When 10-year-old Charbel saw his teacher hitting another student, he asked Why?Instead of answering, his teacher grabbed him by the nose and yanked upwards, twice. When Charbel returned home, his face covered in blood, his mother was shocked. No one from the school had called to let her know that a teacher had broken her child's nose, but other children's parents did. The next day, she and other parents confronted the director of his private school, demanding action. The school suspended the teacher for two weeks. Another student's mother said the teacher was notorious for violence against children. Charbel's mother has since transferred her son to another school and filed a criminal complaint against the teacher. There was nothing else I could do, she said. I don't want my child to be beaten.
Fadi was only 5 years old when he was diagnosed with leukemia. At his private school, the teachers understood that the illness and the medicine he had to take made it hard for him to focus, his mother said. That changed when Fadi's family moved and enrolled him in the public school in another town. His new teacher called him a donkey, hit him and pulled his hair, and regularly made him stand outside the school in the cold as punishment for what she deemed inadequate academic performance. Fadi's mother complained repeatedly, but the school director said that Fadi could not be given preferential treatment, refused to re-enroll him the next year, and said he should go to a place [an institution] for children with intellectual disabilities. Fadi said that the school director had also insulted him and pulled his hair. There was no one else for me to complain to, his mother said. They wrote an open letter to the Minister of Education, posted it on Facebook, and found a private school that offered scholarships, where Fadi enrolled. No one from the Education Ministry contacted her to ask about her son, she said.
Corporal punishment is physical abuse intended to make children suffer pain, humiliation, and fear in the name of discipline. Children interviewed in this report described how teachers whipped them on the hands, feet, and faces with implements including an electrical cable, a rubber hose, and a thick wooden stick; hit them on the back of the neck and head or slapped them in the face; pulled their hair and ears; slammed their heads into the school desk; and shoved them into the walls of classrooms or corridors. One child's tooth was broken after a teacher hit him in the face with a stick. Another boy said a teacher beat him on the hand with an electric cable, causing a deep cut that was bleeding for two or three days. One boy suffered a broken nose. A teacher recalled that one student's fingernails popped off after another teacher hit his fingertips with a ruler.
Children are entitled to go to school without fear of violence and intimidation from the adults entrusted with educating them. Violence at school not only does physical and mental harm but also harms children's right to education. In cases documented in this report, children avoided or dropped out of school, or their parents pulled them out of school due to the pain, fear, humiliation, and risk of further harm from corporal punishment. Surveys show that corporal punishment is one of the leading factors behind school drop-outs in Lebanon.
While some teachers, as well as some parents, have claimed that corporal punishment is necessary to improve children's behavior and academic achievement, decades of pediatric, psychiatric and other medical and scientific studies have shown that deliberately inflicting pain and humiliation on a child in the name of discipline conveys the message that disagreements should be resolved through violence and causes harms that vastly outweigh the supposed benefits to children, including deteriorating peer relationships, difficulty with concentration, lowered school achievement, antisocial behavior, intense dislike of authority, somatic [physical or bodily] complaints, a tendency for school avoidance and school drop-out, and other evidence of negative high-risk adolescent behavior, according to the US Society for Adolescent Medicine.
Lebanon's Education Ministry has prohibited all forms of corporal punishment of students in public schools since 1974, and in 2001 issued a detailed circular, applicable to both public and private school staff, that bans corporal punishment as well as verbal abuse. Yet due to a lack of enforcement, surveys have found that widespread abuse persists. In 2011, a country-wide survey conducted by St. Joseph University, based in Beirut, found that 76 percent of 1,177 schoolchildren interviewed said they had been subjected to physical violence by teachers or administrators in schools, with the highest rates among younger, socially-vulnerable children in public schools. In some of the cases documented in this report, school directors responded to complaints of abuse not by disciplining the teachers responsible but by hitting the child again. One child recalled hiding under his desk from his teacher, who was beating him, and then being pulled out and beaten by the school director.
Since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, enrollment in Lebanon's public schools has doubled, with roughly 210,000 Lebanese and 210,000 Syrian students in primary and secondary schools in 2018. (About 70 percent of Lebanese children attend private schools due to the perceived poor quality of public schools.) In 2014, the Ministry of Education's national education plan cited a UNICEF assessment of 27 public and private schools that found more than 70 percent of students had been subjected to violence by teachers and warned that teachers who were struggling to cope with vastly increased numbers of Syrian students were likely to resort to corporal punishment. In one case that Human Rights Watch documented in early 2018, violence and humiliating treatment by school staff against Syrian children was so serious that nearly all the Syrian refugees living in one village stopped sending their children to a public school for one week, until the school director came to the community and promised that teachers would stop beating children and would allow them to use the bathrooms. An education specialist described another public school that had closed its afternoon shift for Syrian students because parents stopped sending their children due to violence and humiliating treatment of children by school staff. Another education expert said the scope of the problem was so significant that Syrian parents faced a choice between protecting their child from violence and access to education.
Lebanese criminal law has lagged behind the Education Ministry's policy of prohibiting corporal punishment in schools. Until 2014, Lebanon's penal code explicitly exempted teachers from liability for inflicting culturally accepted levels of physical pain on children in the name of discipline. Parliament amended the law and removed the exemption a month after a video went viral of a teacher beating boys on the feet with a stick as they pleaded for him to stop. But multiple reports and Human Rights Watch's research indicate that the practice persists due to a lack of enforcement. In addition, the revised law still expressly permits parents to hit their children.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have called on Lebanon to ban all corporal punishment of children since 1998. After the 2014 amendments to the penal code, the Committee on the Rights of the Child urged Lebanon to make the prohibition of corporal punishment, however light, explicit in all settings, including public and private schools and in pre-primary and after-school education. Lebanon has not passed new legislation that explicitly criminalizes corporal punishment in schools.
In May 2018, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education launched a comprehensive child protection policy, after three years of development. The policy mandates school counsellors to identify and refer children who are victims of violence in the home, their community, or at school for appropriate follow-up. To implement the policy, the Education Ministry increased the number of senior counsellors from about 35 to 70 in the 2018-2019 school year; the counsellors provide trainings on tolerance, diversity, conflict resolution, and non-violent discipline to all staff and students at targeted schools. The policy explicitly prohibits all corporal punishment and should lead to improvements in responding to violence at school. Former Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh rightly said the policy was needed to remedy the impacts of violence in schools, including lower academic results and higher dropout rates.
The child protection policy represents a significant, positive step toward realizing children's rights to a safe school environment. However, it does not sufficiently address the key problem of impunity for school teachers, supervisors, directors, and support staff who harm children in the name of discipline.
The child protection policy distinguishes abuses such as sexual assault at school, which require immediate referral to external measures (i.e. the police), from those requiring internal disciplinary measures. Only internal measures, which are not specified in the policy, are to be taken against perpetrators of aggression or violence committed by members of the educational staff. An Education Ministry official told Human Rights Watch that the disciplinary measures could include reprimands, delayed promotions, and docking of pay, but that termination of employment would be reserved for perpetrators of sexual abuse rather than corporal punishment.
The Education Ministry established a hotline for complaints about violence in schools, and a mechanism for NGOs to refer cases of violence at schools to the ministry's headquarters in 2015. However, several civil society organizations said they resorted to complaining to public prosecutors after Education Ministry officials did not respond to referrals about violence in schools. In two cases documented for this report, parents filed complaints to police against school officials who allegedly beat students. The Justice Ministry said it did not record disaggregated data on cases of assault against children by school staff.
Another shortcoming undermining implementation, is that the child protection policy requires that all complaints of violence at school include the name of the child affected. While this information is only accessible to a small number of central and regional ministry staff and enjoins strict confidentiality, the policy's inability to deal with anonymous complaints fails to appreciate that children who have complained of violence or whose cases have been referred to the ministry for follow-up, have been subjected to reprisals and further violence by school staff, a problem consistently described by Lebanese and Syrian parents and documented by educators and NGO child protection specialists. Staff at two NGOs said they had stopped referring cases of violence in schools to the Education Ministry altogether because of a pattern of a lack of ministerial follow-up and further violence against the students by school staff. The reporting mechanism so far, it's more harm than good, one said.
In funding proposals to international donors, the Education Ministry has requested further resources for child protection at schools, including to protect students from corporal punishment. The ministry should work with donors to compensate for any budgetary shortfalls, but should also improve outcomes by involving civil society in trainings, monitoring, reporting and follow-up. NGO staff noted that their colleagues had skills that public schools needed, such as child psychiatrists. In several cases, the ministry has allowed NGOs to provide teacher trainings on non-violent discipline and children's rights, and to place social workers, counsellors and other experts in public schools. But many NGOs complained of lack of transparency after they referred cases of violence in schools to the ministry for follow up. In some cases, NGO staff said, they only received acknowledgment of receipt of a referral from the ministry after months, along with a note that the case had been closed without any further explanation. Child protection referrals disappear in the system and are impossible to follow up, one NGO education expert said. It's a black box, said another.
The Education Ministry insists that it must maintain the confidentiality of children whose cases are reported, but the current lack of action and transparency undermines the protection of children from violence, undercuts the ministry's own child protection policy, and hinders civil society groups that try to enroll children in public schools from identifying and supporting children who subsequently drop out of school due to violence. The ministry should work with civil society to design a grievance reporting mechanism that allows children to report any abuses confidentially and safely without fear of reprisals. The mechanism should also enable NGOs to help families follow-up on complaints of violence in schools.
International donors have given hundreds of millions of euros to support education in Lebanon, including assisting the development of the child protection policy. They should press for accountability for violence in schools, support revisions to make the child protection policy more effective in this regard, and support the provision of teacher-training in positive discipline.
Source: Human Rights Watch