Teachers who assault students should face criminal charges, UAE experts say

Prosecutions of teachers who physically punish their pupils may be needed to end the practice, education experts say.

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ABU DHABI // Prosecutions of teachers who physically punish their pupils may be needed to end the practice, education experts say.

“I personally think it will need those caught to be put before the courts and convicted. If there is irrefutable evidence, the teacher should be prevented from teaching again – in any emirate, not just the one where it has happened,” said Judith Finnemore, an education consultant.

“Unfortunately, many schools hire teachers without checking properly with the last school so those who can’t handle students simply move about.”

The Minister of Education last week said "all forms of physical punishment are rejected as a tool of discipline at schools", after a video of a teacher apparently slapping a student in Ajman went viral.

Another video that appears to show a teacher beating a child in a classroom in Fujairah also surfaced earlier this week, prompting the Ministry of Education to announce plans to launch a hotline for students to report anything that may threaten their physical or pychological wellbeing, or education. The hotline will also prevent students from incorrectly reporting incidents at school, said Hussain Al Hammadi, the Minister of Education.

In Abu Dhabi, the director general of the Abu Dhabi Education Council issued a similar statement saying "it is prohibited to use any form of corporal punishment as a sort of disciplinary action" after a lab technician was caught assaulting a student in Al Ain.

There are still signs that the use of corporal punishment has not been eliminated in schools, particularly boys’ schools, across the country, despite it having been illegal for many years said Dr Natasha Ridge, executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research.

“I don’t think many people realise the extent of the problem,” Dr Ridge said. “It’s very widespread. There’s a culture of violence in boys’ schools that isn’t properly addressed.

“I think teachers and principals feel very powerless. Parents also feel powerless as well as the students themselves. The fact that it isn’t being addressed head on is leading to more and more incidents such as those we’re seeing of late.”

The existing practice of corporal punishment has also been noted in some school inspection reports published on Adec’s website. In a 2015 report for a Ministry of Education curriculum school in Abu Dhabi, inspectors called for the “urgent eradication of corporal punishment”.

“The school forbids corporal punishment but students report that it does happen,” inspectors wrote.

These findings did not come as a surprise to Mrs Finnemore.

“I can recall an incident where an inspector returned to Adec aghast at being in a classroom with the principal when the teacher smacked a child over the head with a book,” Mrs Finnemore said. “Only Adec intervention and insistence on action [resulted in] any.”

Dr Ridge said there needed to be an overhaul in the way schools approached behaviour management.

“Teachers need to be supported by management and taught new strategies and techniques to be able to manage student behaviour, without resorting to physical violence or even verbal abuse in their classrooms,” Dr Ridge said.

“If a teacher assaults a student, criminal charges should be laid.

“I mean there’s a difference even between corporal punishment and assault and I think that’s what people aren’t really understanding.

“What we’re talking about here in these cases, it’s not about corporal punishment, what we’re talking about is actual physical assault, which if it happened on the street, the person would end up in jail.”

Dr Samineh Shaheem, assistant professor of psychology at Hult University in Dubai, agreed that more needed to be done.

“We need to support teachers in terms of their workload, in terms of providing teaching assistants, in terms of training them how to more functionally handle stress and how to handle and manage the behaviour of students in the classroom,” Dr Shaheem said.

“So that we have long-term behaviour modification techniques, not these short-term scare tactics. That requires investment, that requires training, that requires a change in mindset and it requires the assistance of the parents as well.”