Stopping student fights long before they start

opinion July 07, 2016 01:00

By The Nation

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If children are taught to be uncompromisingly loyal to a lesser authority, they will eventually clash with a greater one

Decades of efforts to end student brawls in the streets have failed to make a dent in the violence, which all too often turns fatal. So appalling are the mindless attacks the students typically wage on others from rival schools that, each time a fresh solution is suggested, the worried public loudly cheers. Now we have the military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order, reviving that old chestnut, the belief that a few weeks in uniform ought to shake some sense into unruly youths. 
Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Police Chief Chakthip Chaijinda supported the notion of pressing arrested troublemakers into service in the dangerous southernmost provinces. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, displaying better sense, has rejected the idea, saying undisciplined students in the ranks could put soldiers’ lives at even greater risk.
The top brass having cancelled one another out, the question remains as to what can be done to get the kids to stop beating up, stabbing and shooting their interschool rivals. As is, we’ve had far too many knee-jerk reactions from too many governments already.
Prayut had one last month, evoking his “absolute” power under Article 44 of the interim constitution to punish students caught brawling and bring their parents/guardians to task at the same time. It was a speedy penalty – no dawdling in courts required – and somewhat satisfying. But such action is hardly likely to put an end to the perennial extracurricular violence. 
We witnessed another such response in 2003 after one of the worst student brawls ever seen in Bangkok took place at a free music concert. The Thaksin Shinawatra government set aside Bt40 million for measures that included military-style boot camps for youngsters caught rumbling. Parents were lectured and schools came under extra security monitoring.
The result was indeed a change in the behaviour of students: the number of violent incidents has risen steadily ever since, and while we can offer no statistics, it seems more kids are getting killed nowadays too, in the ridiculous interest of “defending the honour” of their schools.
This matter of “honour” is intrinsic to the problem facing Thailand. Teenagers come to blows everywhere in the world, of course, fuelled by hormones, egged on by peer pressure and struggling to come to terms with their place in society. Thailand is prone also to the vagaries of its traditional feudalistic hierarchy, by which the honour of family, school and country must be upheld at all costs. 
In the home, parents demand allegiance and demonstrate how authority imposes order. Children learn that family comes before all else, and if a feud arises with another clan, force is a viable, perhaps preferred, reply. 
At our vocational and technical colleges especially – though certainly not uniquely – educators seek to overcome the students’ sense that their institution is inferior to other places of higher learning. They urge the youngsters to take pride in the school’s name. Loyalty is ritualistically ingrained, often to the point that defending one’s school “at all costs” includes breaking the law if believed necessary, even inflicting serious injury on a fellow human being.
These students are moulded from innocent children into the troublemakers they become. Once caught in a crime, they can be punished, but without the root causes of such lawlessness being addressed, student brawls will continue.
If parents and teachers are inadequate in their crucial role of instilling morals and ethics in the very young, there is little hope that hostility among peers will be avoided later on. If the many arms of government can’t provide wise and consistent guidance to schools and parents in this regard, the roots of harm are bound to flourish. Our national and provincial leaders can ensure that the schools have teachers who are both inspiring and morally astute and that troubled families get the help they need. We have a problem we all share, and we can all share in the solution too.

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