Corporal punishment has long been an issue in the nation's schools, but a recent report indicates that students and even parents have started to fight back By Nadine El Sayed
It was February 2010 when, after a long day of teaching classes of 50 students on average, the teacher hit 8-year-old Seif El Din Kwatrony with a ruler. It was just another case of corporal punishment as happens every day in so many classrooms. Seif, however, suffers from cancer and hepatitis C, and his body had been weakened by chemotherapy and other treatments. On that fateful day in February 2010, the teacher beat him so hard that he broke the boys arm. It took more than a month for Seif’s arm to heal, and nearly a year later, even after switching schools, the boy is still traumatized by the beating. Whenever I pass near his old school, [Seif] would ask me to take an alternative road, says Soumaya Haroun, Seif’s mother, also a former teacher. He wants to be away from the school and his old friends, and whenever a teacher approaches him, he steps back thinking they’re going to hit him. Seif’s story is not exceptional. In early October, the Egyptian Center for Human Rights (ECHR) released its report Violence in Schools, providing a one-month snapshot of reported cases. Among its findings: In September 2010 alone, 14 students died in school-related fights, 13 students and school staff were stabbed, and 33 legal complaints were filed by students against teaching and administrative staff. Safwat Gerges, ECHR’s general manager, explains that violence has been increasing drastically since their last report issued in 2008. Corporal punishment in schools was made a crime by the July 2008 amendments to the Child Law and was also banned under a 1998 ministerial decree. Not everyone thinks that was a wise move. A month after he took the post of Minister of Education, Ahmed Zaky Badr said publicly in February 2010 that teachers are no longer respected since corporal punishment in schools was banned, noting who [among] us wasn’t beaten in school. While the minister did not openly say that corporal punishment was allowed, Gerges believes some teachers have interpreted his comments to mean physical discipline, to a certain extent, isn’t that bad. But school violence has moved beyond teachers against students. Gerges notes that disturbing new trends in school violence have arisen in the past year: parents abusing their children’s colleagues and teachers, as well as students abusing their teachers. A July 2010 report by the Egyptian Foundation for Advancement of the Childhood Conditions (EFACC) shows that from January to June 2010, the National Council of Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) hotline for children received 53 calls reporting violence in schools; in total, there were 93 reported cases of violence perpetrated by students and teachers in schools. About 24 percent of all reported cases involved sexual abuse, 51 percent were about physical abuse and seven percent about verbal abuse. More than 67 percent of those reports were in public schools. The statistics are alarming and those are just the reported cases. Experts believe the actual figures are much higher. Hanan Samy, a principal at a private school, agreed to be interviewed on the condition that her name be changed and her school not be identified for fear of damaging the school’s reputation. She says students are subject to two corporal punishment scenarios. One scenario causes serious injuries or humiliation, which is when students complain. The other scenario is given by popular teachers and is usually not very severe and never reported by students, Samy says. Long-term effects of school violence can be more serious than immediate physical injuries. The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) lists violence as the second most common cause for students dropping out of schools. In many cases, the drop-outs were studying and working simultaneously, but after being subjected to violence at school, they chose their jobs over education. Beyond the Ruler It is easy to blame the teachers who employ corporal punishment, but experts explain that we need to adopt a wider view when searching for the reasons underlying school violence. Samy notes that even outside the school premises, something as simple as a dispute over a parking spot causes physical fights and serious injuries. Likewise she sees violence in schools break out over the most trivial of reasons. Some teachers can control their tempers and others don’t, she adds. Yasmine Ibrahim, EFACC’s international relations coordinator, notes that teachers are under a lot of pressure, and lacking proper training. They find it hard to control a class of 80 students. Experts also pin blame on an education system where salaries are so low, LE 300 on average in public schools, that teachers must resort to private tutoring to make ends meet. The respect people used to have for the institute of education isn’t there anymore, Ibrahim explains. The student gets the teacher to come to his place, feeds him and pays him the money he eats with. Gerges explains this system leads students to feel they are almost buying the teacher. This took away the respect the students had for their teachers. It is the start of a vicious cycle, he notes: Teachers, feeling disrespected by their students, resort to violence to control the class, and in turn, the students retaliate with physical attacks on their teachers. Ibrahim argues that students are also frustrated by a system that stifles their opinions and gives them no outlet to express themselves. We treat the students as receivers, a bag we fill with information which they purge, later on, on exam sheets, she says. She points to EFACC field research that found students have never experienced elections for class leaders and never contribute to decision making. Children aren’t heard and their opinion isn’t valued at school or at home. Carrots, Not Sticks While criminalizing violence against children is crucial, experience has proven laws are not enough on their own. Just three months after corporal punishment was banned by law, in October 2008, an 11-year-old Alexandrian boy died from injuries inflicted by his primary school teacher. The Child Law criminalizes violence in school or at home as well as subjecting children to danger, with penalties of up to six months in jail. But there is a loophole. When abuse occurs behind the walls of a classroom, the only witnesses are the children. For a child to testify in a legal complaint the parents have to approve, says lawyer Alaa Atallah, and [the child’s] testimony is only used for guidance, it doesn’t really count as evidence. Seif’s family filed a complaint against the teacher but Haroun says that Seif’s case has been open for a year because neither students nor teachers are willing to give statements. They are scared, she says. Internally, schools deal with violence through warnings or penalties, if they deal with it at all. Samy explains it depends on the severity of the incident. If it is minor, the teacher receives a verbal warning; repeat offenses result in a written warning; and if they continue, then they lose money from their paychecks. A similar system is used with students. If the issue between the students is small, we try to sort it out and reconcile between them, Samy says, but if it is serious or someone was hurt, we expel them for a few days. The problem requires more than just punishing the punishers. Training is key. Samy explains that currently, a person must have an education certificate, either from a college or a one-year diploma, to qualify them for a teaching position. The diploma, though, doesn’t teach people how to control themselves or the psychological effects of violence or how to control students, she says. It just teaches them how to deliver a message. Haroun says she never used violence against students, noting there are many other ways to control or punish the students. Teachers, she feels, need to learn ways other than physical punishment. Hala Abu Khatwa, head of the communications section at UNICEF’s Cairo office, stresses the importance of investing in teachers. The best strategy to address violence in schools is through improving the quality of education, including enhancing skills of school staff and
administrators, she says, adding that using alternative skills such as conflict resolution, violence reporting and anti-bullying policies, are key to addressing violence. In 2009, teams from the Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement went to select schools to train students and teachers on alternatives to physical punishment. [It] worked, says Nagwa Shoeib, the movements director general. We came back later on and the experience proved successful with both the teachers and the students. TEACHRs Gerges believes that the situation will improve when children and teachers learn about their rights. We call for a national campaign to teach human rights in school curriculums, he says. We have already planned the material, in cooperation with the National Council for Human Rights and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood. This will help eliminate the problem at its roots. Ibrahim agrees: Some children fear reporting anything because they don’t know their rights or what is right or wrong. With education and support, experts hope that teachers can stop breaking bones and start breaking the cycle of violence. Ibrahim notes the long-term psychological effects of violence on society: They’re beaten up as children at home or at schools, they grow up to bottle that violence and use violence on their children, in the streets and it becomes a way of life.