Doctor Claudio Stampalija, the director of the Centre of Studies for the Prevention of Crime at the University of Belgrano (CEPREDE), believes that the problem must be tackled at its grass roots: young people.
He has stated that Argentina now faces “a structural delinquency” among adolescents, which is very difficult to eradicate. His shocking finding that 80-95% of young people who have broken the law once will do so again supports his claim.
It is clear that violent means, for increasing numbers of youths, have become the norm in achieving certain ends. Minors (people under the age of 21) now commit 55-70% of all crime that occurs in Argentina. There is a tendency towards the younger end of the spectrum, with 14-16 year olds being the worst offenders.
Dr Stampalija, a criminologist and expert on youth crime, has carried out various research projects into the phenomenon and links growing aggression and violence to teenagers who are not cared for and lack a decent education, which he considers a basic human right.
“Education is important for young people. It allows them to choose.” He adds that while education might not put a child from a marginalised area with economic problems, a dysfunctional home and abusive parents in the same position as a child who doesn’t face these problems, “it can give them more opportunities”.
It is therefore worrying that just 48.5% of young Argentines finish secondary school. This is despite a modification in education law in 2007 which made their attendance obligatory. The findings are even more disturbing given that Argentina has one of the best developed education systems in Latin America, and its neighbour Chile sees 95% of pupils completing their secondary education.
Last year CEPREDE asked secondary school teachers in the public and private sectors whether aggression in the classroom had increased in the last ten years. Ninety-nine per cent of teachers in the capital and greater Buenos Aires said ‘yes’, with 88% saying that they had observed more violent behaviour amongst their pupils.Crisis of Values
Iliana Gonzalez, who has been a secondary school teacher for over a decade, has seen an increase in the number of pupils dropping out of secondary education. She blames this on “a growing crisis of values”, but does not link school abandonment explicitly to an increase in youth violence.
In her opinion the core problem is that young people don’t value themselves. “They don’t see themselves in the future, growing up. If they don’t value their own lives how can they value anyone else’s? How can they value the work of a teacher at school?”
This crisis of values is evident in the responses of some young offenders when asked about their life aspirations. One 16-year-old in a detention centre for robbing an elderly lady at knifepoint replied: “What am I going to hope for? I want to live today, now and leave here to carry on stealing.”
The juvenile repeat offence statistics provoked a strongly negative reaction online. However, the situation cannot be blamed wholly on youths. Dr Stampalija agrees that the problem is cultural. “It’s a problem with our institutional culture,” he explains, adding young people don’t respect the government, the police or the law because they set bad examples.
Gonzalez says that when she asks her students if they will carry on studying at university, the majority reply: ‘“For what? I want money.’ They see examples of corruption every day. It’s habitual in the country and nothing happens.” She even suggests that the public’s lack of education and inability to adopt critical positions benefits the government.
Eugenio Porone, the coordinator of grants at the Ministry of Education, explains that some pupils are given $900 a year to encourage them to stay in school. Often the grants are symbolic as well as financially beneficial. “After all the problems the recipient may have had with other institutions the grants show them that someone really cares about them.”
There is now a grant programme for young people who are having problems with the law, whether that may be as a result of another family member’s actions or their own. Porone acknowledges that the majority of these financial incentives are directed at children who are already in secondary school and are organised via the school’s head teacher, but emphasises that some are targeted at young people outside of the system too.
Porone and Claudio Cincotta, the coordinator of the ministry’s educative tourism programme, agree that blame must be shared. They point out that while the need for compulsory secondary education has been accepted by society in theory, many people – especially teachers – are still becoming accustomed to the all the practical changes this implies.
Breakdown in Communication
It is evident that the lack of coordination and communication between all parties involved in young people’s education lies at the core of the issue.
Parents’ evenings, for example, have become a thing of the past. Gonzalez admits very few attend meetings with their child’s teacher, and this situation is worst in the public sector. CEPREDE’s research confirms that communication between parents and teachers has almost ceased to exist. In the capital 51% of teachers said they had experienced aggressiveness or violence from a parent. Forty-three per cent of parents said they involved themselves in questions relating to their children’s education “sporadically”.
The research also betrays a lack of interaction between young people and their own parents. Approximately 70% of pupils in the capital and the province said they had been involved in violent episodes with their classmates. While just over 30% of parents knew, or admitted to their children being involved in such incidents at school.
This breakdown in communication reflects many parents’ gruelling work schedule; to maintain a dignified lifestyle, or even to afford private school fees. In her position as a teacher, Gonzalez has seen many pupils decide they don’t want to continue studying. Their parents have accepted this and simply told them to look for work. She says: “For me the pupil is very alone in this decision when it should be everyone’s responsibility.”
Many teachers in Argentina, she says, work in several schools simultaneously to earn a decent wage. It is a challenge to motivate students when there is little time to prepare lessons and build up close relationships, especially as many classes contain more than 40 students.
Many students are left with little stability, made worse by the government’s constant curriculum reforms. Gonzalez highlights changes that have been made to the content of the language and literature curriculum she teaches. “Now everything has to relate to society and its problems, with the aim of forming citizens. This demonstrates that there is a problem.” She argues that the production of respectful, rounded citizens must be more natural than that. “Society isn’t doing this now so school is needed to fill this role.”
The opportunities an education affords someone from a disadvantaged background and the importance it plays in developing well-balanced adults are widely acknowledged. However, the justice of lumbering schools with the responsibility to alleviate a societal meltdown that has been going on for many years is questionable.
Stampalija agrees that while an education is an invaluable training and socialising tool, educators cannot resolve all the problems in students’ conduct. It can only highlight behavioural issues so that the family can continue its crucial role in the formation of young people.
He maintains that the key is to prevent young people starting down the path of crime in the first place. This work must begin when people are very young. “In our country the mentality – and I’ve been fighting for this for over 20 years – of prevention is not developed. Everything starts and ends with: we’re going to name three more judges… put three more policemen on the street and send one more person to prison.” He says this mentality of trying to resolve today in time for tomorrow does not work.
Stampalija and Gonzalez both implore the government for greater investment. The former emphasises the importance of courses for teachers about how to manage anger, aggression and violence, while Gonzalez thinks that teachers simply shouldn’t have to put up with aggressive behaviour in the classroom.
Porone and Cincotta, from the Ministry of Education, argue that the government is already investing in the system. From 2007 onwards approximately 10,000 grants per year have been awarded to students in Buenos Aires province. Nevertheless, 50,000 students still drop out of school every year. Porone regrets that “for every one you save, you lose five others.”
When confronted with CEPREDE’s statistics they acknowledge that, while the ministry is working to improve the situation, it is still not sufficient.
All sectors recognise their share of the blame. The Ministry of Education and teachers, in particular, must now work closely together to overcome this seemingly interminable problem.
Perhaps their most important task is to alert parents to their role in their child’s education. This could be through extra-curricular activities, parent’s evenings, or just taking an interest in their child’s day at school.
If this effort continues and all available expertise is taken on board, hopefully universal secondary education will become the norm and youth violence will be curtailed. However, sparking such great cultural changes will require patience and a lot of hard work.