Disabled suicide victim’s high school under-resourced, say parents

Madrid education chiefs accused of ignoring long-standing problems at Ciudad de Jaén

Ciudad de Jaén students at the gates of the school during a protest.
Ciudad de Jaén students at the gates of the school during a protest.santi burgos

The school hall was decked out in balloons and bunting, and the costumes, which had cost so much money, were locked away, waiting to be worn on the big night… On Friday May 22, everything was ready for the Ciudad de Jaén high school’s graduation party. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion in Orcasur, a tough working-class neighborhood in the south of Madrid. The party to celebrate the handful of students’ completion of their pre-university studies is a source of pride in one of the Spanish capital’s most deprived areas, and where half of residents lack basic education skills, unemployment is high, and amenities scarce.

It’s a rare day when there aren’t threats, disciplinary problems, altercations or when the police don’t have to come”

Instead the party turned into a wake. Anaís and Rocío, two of the students whose celebrations were canceled, remember the words of one of their teachers that day: “There isn’t going to be a graduation ceremony. We can’t tell you anything else. You will find out on the news what has happened.” The school authorities tried to keep a lid on things, but word soon spread. A partially disabled 16-year-old student at the school with learning difficulties had committed suicide that same morning, after reporting that she had been bullied by a fellow student for months.

Arancha had mobility problems and learning disabilities that “made her act like a 10-year-old,” her uncle told reporters. He explained that his niece had told her teachers about the bullying she was suffering from a male pupil and showed them the messages he was sending her. She had already failed a grade and was in a special needs class.

Ahead of their prom night, the graduation students had prepared a farewell letter that jokingly highlighted some of the school’s many deficiencies. “We have met people here that right now we would give our lives for […] We will miss jumping over the puddles in the mornings, those sandwiches, those games, the roof falling in, and the mixed washrooms…”

Teachers say that pupils are badly behaved and ill-disciplined, and that some are “out of control”

The Ciudad de Jaén high school was built 40 years ago in Orcasur, Spain’s biggest social housing project. At that time, only 11 percent of properties in the area had running water. Today, a raised concrete path that runs across waste ground provides the only access to the center. “One of these days, the scrub will catch fire while the local authorities return social services money because they say it’s not needed! Couldn’t they clear this up?” asks Germán Suela, a member of the school’s parents’ association. Families and labor unions have been campaigning and writing to the local authorities to address long-standing maintenance problems.

They have some 30 issues they say need addressing, such as smaller class sizes, better ventilation, police guardians, a janitor, two administrators, conflict resolution specialists, a second careers advice officer – the school has 1,100 pupils, and UNESCO recommends one careers advice officer per 250 pupils­­ – better electricity supply, a gymnasium, computers… The Madrid regional government’s education department says it has spent €350,000 this year on improvements, and that personnel levels meet the average for Spanish schools. For example, most schools have one careers officer per 1,800 students.

Parents say the school, which was originally built to take 700 students, needs to reduce its numbers. The local education department says it meets class ratios “scrupulously.” But parents insist classrooms are overcrowded and that there is not even enough room to fit desks in properly. Furthermore, the school has a large number of special needs students, many from difficult home situations.

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The parents’ association has met with the deputy head of the education department, but says the issues it raised have not been addressed. Last week, with the school the focus of intense media scrutiny following the suicide, parents again raised their complaints about the conditions their children have to study in, sending two open letters to the Madrid regional government. One letter, written in April, points out: “It’s a rare day when there aren’t threats, disciplinary problems, altercations or when the police don’t have to come because of serious incidents […] perhaps we will learn about the next incident at the school on the news.”

Last week’s suicide was not the first at the school. Six years ago, a young man who was also disabled and had learning difficulties took his own life. It is not clear whether he had been bullied. Many parents say that some students’ behavior is a reflection of wider problems in the community and at home. Teachers say that pupils are badly behaved and ill-disciplined, and that some are “out of control.”

The school’s principal has been suspended from duties for not following protocols by reporting the alleged bullying when he learned about the case, said a Madrid education department spokesman in announcing a disciplinary investigation, adding that the principal should have taken the complaint to the district level or directly to education inspection authorities.

Staff say turnover is high, and that large numbers of teachers request a transfer each year

The girl’s parents had filed police complaints on at least two occasions about their daughter’s treatment by a fellow student – including one shortly before the suicide – police sources told the EFE news agency. The police’s family services unit is investigating the matter.

Two teachers at the school are on sick leave following the suicide. Staff say turnover is high, and that large numbers of teachers request a transfer each year, with four or five leaving. At the start of the academic year last September, staff went on strike to demand more teachers be assigned to the school. They have also organized a food bank for around 18 families. In a bid to instill discipline, teachers have appointed students to act as conflict mediators. The school is now preparing a list of further requirements it will pass on to the local education department.

A week after the suicide, the education department called the school about the outcome of a meeting with parents’ representatives, prompting one teacher to ask: “Does a child have to die before they will take any notice of us?”

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