But what analysts, police and policymakers never seem able to do is devise a strategy that puts an end to vocational schools taking children in their formative years and later turning them loose on the streets to behave like gangsters, hijacking buses and maiming or killing students from rival colleges who happen to wear a different insignia or belt buckle. What is frightening is the worsening violence. Guns, knives and ping-pong bombs have replaced the T-squares, steel rulers and clubs of the past and bystanders are regularly caught in the crossfire. Bus passengers, shoppers at malls and music fans at concert venues are particularly vulnerable.
Successive governments have failed in their efforts to solve the problem. Attempts to move inter-school rivalry to the sports arena have largely been a failure and a suggestion by a previous education minister, Chinnaworn Boonyakiat, that troublemakers caught waging street warfare be banished to the deep South was mercifully never acted upon. The South has enough problems already.
One disciplinary measure that should produce results, if used judiciously, would involve the greater use of suspensions coupled with the transfer or expulsion of problem students to break up gangs. Troublesome students usually believe that teachers cannot do anything except to reprimand them and occasionally summon their parents to discuss their misdeeds. But sometimes their parents have no interest in solving their children's problems.
The threat of suspension usually acts as a wake-up call to such uncaring families. Being suspended from school carries with it a stigma and loss of face that is likely to make even the rowdiest students improve their behaviour. Forcing them to change schools, which means they must adjust to new environments and unfamiliar schoolmates, is the ultimate punishment. Before such a drastic step is taken, professional help from social workers and psychologists should be provided to try to help them become better adjusted and able to interact more positively.
The Education Ministry should apply a similar carrot-and-stick approach to the managers and owners of problem-plagued colleges, with suspension of operating licences and heavy fines being the penalties for repeated failure to control their students.
Not all the violence takes place off campus. The abuse can take many forms, including ridicule, discrimination against skin colour, physical appearance or social status, forcibly taking money or belongings, physical assault and sexual harassment. Students also have to battle their way through a sadly-deficient, rote-learning education system which suffocates creative thought and produces woeful university admission exam results and poor language skills. Corrective action is needed on many fronts.
When political violence escalated out of control in May 2010 and the media was dominated by searing images of blood being shed, shops being looted and buildings set ablaze in Bangkok and several provincial capitals, concerns were raised over how such a huge breakdown in society would affect impressionable young minds. It is to be hoped that the one 12-year-old and two 10-year-old primary school students in Udon Thani who tried to burn their school down were not acting out repressed memories of those terrible events.