16th July 2000

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Teacher, cut that cane

  • Story of the village girl
  • Is it really necessary?
  • Go to Police for redress
  • Caned children get alliance
  • Some for, some against
  • No child shall be punished

  • Written by Feizal Samath, Uthpala Gunethilake, Kesara Ratnatunga and Chatura Randeniya

    Corporal punishment, a colonial hangover, is still very prevalent in Sri Lankan schools with students beaten by teachers partly due to stress in a violence-filled society, some studies show.

    "It is evident that corporal punishment is still very much high up in society and more and more children are being beaten up particularly by teachers suffering from work stress and other forms of pressure in today's violent society and culture," says Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne, a child specialist and senior programme officer at UNICEF.

    Amila Bandara, a student of Ashoka Kanishta Vidyalaya,Amila Bandara, a student of Ashoka Kanishta Vidyalaya, Maradana who was allegedly assaulted by a teacher recently.

    The government's National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), in a bid to address corporal punishment that has become a problem in schools and even homes, is preparing a 12-page booklet titled "Corporal Punishment - Is it really necessary?" (See box- Is it really necessary?)

    "We need to draw attention to this issue because it gets swept under the carpet," said Prof. Harendra de Silva, NCPA Chairman and renowned child rights activist. "We want people to debate these issues and come out into the open with the problem." The NCPA is also planning to introduce Child Protection Committees, the members of which would be students, teachers and parents, as a pilot project in five to 10 schools in Colombo to tackle child abuse and indiscipline.

    The age-old problem drew a lot of attention last month after police filed charges against a teacher under wide-ranging child abuse laws, promulgated in 1995, for slapping a child at a top Colombo boys' school. The teenage boy complained that his eardrums had been damaged after being slapped by the teacher for alleged indiscipline in September last year.

    Police filed cruelty and grievous hurt charges against the teacher under laws which prescribe a minimum two-year jail term. 

    There were several complaints to the NCPA of children being beaten by teachers and even expelled after that. In one case now under investigation by the NCPA, a 16-year-old boy at a Colombo school had repeatedly been caned all over his body by a teacher on a parochial issue and later punched in the face when the boy threatened to report the matter.

    Unable to bear the beating, the boy had run out of the classroom allegedly with the teacher following him in hot pursuit. When the parents filed a complaint, the Principal, a Catholic priest, had promised to admonish the teacher if they withdrew the complaint from the NCPA.

    Corporal punishment is limited to four cuts on the palm of a student by the headmaster, under an archaic circular and ordinance. That clearly says even this punishment must be entered in a logbook and that a male headmaster (now known as a principal) must delegate that authority to a female teacher if the offender is a female. (See box –No child shall be punished)

    Education officials say that statute still remains without any changes and is occasionally repeated to schools as a circular.

    Perhaps the biggest stumbling block towards eliminating corporal punishment in schools is the government itself having failed to implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, where all forms of physical punishment are banned, though being one of the first signatories.

    "We have tried without success to persuade the Ministry of Education and other authorities to bring in laws dealing specifically with corporal punishment. It should be banned from society. The Education Department circular should be repealed," argued UNICEF's Wijemanne.

    Child rights activists say that if the government is to be accused of soft-peddling the issue then principals and parents must equally share the blame.

    "I know some principals who condone corporal punishment as the only way to tackle growing indiscipline in schools while even parents have urged teachers to smack the child if he or she does not learn or for unruly behaviour," said one activist. 

    Last year the government reluctantly appointed a committee to study corporal punishment in schools but the majority of its members, mostly principals, favoured this, citing examples as to how discipline had improved after stiff physical punishment.

    "Many of my former students have come back to me and praised me for the discipline they learnt in school often through corporal punishment," one member-principal was quoted as saying during a committee hearing.

    But child rights groups say children have either dropped out of school after being repeatedly caned or verbally abused while others have suffered trauma and connected problems. One child asked to stay away from school for an indefinite period just before crucial examinations, put on his school clothes and paced up and down in the house for a few hours every morning in anxiety.

    NCPA's Prof. de Silva rejects arguments by educationists that corporal punishment is a local tradition and part of Sri Lankan culture. "That is not so. Historical evidence shows corporal punishment was introduced by our colonial masters - the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British - as a mechanism to control adults," he said.

    Prof. de Silva said research shows that one Portuguese officer even pounded the heads of children on stones when he heard them crying while teachers from top British schools like Eton and Harrow introduced corporal punishment in Sri Lankan schools during colonial times.

    He said the NCPA booklet, prepared by three researchers including himself and two psychologists - Piyanjali de Zoysa and Nayomi Kannangara - deals with the evolution of corporal punishment in Sri Lanka and that it is not a cultural tradition. The book also talks about how in many countries, violence in society is associated with corporal punishment in schools and suggests more practical ways of dealing with indiscipline. 

    Sri Lanka's 17-year ethnic conflict has spawned social unrest and a growing crime rate mainly by deserters who have quit the army grabbing whatever guns and ammunition they can to be used in robberies, contract killings and other anti-social activity. 

    "Our position is that before imposing laws banning corporal punishment, we would like to initiate a dialogue in society to discuss the pros and cons of physical punishment against children. The book is a starting point in this process," the NCPA Chairman added.

    What are the alternatives to corporal punishment? The book suggests many ways like time-outs–suspension from some classes or work after school — for getting late or small corners in homes where children are ordered to go to for doing something wrong, or no television.

    "There are many ways of tackling indiscipline without hitting a child. For instance when a child is sleeping in a class, the teacher should find out the cause instead of punishing the child. It is possible that the child may have not slept well as he was forced to do some work or slept in a crowded room because he or she is poor," Prof. de Silva noted.

    Story of the village girl

    A frail 12-year-old girl from Hingurakgoda has accused the Principal of this north central town's main girls' school of caning and injuring her and violating her fundamental rights last September. The girl and her mother filed a petition before the Supreme Court, which referred the matter to the newly-reconstituted Human Rights Commission (HRC) headed by eminent lawyer Faiz Mustapha. The case is pending before the HRC. In her complaint, the child said that her father was working in the Middle East while her mother was suffering from a spinal problem and unable to move on that fateful day. The school has a security problem because it is one of the border villages and parents have consented to take turns in standing guard at the school gate while sessions are on. On this particular day, the complainant's mother had been rostered for gate duty with two other parents. When the mother didn't turn up as she was ill, the girl was asked to report to the Principal's office immediately. When the girl explained why her mother had not come, she was physically beaten by the principal and abused. She was then asked to take her mother's turn at the gate. The girl was later admitted to hospital and a complaint filed at the police station. The girl and her mother have given evidence before the HRC. The principal has been requested on several occasions to appear before the commission but has evaded the inquiry so far by submitting medical certificates. 

    Is it really necessary?

    Summarised excerpts from 'Corporal Punishment of Children: Is it really necessary?'

    * In ancient Sri Lanka Buddhist priests in pirivenas taught children and corporal punishment is scarcely documented.

    * It is likely that European teachers who came to Sri Lanka introduced corporal punishment to our schools.

    * Beating of a child causes pain, injury, humiliation, anxiety, anger and feelings of vengeance which could cause long-term psychological effects.

    Some misconceptions about beating children.

    FALSE: "Physical punishment is a necessary part of upbringing. Without it children will be spoilt and indisciplined."

    TRUE: Children who are beaten as punishment would not remember the specific misbehaviour, but remember "doing something bad", therefore it is ineffective. When a child is being beaten and humiliated he/she is 'angry' rather than 'sorry'. It also does not offer a reward for being good.

    * Children who misbehave and are beaten regularly may develop 'resistance' to it. They are often 'respected' by peers for being 'tough', which worsens their misbehaviour. But if children who usually behave well are beaten, it can cause deep trauma. Some may be emotionally affected just by seeing others being beaten.

    FALSE: "I was hit as a child and it didn't do me any harm. It made me what I am today."

    TRUE: You would have been in this position (or better) without the beating. Everyone is not affected the same way, and some might go astray because of such punishment.

    FALSE: "Children are the possessions of parents. Parents have the right to punish them in any manner they see fit." 

    TRUE: Parents may bring them into the world, but children have a right to be protected from physical and other violence inflicted by teachers, parents etc. The Penal Code and the Convention on the Rights of the Child offer legal protection. 

    What causes a child to misbehave ?

    * Problems at home — poverty, unhappy parents, alcohol and drug abuse, poor supervision at home.

    * Problems outside school — violence in society, fear for the future.

    * Problems in school or classroom — lack of preparation for lessons, negative attitude towards students and poor classroom management by the teacher, too many students, poor ventilation, poor lighting, lack of textbooks etc.

    * Developmental disorders — Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, learning disorders (dyslexia etc.)

    * Other reasons — poor health, malnutrition, not knowing the purpose of education, lack of respect for school authorities and school property, poor attitude among peer groups towards the learning process, distracting interest in matters other than education

    Small steps to begin with.......

    1. Set reasonable limits for discipline. Do not set them too high or low.

    2. Make them clear. eg: Putting down the rules and expected behaviour on the blackboard instead of saying, "Don't mess with me". 

    3. Word the instructions positively. Put the right ideas into their heads. eg: "Keep quiet" as opposed to "Don't shout".

    4. Be consistent. Every staff member should take the same stand for all the students. Inconsistent outcomes create confusion.

    5. Let the children know the outcome of their behaviour. The idea is to prevent wrongdoings, instead of surprising them with punishment.

    6. Think practical. Think of applicable disciplinary actions and let the children know you are serious.

    7. Be true to your word.

    8. Be understanding. eg: Don't expect an unattended class full of children to be quiet and motionless.

    9. Add age to the equation. Alter the methods of discipline and reasoning according to the students' age.

    10. Do not punish accidents. 

    11. Give second chances. If a child has done what he/she believed was right, explain rather than punish and give the chance to correct themselves.

    12. Let bygones be bygones; do not label children 'bad', but tell them what they have done is wrong.

    13. Keep cool and calm when correcting a child.

    Go to Police for redress

    Redress for corporal punishment in schools can be sought from the Women's and Children's Bureau of the Police Department.

    But very few cases are reported, say Bureau sources, mainly because parents are unaware of laws on corporal punishment in schools and the relief available.

    The Bureau set up in 1998, with 33 branches islandwide is empowered to conduct investigations. Later the Attorney General's Department files the indictment once all the information is forwarded to it.

    "Some police officers treat corporal punishment as 'simple assault' under Section 314 of the Penal Code, but it actually falls under 'cruelty' in Section 308 of 1995, for which the penalties are higher," the sources said. "Awareness programmes are being conducted islandwide," he added.

    The Bureau concedes that awkward situations could crop up. "Once, a mother wanted to withdraw the complaint on the grounds that the reputation of the school will be affected. After all, the child must go back to the same school after a case, so it can be very difficult. There is no solution to this situation," he said. "The most important thing is to educate parents, teachers and children about this."

    Incidents of corporal punishment could be reported to the Bureau on (01) 444444 or to the nearest police station. 

    Caned children get alliance

    An informal group mainly comprising parents whose children have been assaulted by teachers has been formed to deal with this crucial issue in schools. 

    "Our objective is to eradicate corporal punishment in Sri Lanka and uphold the law," says Romesh de Mel, an active member of this group which also includes past students and people interested in children's welfare.

    The 12-member group has helped parents of child victims to contact the relevant authorities such as the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA). It has also been asked to help draft regulations at school level regarding corporal punishment. 

    "The response has been excellent," says Mr. de Mel. In some boys' schools where corporal punishment has been abolished, tough disciplinary measures have been taken against students and staff, sometimes ending in their expulsion. 

    He sees this as a positive indication that discipline can be maintained without the use of corporal punishment.

    The concept of counselling students and staff is also gaining momentum in schools where corporal punishment has been abolished. 

    "The school authorities organise the counselling sessions which are conducted by professionals and trained teachers," says Mr. de Mel. 

    "Teachers in various schools have been very positive towards this issue, with only a small segment opposing the banning of physical punishment."

    The group has also approached the Education and Higher Education Ministry to resolve this issue, he added.

    Some for, some against

    The main players in this drama of corporal punishment in schools who are the principals, teachers and students had differing opinions.

    Some principals were of the view that corporal punishment was a thing of the past. "It is an outdated system. If a teacher has a good knowledge of the student, corporal punishment is not required," said the Principal of a leading government school in Colombo, who declined to be named.

    Anuradhapura Central College Principal S.D. Ratnayake agrees, but with reservations. " Children cannot be disciplined by using physical force. But there are exceptions, especially with boys. They bring knives and cause trouble. In such cases corporal punishment is necessary."

    Most others conceded this was the case "We use corporal punishment only when it is absolutely necessary," said the Warden of S.Thomas College, Mt. Lavinia, D. A. Pakianathan.

    "Punishment is necessary for correcting and guiding students. Corporal punishment is harsh and controversial, but it is the most effective method," says a Principal from a Madhya Maha Vidyalaya in the Central Province with over 2000 students.

    The views of the students are also varied. 

    "Punishing a child physically is cruel and degrading," says 19-year-old Shadiah. "A teacher should first try to make the child understand that what she did was wrong, rather than punishing her straightaway." 

    How can discipline be enforced? "You should try to do something before such a thing happens and children get out of control" was her answer. 

    But for Deshan (20), corporal punishmnet should be reserved for exceptional cases, only when necessary. "It is to a large extent unsuitable. There are some incidents where boys are beaten for small reasons, which is quite disturbing." 

    "There is little respect for teachers now, and sometimes corporal punishment is necessary to maintain discipline," says the head prefect of a school with 4000 boys. "It is unacceptable for teachers to vent their anger on students by beating them. Corporal punishment must be meted out with the interests of the student in mind. There must be no grudge afterwards," he adds.

    If corporal punishment is to be discarded, what are the alternatives left to school authorities? "Detention, cancelling holidays for boarders and gating are some of the alternative punishments already in use at S.Thomas," says the Warden. 

    Corporal punishment was abolished at S. Thomas Preparatory School in January 1995. Headmaster Yohesan Casie Chetty who introduced the ban says, "It has been extremely successful and we have had no problems." 

    In the event of a student misbehaving "we appeal to the rational mind" and if necessary, enforce such punishments as denial of privileges, suspension or as a last resort, expulsion. When there is a complaint, the accused student is always given every opportunity to speak for himself and the matter is thoroughly inquired into. S. Thomas' Prep. has had five expulsions in the past five years since the abolition of corporal punishment. Three were in the first year. 

    "It has been a civilised deterrent," says Mr. Casie Chetty, adding that violence is increasing in the country and if changes are to be made, they should start with young people.

    Some schools adhere to internal ethics. The principal of a school coming under the Good Shepherd nuns said they were strongly advised against using corporal punishment. 

    None of the schools we spoke to had a procedure where an aggrieved student who feels he was the victim of harsh corporal punishment may seek redress. There are also grey areas among school authorities on the legality of corporal punishment. None of the principals we interviewed knew of any official regulations on this crucial issue, though some were vaguely aware of an Education Ministry circular some time ago.

    No child shall be punished

    Teachers are reminded that there is no surer sign of a teacher's incapacity than inability to maintain order and secure attention without the aid of corporal punishment. It should never be used in schools where it is likely to have an effect of deterring children from attending or prejudicing the minds of parents against the school.

    Corporal punishment must not be inflicted except in the following cases:

    (a) Grave misconduct.
    (b) Habitual idleness, when other methods of punishments have been tried without effect.

    It should not be inflicted for ordinary cases of neglect of studies.

    Corporal punishment should be inflicted only by Headmasters, except in mixed schools where the female teacher may inflict corporal punishment on girls. The infliction of corporal punishment on girls by male teachers is strictly forbidden.

    Corporal punishment must be inflicted with a cane on the palm of the hand and the cuts must never exceed four. It must never be inflicted on children who are very young or delicate in constitution. Children must never be struck with the hand or tied up.

    This is what the Education and Higher Education Ministry's first circular (E.36) on corporal punishment issued in December 1927 to Principals and Head Teachers states. In 1939, the Education Ordinance to the same effect came into being,with reminders of the first circular going out to schools in July 1961 and 1991.

    "The regulations in the 1927 circular are still valid. No proposals have been made to revise them," said the Ministry's Additional Secretary (Education Development) Prof. Lal Perera. "If there is a complaint of abusive physical punishment we will investigate and punish the guilty party," Prof. Perera stressed.

    It is very difficult to control some students, and there have been occasions when students have assaulted teachers. In such instances, physical punishment is bound to occur. Although the education authorities don't encourage corporal punishment in any form, all aspects of the situation must be taken into consideration, he explains.

    Another senior Ministry official says that when there is a complaint against a teacher who has allegedly resorted to corporal punishment, all parties involved prefer to settle it internally. Parents and guardians fear that complaining to higher authorities might result in harassment of the student in school.The principal of the particular school fears for the reputation of the school.

    The ministry intervenes only if the Education Departments at zonal, regional, and provincial levels have not been able to resolve the issue.

    Many corporal punishment cases do not progress even up to provincial level because the complaint is withdrawn earlier, she explained.

    There have been cases where outsiders have complained of a child being hurt by a teacher using undue physical force, but the ministry cannot inquire into this because the guardians object.

    She cited the case of a doctor in Galle who had written to the ministry about a student treated for severe injuries apparently caused by a teacher.

    However, the ministry was not able to pursue the matter because the child's guardian refused to cooperate. When this is the case, there's nothing that the Ministry can do, said the official.

    What about making teachers aware about this issue?

    A Ministry official handling teacher education said they emphasize the psychological aspects as well as the negative points of physical punishment.

    Meanwhile, an official from the Attorney General's (AG's) Department said the Children and Young Persons Ordinance and Section 308A(1) of the Penal Code dealt with this issue.

    Section 71(1) of the Children and Young Persons Ordinance states that if any person over 16 who has the 'custody, charge or care of a child or young person', 'wilfully assaults' or 'ill-treats' him is guilty of an offence. However section 71(6) of the same says that 'nothing in this section shall be construed as affecting the right of any parent, teacher or other person having lawful control or charge of a child or young person to administer punishment to him'.

    On the other hand, Section 308A(1) of the Penal Code, as amended in 1995 states, "Whoever, having the custody, charge or care of any person under eighteen years of age, wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects or abandons such person... in a manner likely to cause him suffering or injury to health (including injury to, or loss of, sight or hearing, or limb or organ of the body or any mental derangement), commits the offence of cruelty to children."

    Such an offence is punishable in the High Court with a minimum sentence of two years.

    The official said, "There is no conflict between Section 308A(1) of the Penal Code, the Education Ordinance or the Children and Young Persons Ordinance. The Penal Code (which is the general criminal law) is self-sufficient, and other laws are not applicable as defences. Action is filed under section 308A."

    With regard to Section 308(A)1 he said, "There are no exceptions to these provisions. There is also no precedent for us to follow in regard to corporal punishment in schools under this section.

    "However in India, the courts have left room for moderate punishment in schools, according to the circumstances of each case. But this too must now be reconsidered in the light of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which we have ratified."

    According to the Convention, ' State parties shall ensure that no child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment' and 'State Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child's human dignity'.

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