Tackling College Violence

VIOLENCE between students from rival colleges again made the headlines last weekend after a student was hospitalized on Friday night with multiple stab wounds to the chest. This assault came just weeks after another high profile incident in which a 19-year-old student was shot in front of Dusit Polytechnic College in Bangkok by students from a rival college.

Vocational college violence has a long tradition in Thailand with feuds between institutions being fought for pride, respect and revenge. Over the past few years the problem has become increasingly dangerous with students using knives, machetes, homemade weapons and firearms. This year alone there have been over 1,000 cases of student violence in Bangkok and authorities appear at a loss on how best to tackle the issue.

Vocational colleges hold an important position within the education system, preparing students with skills for the workplace and, in more progressive institutions, developing entrepreneurial qualities. Despite the current shortage of skilled labour,vocational education remains undervalued in Thailand, and has long been depicted as inferior with middle class families reluctant to send their children to these institutions. As a result vocational students are more likely to come from lower socioeconomic families. Vocational colleges also tend to be male dominated environments with female students averaging just 10% of the student population. In these schools masculine values such as bravery and pride are encouraged and participation in violence can earn respect.

In 2013, a research team led by Nualnong Wongtongkam interviewed students who had been involved in violence between colleges. The report highlighted the role that revenge plays in these conflicts. It found that students were often unaware of the initial cause of conflict but were keen to engage when defending friends who had been injured. In these circumstances any student from the offending school could become a target. One student described his participation in a revenge attack, “my friend had been hit with swords at his head during the fight against another college, then we took him to hospital…. we got them back in the evening of that day.”

Wongtonkam’s report also revealed that violence frequently occurred on public transport networks with most incidents reported on buses or at bus stops. The students who were interviewed explained that they regularly travelled in groups for safety and often experienced anxiety when travelling alone. It was also reported that some students would commute to school in casual clothes before changing into uniform in order to avoid conflict.

Thai authorities have made repeated attempts to deal with college violence but with few results. Following the most recent incidents, Admiral Narong warned colleges they could be closed if violence persisted.  “This time, the Ministry of Education is serious. If the administrators do not take care or pay attention to their students, they will lose their licenses for real”. Alongside holding colleges accountable for student misconduct authorities have also considered changing college uniforms and sending students to military run boot camps.

The abolition of school uniforms has been proposed by some officials within the MoE but this suggestion appears unlikely to be approved. While it certainly wouldn’t eradiate the violence, it could go some way to making life safer for many students and could avoid revenge attacks on innocent students who had nothing to do with the initial confrontations. Colleges in Europe and North America rarely require students to wear uniform but Thai intuitions have traditionally embraced uniforms as a means of encouraging conformity and institutional pride.

In April this year, 400 students from vocational colleges in Chonburi attended a three-week boot camp organised by the Royal Thai Navy . Boot camps have been used by Thai authorities on numerous occasions but seem to have only limited success. Even those involved in running the camps appear unconvinced that they would provide a long term solution, with one spokesman concluding, When they leave they still won’t be good – they don’t accept the system at all. But for 90 per cent it will work, even if it just means they hesitate before fighting.”These opinions reinforce findings from U.S. studies that have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of military style boot camps.

Thai soldiers from the army’s First Psychology Unit search vocational school students for possible weapons following their arrive at a Boy Scout camp in Lopburi province, north of Bangkok. Pic: AP.

The culture of college violence bears some similarities to the culture of football hooliganism – masculine values, glorification of violence, institutional pride and fan loyalty. If these sub-cultures hold similarities, perhaps Thai authorities would benefit from looking at how hooliganism has been dealt with abroad.

During the 1980s football hooliganism was a huge problem in the UK, and at times seemed unsolvable. However, a reduction in football violence was achieved following a concerted effort by multiple agencies, the adoption of new legislation targeted at hooligan behaviour, police task forces and club accountability. Adopting similar measure towards college violence could help contain this growing problem although these measures neglect the underlying factors that initially encourage young males to engage in violent confrontations.

Youth violence in the U.S. is also a major social concern and perhaps another source of ideas for Thai authorities. One of the most successful initiatives to curb youth violence has been the Boston Gun Project which was first implemented in 1996. It applied an inter-agency approach to tackle the problem, which included cooperation between schools, police, health services and youth services. The project gathered data from across these agencies to assess the underlying causes of youth violence. The project led to a 63% reduction in youth homicide and was subsequently adopted in other cities across the States where it had similarly successful results. A number of urban areas in the UK are currently experiencing a rise in youth violence and authorities have adopted a similar approach to tackle the problem.

Based on the Boston model the Centre for Social Justice from the UK released a report, ‘Dying to Belong: An In-depth Review of Street Gangs in Britain’, that identified the underlying factors that led young males in London to feel disenfranchised amid “The widening of the socio-economic divide, the global city and the changing nature of the labour market.” The report also revealed the role violence played in these subcultures: “feared is to be respected. Violence, therefore, is a form of street currency. Violence is also self-perpetuating as to save face – and therefore maintain a reputation – a gang member must retaliate”, and emphasized what appears to be a value also common in Thailand: “To maintain his reputation the gang member must respond, normally through violence.” Greater understanding of the characteristics and the experiences of students involved in college violence could provide essential insights for authorities hoping to tackle the issue. Without these insights any ‘solutions’ will, at best, yield only short term results.

Gathering data to better understand the underlying causes of violence and aggression between students at vocational colleges is just the first step to finding a long term solution. International projects that have succeeded indicate that for youth violence to be solved sufficient political will and strong multi-agency cooperation is needed. Multi-agency support could provide a challenge to Thai authorities often inexperienced with these levels of collaboration, but it remains a challenge that needs to be overcome.

The situation in Thailand also requires changes that can redefine vocational education as an education that prepares students for the 21st Century workplace rather than simply confining them to the industrial economy. As associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, Murray Hunter, explains,They need to change the educational paradigms within their vocational systems to take the best advantage of this opportunity….. Rather than focusing on industrial employability, the primary objective needs to be personal development within an entrepreneurial culture.” These changes could enable students at vocational colleges to develop a greater sense of self-worth and make them less inclined to express their frustrations through aggression and violence.

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