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“Let’s hope you kill yourself” – How Spain is failing bullying victims

Experts say that the authorities are doing little to help the growing number of young people who are dropping out of school and, in some cases, taking their own lives, because of abuse

Natalia de Agustín with her parents.
Natalia de Agustín with her parents.

Natalia De Agustín, 17, dropped out of high school before completing the recently ended academic year. She says she could no longer take the harassment she has been subjected to for the last nine years, at four different schools in the Madrid region.

At first, one or two girls insulted her. Then a whole group did. Before long the abuse had spread to social media. She would receive messages such as: “I’ve been hired to kill you.” She was beaten on the street and the attack was recorded on cellphones. She spent two months in a hospital, filed countless police complaints, and went through two trials.

We are flooded with complaints, but school bullying is not listed in the criminal code

Madrid Juvenile Prosecution Service

It was all to no avail. In February of this year, Natalia simply quit. The story that her family tells describes a broken system – one that not only fails to stop abuse, but actually works to conceal it, they say. And many experts agree.

“The system does not provide solutions, and if you don’t accept what it offers you, eventually it kicks you out, which is what happened to our daughter,” explains Luis De Agustín. He and his wife Raquel Rodríguez had already contacted this newspaper three years ago to recount their daughter’s situation.

Others went before them. On June 16, a 13-year-old from the Basque city of Getxo committed suicide after complaining of school bullying for years. The boy’s mother posted a message for school authorities: “I kept telling them about it. They looked the other way. So they shouldn’t come to me with their bullshit now,” she wrote.

“Let’s hope you kill yourself”

In 2017, when two young women assaulted Natalia, one of them told her: “Let’s hope you kill yourself once and for all, which is what we all want.” There was a trial, and in 2018 both attackers were forced to do community work and pay damages to their victim. In another assault that went to trial, two other minors were cleared of the charges but Natalia’s family has appealed. Her father says that at the hearings, seven local police officers and the high school principal testified in her favor; one of the attackers admitted that she had beaten Natalia, and the other one said she had been kicked out of school for her behavior.

So what went wrong with the system in Natalia’s case? According to the Madrid department of education, nothing. And that’s the crux of the matter, the reason why families and institutions are constantly clashing over school bullying.

School children in Barcelona attending a bullying prevention program.
School children in Barcelona attending a bullying prevention program.

As a matter of fact, regional education authorities are questioning the legitimacy of Natalia and her family’s version of events. They feel that the incident at her last high school was not a case of harassment, and will not issue an opinion about the events of previous years. A case file was opened and then closed, said department sources, adding that Natalia “has been missing class without justification since February.”

“As soon as the department is made aware of an alleged case of bullying, it acts immediately by sending teams of inspectors and psychologists to the centers. And that is where information is collected to determine whether it constitutes a case of bullying or not. Cases are not covered up or minimized,” says this source. “We have a particularly strong interest in seeing this scourge disappear. That’s the reason for a decree approved a few weeks ago that sets out sanctions for those who fail to report such cases.”

Cellphones changed everything

The National Police and the Madrid Municipal Police agree: “Cellphones have changed everything.” In their experience, most bullying cases become cyberbullying over time. Statistics show that 45.2% of 11-year-olds have a phone, 75% of 12-year-olds do, and 92% of 14-year-olds. And not having one can also be a reason for social isolation. “The talks we used to give to 15-year-olds, we now give to elementary school kids. Parents give phones to their kids without much thought, it’s as though they were giving them a scooter without explaining the rules of the road.”

Madrid regional authorities claim that cases of school harassment are going down, but that is because it rejects most complaints: in the 2015-2016 academic school year, there were 573 complaints, of which only 179 were accepted. In 2017-2018, only 83 out of 407 complaints were looked into. The department’s conclusion is that cases have dropped by 54% during the last political term.

It is a sign that something is wrong when a serious problem affecting children turns into a bitter confrontation between families and education authorities. And it’s not just Natalia’s family, and not just in Madrid: similar cases have been seen across Spain.

In 2015, an 11-year-old boy named Diego killed himself and left a suicide note behind: “I can’t stand going to school anymore, and there’s no other way to stop going.” The child had been attending a religious school in Villaverde, in the Madrid region. The courts twice dismissed an investigation into his death, ruling out harassment of any kind.

“In my experience, just like in Natalia’s parents’ experience, or like most people’s, Madrid regional authorities never see anything. Everything always seems fine to them, they’re just interested in covering it up.”

You feel like you’re being treated like a criminal. They’re used to more serious stuff, and this seems silly and childish to them

Luis De Agustín, parent

The Madrid Association Against School Bullying (Amacae) is equally forceful: “Natalia’s case is the most scandalous one we’ve seen in the last five years, it’s a textbook case. The regional department simply wants to cover it up, as usual,” says María José Fernández, who handles very different statistics: in 2016-2017 her association dealt with 500 cases, the following academic year it was 700; and in the first quarter of 2019 they’ve already heard about 100 cases, twice as many as last year.

“By the time they contact us they’re desperate, because nobody is doing anything,” she explains. “And if they stop going to class, they risk getting fined or even investigated by social services. If you file a complaint, you yourself get persecuted.”

At the core of the problem, says Fernández, is the fact that “the system blames the victim, minimizes the issue, describes it as a conflict rather than as harassment. They’ve spent a whole lot of money on a program for school harmony, and they want to make it look like it works, so they bring down the statistics. How is that possible, if all of Spain’s associations are overwhelmed with complaints? The situation [with school bullying] is like the situation with gender violence 30 years ago.”

An Amnesty International report on school bullying in Spain is no less harsh. “There are thousands of undocumented cases as a result of lack of data, inadequate training and deficient accountability,” says the report, underscoring that official figures are not realistic.

“It’s absolutely true that cases are being covered up,” explains Koldo Casla, one of the authors of the report. “In Extremadura, for instance, the official rate of bullying cases is 0.02%, which is impossible.” The latest figures from the World Health Organization, from 2014, talk about 7.5% of boys and 4.3% of girls who suffer harassment at school, which is below the European average. But it is still far above the 0% and 1% that regional authorities claim.

Amnesty International interviewed 125 people for its report, and two teachers said the same thing: “If a school principal says there is no bullying at his or her school, either they don’t know what’s going on at their center or they’re lying.”

A taboo subject

The first case to receive widespread media coverage was the suicide of a 14-year-old boy named Jokin, from the Basque city of Hondarribia. That death led to the adoption of protocols in all regions of Spain, although turning the guidelines into practical applications has taken a long time.

“In the last five years we’ve seen a change. It used to be a taboo subject, and schools did not want to talk about bullying, much less the private ones, which are more closed. Now that’s changing and it’s almost the other way around: reports are filed immediately, and sometimes they see bullying where there is none, it’s just badly managed school problems,” says one of the 170 specialized officers from the Madrid Municipal Police.

The hardest part is getting all the relevant actors involved in finding a solution. “The parents of the alleged bully always deny it, and do not accept that their child may need help. Then you show them the WhatsApp messages, and they either break down or slap their child then and there. Sometimes these children have leadership skills and social abilities, but they are poorly channeled,” explains one municipal officer.

In the end, if no progress is made, the victim’s parents often resort to a school transfer, like Natalia De Agustín did for years.

Very few convictions

When parents file a criminal complaint, the matter enters a new dimension – typically an unpleasant one that rarely ends in a conviction.

“We are flooded with complaints, but school bullying is not listed in the criminal code. So other crimes have to be proven: physical injuries, crimes against moral integrity...,” says a spokesperson at the Madrid Juvenile Prosecution Service. In 2017 this department received 192 complaints and dismissed 81 because the individuals involved were under 14 and could not be held criminally liable.

But the service also said that these were not cases of bullying but “conflicts naturally arising from the interaction of students, or even from disagreements between the minors’ parents and school officials.”

By the time they contact us they’re desperate, because nobody is doing anything

Maria Jose Fernández, Amacae

Parents deeply resent this attitude. “You feel like you’re being treated like a criminal. They’re used to more serious stuff, and this seems silly and childish to them,” says Luis De Agustín. Natalia says that the first time she went in to testify, the prosecutor took one look at her large case file and said: “Look. I’m not going to read Don Quixote here.” Her father mentioned this on a television show and the prosecutor phoned him to apologize. He later left his post over the complaints.

As for Natalia, her plans are “to live, to heal, and to no longer keep quiet. It was tough dropping out of high school, but I decided to stop suffering. Now I think about going back to high school, and it’s very painful to see all these people around you and feel defenseless.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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