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24 September 2017
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Tolerance education in Lithuanian schools

 

By Arturas Bakanauskas

 

This became important a few years ago after the deaths of a number of girls, many in Poland, after teasing, or worse. The problem had not existed under the Soviet regime, or had been considerably smaller. But then the environment had also been considerably different: cartoons taught moral values, the authorities were charged with creating a single state (and so did not tolerate nationalism or anything that might be seen as promoting fragmentation), in the absence of money, friendship was the coin of the day, etc.
But after the deaths of these girls, measures started to be taken to avoid such deaths in Lithuania. One of these is a springtime voluntary intolerance-education week, which seems to focus on the thought that being called names does not feel very good. But this stimulus has apparently also been a curse, since I have seen a reaction only to those actions which caused the deaths, and not to intolerance as a whole.
The events below did occur and I do have witnesses to them. But the names have been eliminated as far as possible because removing a few people from the system is not likely to change anything as whole as the problem is bigger than just a few people or just one school. Naming names would just ruin the lives of the people involved, not fix the problem.
A certain amount of teasing always occurs at school and so long as it stays within certain limits, is perhaps even helpful as it teaches children how to handle stress. The job of the teaching staff is to see that it does not exceed those limits and start eroding the self-confidence of the victims or create the impression that such behaviour should be considered the norm.
The pupil in this case was a girl, who started coming home with stories of being harassed by the girls and the boys. The girls would go into the WC and comment on those using the toilet because there were no stall doors to provide privacy. When a girl is menstruating, this is particularly embarrassing and so the girl stopped using the toilet at school all together. Of course, there was another reason, namely that like most schools in Lithuania, there are no seats on the toilet bowls. You are expected to squat over the toilet in some fashion in order to use it. Not using the facilities for hours at a time has resulted in some health issues, like her drinking too little water in general.
The harassment from the boys was not just verbal, but also physical. For example, the girls were not allowed by the boys to participate in certain games during physical education because they could not throw the ball well enough. Physical violence and the threat of it were used to enforce the rule. The teacher did nothing to correct the situation.
Another time, the girl came home complaining that the boys were taking everything off her desk and tossing it around the room, breaking some of it. When she complained to the homeroom teacher (since this had occurred between classes and the classroom teacher had not taken responsibility), at first the pupil was told that the homeroom teacher would take care of it, then that the pupil should take better care of her stuff. Curious as to the reason for the change, the parents started asking the daughter what her role in all of this had been. At that point, it became clear that the boys had first tossed other pupil’s possessions to her and she had tossed them back to the perpetrators, not to the victims. In other words, she had been part of the problem until hoist on her own petard. Nevertheless, the reaction of the homeroom teacher in refusing to correct the situation at all just because one of the perpetrators had become a victim was wrong.
Finally one boy started using sexual terminology with the girl and only with her. When she complained to the homeroom teacher, the answer was that boys will be boys. The parents complained over the phone to the homeroom teacher with no results. After speaking to the headmaster over the phone about the situation, the boy started using a nonsense word with a similar sound when the teachers were around, but the original word when they were not. For English speakers, such a logical step is normal since there are so many euphemisms in English. There are none that I know of in Lithuanian, even for Russian expletives. So it raises a question of where the boy got the idea to circumvent the correction by using a euphemism. A couple of weeks had passed by now and the parents were becoming rather concerned since there seemed to be no recourse within the school itself. So an official sounding letter was drafted that listed the whole history of all the harassment and sent to the homeroom teacher. She apparently realised the gravity of the situation, i.e. that this could escalate outside the school very quickly and finally took action. The harassment stopped for good.
In a separate incident, the pupils started calling one teacher gay due to his behaviour. Like the pupil above, no action was taken to remedy the situation. The teacher in question thought that responding was beneath him as he was married and had a child, proof to him that the claims were false. When the parents asked the ethics teacher (who is in charge of intolerance education) why there had been no response from the school, such as a special class to educate the pupils that gays are often (if not usually) not gay by choice and that there are many very productive members of that community in society, she stated that she was unaware that the situation had existed. Since the school psychologist would have been teaching such a class, the parents asked her. She replied that such a class could not and would not be taught in Lithuania where even some members of parliament were homophobic. The scandal that could possibly arise would be huge. Any such sex education could only be conducted in the home. After all, ‘to change society you have to start with the adults.’ Obviously many would argue the opposite, that change starts with the new generation, not the old.
The parents did an internet check of the nearby schools in hopes of transferring their daughter. According to the bloggers, the school in question is actually better in this regard than most of the other local schools and those that are better are difficult to transfer into.
As can be seen by the above examples, the school system still needs improvement. And there appears to be no protection for homosexuals or any programme to build their self-esteem. Most likely such changes will have to come from the Ministry of Education and Science in the form of guidelines for teaching tolerance and building self-esteem. In the top heavy system that exists in Lithuania, it is unlikely that change will come from the bottom up because a teacher or school who teaches tolerance of homosexuals would be exceeding its authority and thus could be subject to reprimand or dismissal.

 

Category : Education research & development / Featured



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