From IPS News by Helda Martinez, April 7:

BOGOTA, Apr 7 (IPS) – In a survey carried out in 807 public and private primary and secondary schools across the social spectrum in the Colombian capital, 56 percent of students said they had been robbed within the school premises.

The study also found that 2,583 students had been intimidated or threatened with firearms, while 32 percent of the respondents said they had been the victims of physical bullying, being pinched, slapped, punched or shoved by fellow students. In addition, nine percent had been threatened with a beating, and three out of 10 admitted that they had engaged in vandalism in their schools.

The questionnaire was drawn up by the National Statistics Department in conjunction with the private University of Los Andes, which carried out the survey among students ranging in age from eight to 22 in March and April 2006 at the request of the Bogotá city government. However, the results were not made public until two weeks ago.

“This is a very serious situation, which reflects incidents of sexual violence, vandalism and verbal violence that society accepts and in many cases admires,” town councillor Gilma Jiménez told IPS.

“The results of the survey are almost obvious, when violence has become the chosen route for solving every problem,” said Javier Darío Restrepo, a journalist who specialises in questions of professional ethics and has served as ombudsman for the El Tiempo and El Colombiano newspapers.

“From their earliest years, children absorb violence in cartoons and grow up with a form of thinking and an attitude that is in line with that violence,” he told IPS.

“We don’t foment tolerance, and today in Colombia it is virtually impossible to talk about politics without going to extremes,” said Restrepo. “The climate is highly polarised. The lack of tolerance is evident in the activities of our leaders and politicians, who act superior and arrogant, without reflection, as media coverage shows and as the country observes.”

One recent illustration of this all-pervasive intolerance was the criticism levelled by the speaker of the Senate, Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, at Senator Piedad Córdoba of the opposition Liberal Party for her efforts towards brokering the release of hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

The bad temper of President Álvaro Uribe has also been on display on numerous occasions, when reporters, especially foreigners, question him about his alleged ties to far-right paramilitary groups.

Jorge Noguera, the former head of the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia’s secret police, is in prison in connection with the “para-politics” scandal, as are 22 legislators.

A total of 51 lawmakers, most of them Uribe allies, are under investigation for their links with the paramilitaries.

“Studies on violence in schools are important because they help us make the necessary adjustments in our work, but our schools are the expression of our society,” said Alonso Camacho, principal of the José Castro school in the Bogotá slum neighbourhood of San Cristóbal, which has a student body of 2,750.

High rates of poverty and unemployment, the forced displacement of a large proportion of the population by the violence, and the overall crisis in this war-torn country generate domestic violence, which is in turn reflected in the behaviour of students, he told IPS.

“By law we have to design standards and programmes aimed at keeping the peace in schools, stay on the alert in order to prevent violence by teachers, and foment values that can have an influence on family relations,” said Camacho. “To do that, we have the support of private organisations as well. But the underlying social problems penetrate the walls of the school.”

“We implement student development plans, but we do not achieve immediate results, nor can we turn kids who are caught up in difficult social contexts into angels,” he added.

Restrepo said that “newscasts always begin with the latest episodes of violence, journalists spend a lot of time in courtrooms describing violent incidents and behaviour, and over 50 percent of the news involves reports of violence.”

That coverage is carried out “without self-criticism by the media and with no analysis or questioning on the part of the recipients of the news, while our universities tend to train people with more technical expertise than ethical values.”

The study on violence in the schools was commissioned by former Bogotá mayor Lucho Garzón (2004-2007) of the leftwing Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA). But the results of the survey were not reported until town councillor Jiménez of the Liberal Party, a supporter of former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, made them public in mid-March.

Her decision to call attention to the study was seen by some critics as part of an anti-PDA strategy, after Peñalosa was defeated in the 2007 elections for mayor by the leftist party’s candidate, Samuel Moreno, who took office in January.

For her part, Jiménez, who noted that Moreno’s campaign manager was Education Secretary Abel Rodríguez, said that “I believe the study was kept quiet for political reasons.”

“It is impossible to isolate students from a society in which there is a deeply rooted culture of corruption, easy money and the principle of paramilitarism, which is to defend oneself from violence by means of violence,” she said.

“The most atrocious crimes are those that are committed against children, because of their defencelessness and vulnerability,” which is why there is no justification for having shelved the results of the survey, she said.

According to Jiménez, “we have to take a close look at what is happening and try to come up with formulas for ‘major surgery’, with the participation of parents, teachers, students and society as a whole, in order to safeguard the lives and integrity of our young people.”

In Colombia, “only bandaid solutions are applied when it comes to anything to do with children, and we cannot go on like that,” she argued. (END/2008)