is the final point. Parents become alert when there is a tendency towards suicide, when their child has tried to harm himself. There are rarely families who seek help earlier than this situation," she emphasized.

The way bullying is experienced according to psychologists is different; someone goes through it with increased anxiety, someone has marked insomnia and others show forms of eating disorders. They appeal that parents should be more careful to dictate the change of their children's behavior from the first stages, so that the treatment is also faster.

Lediona Asabella, a social worker at the "Besnik Sykja" high school in Tirana, says that most of the cases she deals with have their source in the breakdown of friendships - which then turns into a tool of blackmail among teenagers. The weapons they use against each other are secrets, which they then throw out for consumption on social media.

"We have the most extreme cases on virtual sites, where a large number are violated, insulted collectively. So where there are no names of who is doing it. It opens the page, that teenagers are masters of technology," says Asabella.

"This is the most severe form now and very widespread," she added.

The teachers emphasize that bullying starts to be expressed at the age of 12-13 and some of the problems are carried over from the 9-year school to the gymnasium.

"Because the desire to show off, to show oneself and to dominate the group starts in the 7th grade," said Ziu from the "Sami Frashëri" gymnasium.

She says that the security officer receives information about these conflicts before the students are enrolled in the gymnasium run by her, and in case of problems parents and security workers are immediately notified.

However, there are cases when bullying affects even younger ages.

Last year, an 11-year-old boy was targeted by his classmates in a school in Tirana, after he told his parents that one of them had come to school with a knife. The parents told the teacher about the situation, but their son suffered the consequences.

"Fuck, spy, traitor, motherfucker were just some of the epithets that were used against him," says his mother.

"The situation became so critical that the boy no longer wanted to go to school, he sat alone in the classroom. Nightmares started, she cried," she added, emphasizing that neither the parents nor the education system are prepared for these phenomena.

Experts agree that the crisis in the education system reflects in some way the crisis of the Albanian family after a period of 3 decades of transition. The big problems of domestic violence, divorces, bad economic conditions or immigration are also reflected in the behavior of children.

Social worker Lediona Asabella told BIRN that in her high school there are many children who work, who grow up with their grandparents or who have been brought to Tirana for a better education system - but who lack parental authority.

"We have many cases of students who grow up with grandparents, whom they cannot control and lack parental authority, because they may be divorced or emigrating," said Asabella.

"There have been cases where I have suggested to parents to take their children, to keep them with them, that it is better in a small town and in their care, than in a big city and without care," he added. she.

Even Majlinda Ziu from the "Sami Frashëri" gymnasium notes that parents often do not have information about their children's problems, as they are busy with their work or problems. In their absence, students fill long hours with social networks and turn to their friends for models, which may be wrong.

"There are parents who come to school and are surprised and say that I have not seen this side of the child. Therefore, parental control must be very strong, especially regarding the child's relationship with technology. Because there they are in contact with all the dangers, including the unknown," said Ziu.

Wrong models of daily life or social media also affect children's personality. According to psychologist Adelina Pjetra, children see wrong examples as models of success and imitate them in their daily lives.

Sometimes, parents themselves are addicted to social networks, so experts advise them to put as few photos of their children on the Internet as possible. However, the most difficult cases appear where the aggressors are also victims due to the violence experienced in their family.

"When we delve into the family, it turns out that forms of violence, forms of isolation, various forms of child abuse were used. And seeing this model, he got the model that I'm joking a little with my friends and they don't have to get hurt so much, since he himself has been hurt by the people who should protect him," says Asabella.

The protection of children and their rights is a legal obligation in Albania and one of the responsible structures is the Child Protection Units, NJMF, established near each of the country's 61 municipalities.

But these structures operate with reduced staff who have to cope with several schools simultaneously.

Claudio Pulaha, social worker at the national line for children "Alo 116", raises as a concern the closure of most cases of bullying within schools, without referring to the Child Protection Units.

"A school principal or deputy principal is not an expert in the field, despite the good will to handle the case. If a social worker or psychologist, who cannot handle the case with the conditions and opportunities available at school, should refer it to the child protection workers, but they are not referred," said Pulaha.

He also points out that the role of psychologists or social workers in schools is not sufficiently strengthened, which leads to an underreporting of bullying cases.

But Asabella from the "Besnik Sykja" gymnasium opposes this idea, while she appreciates that the educational institutions in Albania have become more open and more careful towards these phenomena.

However, she adds that not all cases can be referred.

"Within the institution, cases with fewer problems can be closed and you have it under monitoring, because the referral of cases has some limitations," said Asabella.

"Those cases that have the elements of violence, blackmail and more serious problems are referred to the MUMF," she added, stressing that the lack of rehabilitation centers makes it difficult to deal with these cases.

After her daughter was bullied to the point where she tried to harm herself, Aida did not find the solution in the public system, but in moving her to a private school.

"I was followed for a long time by a psychologist, but now he is fine. There are no problems and he has progressed quite well in his studies," she concluded./ Reporter.al 

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