Silence Is No Longer an Option
(Eradicating Violence in Our Educational Institutions)
By D J
When a child hits a child, we call it Aggression.
When a child hits an adult, we call it Hostility.
When an adult hits an adult, we call it Assault.
When an adult hits a child, WE CALL IT DISCIPLINE?
– Haim Ginott
When I learned of George Floyd’s murder, halfway around the world, I was overcome with emotion. The brutality, the mercilessness, the inhumanity. When I saw footage of the American police beating citizens for protesting against this savagery, when I saw one violently push an elderly man to the ground for daring to confront them and when I read the American President’s refusal to acknowledge this travesty, even start defending these assaulters, my emotions would no longer be controlled. My heart was being wrenched and I felt a monumental surge of pity for the victims and a burning fury at the injustice of it and towards those who dared defend it. Yet, I could not understand why I was feeling so personally affected, why I underwent this emotional turmoil. While it is natural to feel grief for the suffering of others, natural to feel rage for the perpetrators, my feelings were worryingly out of control. Why was I, one with no personal connection to this incident, in such excessive anxiety? It took me a few days to understand. I was reliving my most agonising experiences at school.
My school life, in Jaffna, which ended with the A levels last year, had its moments. Some of the best days of my life were at my school. However, several years were a battle, to say the least. My school is one that allows teachers to use corporal punishment on students. Not simply by use of canes, which is horrendous enough, but using their bare hands. Slapping, beating and punching were distressingly common in my days at school. I have even witnessed students being hurled across an office or thrown to the floor. Prefects too are allowed this power, and some wield it without hesitation. My first, personal, experience of corporal punishment was in Grade 8, barely three months since I joined the school. Prior to this episode, I had represented the school at a music workshop which lasted for two whole days, meaning I had not been able to attend school or be informed of any homework handed out. The next morning, one of our teachers told everyone who had not completed the previous day’s homework to stand. I stood, intending to explain that, due to being at the workshops, I had not been aware of it and had been unable to attend to it. I had no time to prepare for the slap that struck me across the face. Not one question as to why I had not completed it, whether there was any reason for it. Just a thoughtless slap, almost as though this were part of my teacher’s everyday life. While my parents and I had stood against corporal punishment since my joining of the school, we knew, from this point on, we could not let the school continue to allow this practice. However, it was a battle we would fight till practically the end of my school life.
Following this first event, I was physically abused multiple times. While corporal punishment should never be used, even if the child is in the wrong, what made these incidents particularly vile, were that I had done no wrong in any of them. In every case, the teacher refused to listen to my explanations, sometimes not even giving me a chance to explain. Worst of all, however, was the ceaseless ridicule I received from teachers, prefects and students for taking a stand against corporal punishment. Some teachers would whisper behind my back, students would deliberately try to goad me and most individuals of every senior batch of prefects made sure to harass me in every possible way. I was falsely accused and unnecessarily interrogated with absurd frequency, simply because they wanted to assume I was guilty. It came to a point where I had to accept that every new year would bring a fresh batch of prefects to test my sanity. However, thanks to the immense support and profound trust of my parents, and understanding of a couple of teachers and friends, I managed to stay true to myself. Eventually, while still regarded as the oddity who believed the assault of children was cruel, most teachers understood I could be trusted, including the Principal. As a result of this, and my parents’ persistent efforts, I was no longer subjected to corporal punishment, though other forms of harassment persisted. Yet, my struggles did not amount to much, for corporal punishment still occurs in my school, as far as I am aware. The corrupt message being swept across the minds of children and society is still the same: violence is acceptable and great power does not come with an ounce of responsibility.
Nowhere is the danger of this corrupt message more realised than in the behaviour of prefects. I have seen prefects beat students for talking in class, when a teacher has failed to attend the lesson. The issue of a teacher not bothering to attend class, expecting students to remind them despite possessing their own timetables, is largely ignored. Yet, students talking in a teacher free classroom is treated as a severe offence. Worse, it is one that merits a beating. Some senior prefects even beat their juniors in some perverse ceremony. I have seen young children being harassed by prefects, who are A level students, for no apparent reason. Some prefects and teachers slap and even punch students for simply being in their way. Unfortunately, these forms of abuse are simply a way of life in my school and none see it as a problem. This is most troubling as it illustrates how desensitised the system has become to violence. On asking why prefects used violence, I was told by a senior, ‘This our culture; it is the only thing our people understand’.
For all the complaints my parents made and the number of furious letters written, the administration, while accepting I had always been in the right, never acknowledged the inhumane behaviour of the prefects, nor the plethora of ways they misused their power. This misuse of power ranges from using their position to cut classes, under the pretence of duty, to harassing children left and right and to instil fear in those smaller than themselves. I wish I could say the Prefect Guild in my school was not so broken. I do not mean to claim that every prefect is cruel or vindictive. I have had friends who happened to be prefects and they were truly what every prefect ought to be like. Furthermore, I had seen how they inspired younger students, and how several children looked up to them. Yet, this is an extremely small portion of individuals and the violence, in our country, does not end with school.
One of the greatest miseries of Sri Lanka’s higher educational institutions is the sadistic, perverse ritual of ragging in state institutions. The sheer cruelty of the abuse, and the negligence of these horrors, cannot be overstated. Sri Lanka is even regarded as the worst affected by this, aptly named, campus torture. Ragging, ranging from mental to physical forms of violence, has cost students their lives, affected the mental well-being of many and driven large numbers to give up the studies for which they, and their families, have worked blood, sweat and tears for. This mentality, where people can have the audacity to commit such heinous crimes and expect to get away with it, stems from the experience and messages gained in school. The primary message being that violence is acceptable and, worse, to speak against it is unnatural or inconsiderate. The other despairing message gained from schools is that if you possess power, you are free to use that power however you wish. This is the depressing, frustrating reality. Schools groom students in such a way, whether they are aware of it or not, that put them at risk of becoming entitled sadists, willing to abuse their power over all they feel inferior.
While universities should, without question, act against these crimes, it is schools that must ensure their students are suitably prepared as worthy citizens for our nation. Disciplining them through nonviolent methods, teaching them to accept the responsibility that comes with power, especially teachers and prefects, are the most basic ways a school can start down the right track. Furthermore, parents should be aware of such issues and should, unequivocally, encourage and defend their children, protecting their basic rights, realising and accepting that they are being broken in schools.
Why do I bring this up now? Why in the present crisis of Covid 19? Currently, schools and universities across the island have been closed due to the pandemic. If there was ever a time to better these institutions, it is now. What I have experienced in my school happens in a great many schools across the island and, in light of worldwide events, we need to acknowledge the flaws within our own societies, to prevent such tragedies from arising in our homeland. The parallels between the current injustice ravaging America and the injustice present in our own educational institutions are disturbingly obvious and terrifyingly real.
Our country is filled with students who cannot breathe, who have no way of escaping the ills their schools inflict upon them. I endured only due to my parents’ continuous support and unwavering trust. Yet, many parents face several difficulties in providing that support. I know of many students who wished to report abuse but refrained, for fear of being bullied or because their parents did not wish to place a target on their backs. While I do not agree with this reasoning, I have no grounds to say their fears are unfounded after the experience I underwent. However, it is by no means an excuse not to act. These students are being left unheard. We have our own George Floyds, but there is no video footage to support them, no supporters willing to stand for them.
I write this not to shame my school, or any school for that matter, but to create awareness of the painful truth too many have chosen to ignore. We needn’t look halfway around the world to be moved with grief at suffering or to rage passionately at the senseless violence wreaking havoc across the world. It all squirms under our very noses, on our own ‘beautiful’ island.
It does not need rioting, or even protesting, to make change. The first thing any of us can do is to accept the existence of these tragic realities and accept that they are unequivocally immoral. This is essential as without the acceptance of our own flaws, we cannot even think of remedying them. Another deed of paramount importance that must be taken is to raise awareness on these matters. Even talking to friends or relations, who may be unaware of such things, would go a long way in spreading the word. Parents need to be aware of these problems and must make their children aware of them. It is of utmost importance that parents encourage children to speak to them about any abuse, physical or mental, they suffer in schools or universities. These institutions must extend that same freedom. Students should not have to watch over their shoulders for the entirety of their youth.
There is a common misconception in our society that to stop corporal punishment is to stop discipline. This could not be further from the truth. Not only is there a multitude of nonviolent forms of improving student behaviour, that have worked in several countries, but corporal punishment is by no means an acceptable form of discipline to begin with. It is cruel, it is hurtful, it is damaging in the long term, and for those who are still adamant, it has never worked. I can confidently say, from six years of personal observation, corporal punishment did not make the slightest difference in improving student behaviour in my school. In fact, it was completely counterproductive. However, regardless of its effectiveness, corporal punishment is immoral and should not be used in any situation.
Alternative forms of discipline include issuing detentions, removing the student’s positions in various societies, informing parents of the child’s behaviour, suspension and, if all else fails, expulsion. Detentions can be held for lengths consistent with the severity of the child’s behaviour, while expulsion can be considered a last resort used if the child’s behaviour does not improve, after adopting all prior methods. However, there are also a range of other steps that must be taken to ensure the respect between teacher and student goes both ways.
Most importantly, teachers should talk to children, not beat or berate them, when they make mistakes. This is essential. It must be clearly established whether the accused student is really to blame and if so, why the student failed to meet expectations. It must then be explained to the child why the act was wrong, so the child understands. This must be done with words, not with senseless shouting or violence, as is frequently the case. Positive reinforcement is also highly important. Children should be praised for having performed well. This will increase a child’s self-esteem and encourage others to perform well. When a child fails to answer a question properly, the child should not be publicly berated or insulted. This way of humiliating students is all too common, as several teachers do this to get a laugh out of the rest of the class. This can lead to low self-esteem and resentment in the student and is downright humiliating. Instead, a teacher should correct the student, making them understand, so the student does not repeat the mistake again. Teachers must also make the students aware that they are in charge, without resorting to harsh words or violence. When teachers give instructions, students should know to obey them, without ever having to be insulted or beaten. Schools should also take advice from other schools, locally or internationally, that have successfully banned corporal punishment. This will give an understanding on how to properly discipline children.
In my experience, I have observed that teachers who did not resort to violence or berating were better respected than others. So much so that students would control the more talkative individuals in these classes, out of respect for those teachers. Those few teachers genuinely treated us with respect and would make students understand why their mistakes should not be repeated. This is proof that hope exists for our educational institutions.
Therefore, it is our responsibility, as citizens of our country, to shed light on these issues. Let us begin acceptance, start awareness, take a firm stand for what is moral, before it is too late. Let us try for redemption.
‘We owe our children – the most vulnerable citizens in any society – a life free from violence and fear’ – Nelson Mandela