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School racketeering in Kyrgyzstan: when silence is not gold anymore

«Most of the measures against school racketeering are formal, but in reality do not affect the situation at all. The current system does not provide for an individual approach to violators,» – researcher Anna Zubenko, mentioned in her article written specifically for CABAR.asia.


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  • School racketeering takes on new forms and often takes place outside the schools;
  • The criminal subculture that provokes school racketeering flourishes in the teenage environment;
  • This situation occurs due to the lack of opportunities for positive self-realization among teenagers. The potential of young people is not directed along a constructive track and takes on aggressive forms;
  • Officials prefer to be silent about problems with racketeering, which exacerbates the situation;
  • Without the participation of law enforcement agencies, the problem is not solved – those responsible feel their impunity, and the victims feel helpless;
  • Parents are focused on meeting the basic needs of the child (food, clothing, education), while the emotional state and the need for support are ignored;
  • The existing prevention system does not provide for an individual approach to children, which negatively affects the effectiveness of any preventive measures.

Pupils do not report extortion, and they believe that they will be in a vulnerable position. In other words, they will become “informers” and will become a subject of greater pressure. Photo: Sergey Lachugin / rg.ru

On January 19, 2017, in the Kochkor district of the Naryn region, a fight broke out between the tenth grade students, one of whom died from a knife wound, and the other was hospitalized in critical condition.[1] On December 6, 2017, in the city of Mailuu-Suu, an eighth grader committed suicide.[2] In December 2018, a ninth-grader was hospitalized in Bishkek with a head injury and concussion of brain.[3] In May 2019, a ninth grade student of Bishkek School No. 48 died in a hospital without regaining consciousness after a fight.[4]

These three cases are interconnected by one factor – presence of extortion and violence in the schools of Kyrgyzstan. However, few such facts are made public – the police and school administrations either do not recognize the presence of racketeering in schools at all or greatly downplay the scale of the problem. Children, who became victims, also keep silence. They cannot rely on either, parents or teachers. According to many experts, the problem is in “the veil of silence” that prevents the eradication of school racketeering.

What is danger of school racketeering?

The concept of “racketeering” came from the “freewheeling” 1990s, from the heyday of organized crime. As a rule, racketeering means extorting financial or other funds in exchange for patronage. Unlike racketeering in the usual sense, the concept of “school racketeering” includes a number of problems. This is not only extortion of money and values, which is most often accompanied by physical violence, but also psychological violence – insults, intimidation, threats and exploitation.

Some studies on this topic show that racketeering in schools takes on new forms that are difficult to identify and attribute to any kind of delinquency. Just so, the students surveyed in 2016 narrated[5] that often high school students, under the threat of violence, ask to borrow a certain amount of money, while the victim understands in advance that these funds will not be returned. In some cases, valuables or a mobile phone are taken from the victim by being placed in a pawnshop. Later, teens have to redeem their property. Often, schoolchildren begin to steal money and valuables from home to pay off racketeers. Another form of racketeering is forcing victims to do some housework or in the work in the field.

School racketeering poses a serious threat not only to the physical health of children, but also affects their psychological state. Children rarely turn for help, as this is perceived as “informing”. Psychological harassment leads to refusal to attend school and the child becomes worried. The most terrible result of this may be the decision of the child to commit suicide. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), school violence and racketeering are “one of the key causes of increased violence among youth across the country, often leading to suicide among schoolchildren”.[6]

 A witness filmed a case of school racketeering in a secondary school No. 66 in Bishkek. 

The problem is increasingly taking on forms associated with the use of new technologies. A video with blackmail, beatings and bullying of schoolchildren over their peers gets into the network.[7] In the case of girls, these recordings may also be defamatory. One of the established cases, which received wide publicity, occurred in 2017 in the village of Petrovka in the Chui region, where a 17-year-old girl committed suicide. Suicide was due to the spread of defaming videos on WhatsApp groups and social networks. In 2018, another girl who was a victim of bullying committed suicide in the same village.[8] These facts indicate the presence of a serious problem – cyberbullying, the victims of which can be not only teenagers, but also adults.

School racketeering in numbers

Kyrgyzstan is not the only country with such a problem – about 150 million children from 13 to 15 years of age worldwide have experienced peer violence at school.[9] More than a third of young people claim to have been victims of cyberbullying – baiting on the Internet. Every fifth teenager has missed school due to bullying by their peers.[10]

In 2017, a study of school racketeering was conducted among the youth of Kyrgyzstan as part of the M-Report project[11]. Only 27% of respondents noted the absence of racketeering, while the majority either became victims themselves, or saw this phenomenon in relation to others. Two percent of respondents admitted that they themselves had been engaged in extortion or doing so even now.    

Teenagers are more likely to identify school racketeering as extorting money and things, only a small number of respondents noted physical and emotional abuse. At the same time, the vast majority of respondents (86%) negatively relate to this phenomenon because of the harm done to the psyche of children. 

As part of this study, young people were asked why, in their opinion, school racketeering exists. According to young people, the most popular reasons were problems of family education (30%), the desire for self-affirmation (22%), the influence of criminal groups (19%) and impunity (12%).  

The situation in Bishkek

The peak of school racketeering in Kyrgyzstan was observed in 2009-2010.[12] Although the indicators have declined significantly since then, it is not possible to eradicate completely this phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan. The situation in Bishkek is considered especially difficult due to the large number of schools. In addition, in Bishkek, facts of violence and racketeering in schools are more often publicized.

According to official statistics, the number of cases of extortion among minors in the capital is reduced. If in 2016, 42 cases were recorded throughout the city of Bishkek, then in 2018 – there were only 24. At the same time, juvenile delinquency and the number of minors registered in city law enforcement agencies are growing in the capital city. However, official statistics may not reflect the real situation, since the facts of extortion are most often not recorded in the internal affairs bodies.

The spread of criminal subculture

One of the analytical documents of the National Institute for Strategic Studies[13] voiced the conclusion that two categories of schoolchildren are the source of racketeering. The first – children from low-income families, due to the fact that they feel a material need, and the second, the opposite – children from wealthy families who feel permissiveness. However, besides these groups there are also external “racketeers”. A study conducted in 2018 in the Sverdlovsk district of Bishkek showed that local “mafia enforcers” (смотрящие) could be a source of racketeering.[14]

Respondents to the study noted that schools are referred to certain areas for which the so-called “mafia enforcers” are assigned. These people raise funds in the “common cash fund”, demanding them from informal school leaders. Those, in turn, extort funds from students in their school. In addition, in cases of conflict between students from different educational institutions, “mafia enforcers” can act in the interests of a particular school for a certain fee. This “tribute” is also collected from the students. There are suggestions that the funds obtained in such way are redirected to places of deprivation of liberty (prisons).

 

The mere fact that schoolchildren are well acquainted with criminal terms and use the concepts of “mafia enforcer” and “common cash fund” in their speech speaks of an alarming trend in the spread of criminal culture. Studies confirm that teenagers use a method of self-organization similar to the adult criminal world.[15] This not only supports the existence of school racketeering, but can also become a step for the younger generation into the criminal world at a more adult age. The influence of criminal groups on the spread of school racketeering was also mentioned by 19% of respondents in the M-Report survey.

This situation occurs due to the lack of opportunities for positive self-realization among teenagers. The potential of young people is not directed along a constructive track and takes on aggressive forms. In addition, relations among young people are based on a cult of power,[16] in which violence against the weaker becomes the only way to self-affirmation. This conclusion is confirmed by the results of the M-Report survey – 22% of respondents named the desire for self-affirmation as the reason for school racketeering.

 

The veil of silence and downplaying the problem

Research data to some extent may contradict official statistics on the abundance of school racketeering. Officials tend to downplay the significance of this phenomenon for several reasons.

Firstly, they may not know the real state of affairs, since the facts of racketeering are not recorded. Pupils do not report extortion, and they believe that they will be in a vulnerable position. In other words, they will become “informers” and will become a subject of greater pressure. In addition, studies show that racketeering is increasingly taking place outside of school walls. Thanks to the installation of video surveillance and the presence of security posts, the situation inside the schools has stabilized. However, what happens outside the school remains invisible.

Secondly, school administrations are forced to hide the manifestations of racketeering, since any incidents involving schoolchildren most often lead to the dismissal of the school principals. The desire to maintain a positive image of educational institutions also plays a significant role. Conflicts and facts of racketeering between schoolchildren are being attempted by school administrations to be resolved locally. However, such a desire “to wash the dirty linen at home” can lead to much more serious consequences. Attempts to resolve the situation without reporting to law enforcement agencies lead to the fact that the perpetrators are aware of their impunity, and the victims – the lack of ways to defend themselves.

Impunity is also felt by children whose parents are ready to “pay off” in case the fact ended up in law enforcement.[17]

Relations between teenagers and adults

As a rule, parents do not recognize the primary signs of their child being a victim of violence or racketeering. They begin to sound the alarm only when there are obvious signs – bruises, abrasions and other injuries from physical violence. This is a consequence of the fact that adults do not know how to establish contact and talk with their children. The main concern of parents is to meet the basic needs of the child – clothing, food, education and other issues. The emotional state and the need for support are often ignored.

The children of migrant workers, who are left in the care of relatives, are most vulnerable. However, the issues of upbringing and trust in adults concern not only “victims”, but also “aggressors”, who are also not given enough attention. Children are left to their own devices, and they often find support in “bad” companies or even in a criminal environment. According to UNICEF, in Kyrgyzstan, almost 73% of children report neglect by the family.[18]

Problems of family education as a reason for racketeering were noted by 30% of young people during the M-Report survey.

Weak prophylactic work

Despite the increase in the number of youth liaison officers (YLO) since 2015, this category of staff is still not enough. If in Bishkek one inspector is assigned to each school, then in the regions one YLO is forced to work in several schools at the same time. The existing assessment system also affects the quality of prevention – YLOs are required to provide statistical indicators for registering and deregistering children, while no one monitors the quality of their work. In addition, YLOs often perform functions that are not inherent to their job position, participating in the cordon during events or visits of foreign delegations.

A similar situation is developing with social educators and psychologists who, together with the head teachers of educational work, should be involved in prevention. Due to low wages, they combine their duties with teaching, and the second question is given much more time and attention. Social teachers are available in all schools, while the position of a psychologist is often taken only formally, with the exception of schools in the capital city.[19]

YLOs themselves and social educators note the lack of capacity to work with children. It is worth noting that partly this problem can be solved with the participation of non-governmental organizations that organize training events with questions on child psychology, and pedagogical techniques for working with children.

The current system of prevention in schools is often criticized. As a rule, preventive measures come down to classroom hours, conversations with violators, as well as registering at the school list and registering in the list of the internal affairs bodies. However, most measures are formal in nature, but in reality do not affect the situation. The current system does not provide for an individual approach to violators. It is an individual approach to each child that can help to prevent school racketeering and other forms of deviant behavior.

How to solve the problem? Recommendations

To solve the problem of school racketeering, it is not enough to hold events in only one direction. A systematic approach and the simultaneous, coordinated actions of all actors are important. It is necessary:

  • Systematic psychological and behavioral tests among students for the timely identification of problems and development of individual preventive measures;
  • Organization of interest-based leisure activities for children, which can: a) help children find a hobby or area of ​​professional interest; b) reorient teenager activity in a creative way, without harm to others;
  • Involving children from risk groups in preventive work with other schoolchildren;
  • Introduction of new criteria for evaluating educational institutions, with the inclusion of items that will encourage administrations to speak openly and solve the problem of school racketeering, rather than hide it;
  • Reducing the burden on social educators and YLOs, conducting systematic training;
  • Revision of the YLO assessment criteria, which will be based on qualitative indicators confirming the effectiveness of preventive measures, rather than quantitative;
  • Implementation of a program to work with parents and guardians, which will allow adults to learn more about the characteristics of the teenage period, correctly respond to deviant behavior, and develop trusting relationships with children.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.


[1] Fight of schoolchildren ended in death // Radio Azattyk URL: https://rus.azattyk.org/a/28249352.html (date of publication: 01.22.2017)

[2] Suicide of a schoolboy in Mailuu-Suu // Radio Azattyk URL: https://rus.azattyk.org/a/28904356.html (date of publication: December 8, 2017)

[3] School racketeering. A ninth-grader in Bishkek was beaten, and extorting money // 24.kg URL: https://24.kg/obschestvo/104090/ (date of publication: 12.17.2018)

[4] In Bishkek, a school fight ended in the death of a ninth grader // Azattyk URL: https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan_school_violence_dead/29971433.html (publication date: 05/30/2019).

[5] School racketeering: relevance of the phenomenon, prevention and response in the Kyrgyz Republic. Series “Security Analytics, No. 5”. – Civil Union: Bishkek, 2016

[6] A situational analysis of children’s conditions in the Kyrgyz Republic. – The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF): 2015. — S. 22.

[7] Video of beating a teenage girl in Kyrgyzstan appeared on the Web // VB.kg URL: https://www.vb.kg/375040  (publication date: 11/23/2019).

[8] Bringing the girl to suicide. Another participant in the scandal with the video // kaktus.media URL: https://kaktus.media/doc/374857_dovedenie_devochki_do_syicida._povesilas_eshe_odna_ychastnica_skandala_s_video_pro_minet.htm  (date of publication: 28.05.2018).

[9] Half of the world’s teenagers experience peer violence at school // www.unicef.org URL: https://clck.ru/HLrCE

[10] UNICEF: more than a third of teenagers become victims of bullying on the Internet // URL: https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/09/1362342 (date of publication: September 4, 2019)

[11] The study was conducted by the National Institute for Strategic Studies and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as part of the M-Report joint project. http://www.nisi.kg/139-m-report/412-nisi-molodezh-schitaet-chto-problemy-semejnogo-vospitaniya-yavlyayutsya-prichinami-shkolnogo-reketa.html

[12] Ensuring the safety of the educational environment in schools of Kyrgyzstan. Analytical research // Otv. Ed .: Usenov S. – B., 2019 .– 186 p.

[13] Ensuring the safety of the educational environment in schools of Kyrgyzstan. Analytical research // Otv. Ed .: Usenov S. – B., 2019 .– 186 p.

[14] Public safety in the Sverdlovsk district of Bishkek. Analysis, priorities, preventive measures. Analytical document. – Civil Union: Bishkek, 2018

[15] School racketeering: relevance of the phenomenon, prevention and response in the Kyrgyz Republic. Series “Security Analytics, No. 5”. – Civil Union: Bishkek, 2016

[16] School racketeering: relevance of the phenomenon, prevention and response in the Kyrgyz Republic. Series “Security Analytics, No. 5”. – Civil Union: Bishkek, 2016

[17] Public safety in the Sverdlovsk district of Bishkek. Analysis, priorities, preventive measures. Analytical document. – Civil Union: Bishkek, 2018

[18] Children in Kyrgyzstan: a review of the situation // www.unicef.org URL: clck.ru/HNTxV

[19] School racketeering: relevance of the phenomenon, prevention and response in the Kyrgyz Republic. Series “Security Analytics, No. 5”. – Civil Union: Bishkek, 2016

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