The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations in 1989 and approved by the Government of Guyana in 1991. Article 19 (1) states:
“States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.”
Article 37 (a) partially states:
“No child shall be subjected to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In Guyana, many protect the right to abuse children, which is often misconstrued as discipline. Corporal punishment in schools has long been debated. Former Education Minister Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine had expressed concern during his tenure that the practice was still prevalent in some schools and signaled his intention to eradicate it. However, the Guyana Teachers’ Union, heads of schools and many teachers have all defended the practice of corporal punishment, justifying it by declaring that there are no alternatives in place for those especially ‘bad-behaved’ children.
Information recently gathered from Rights of the Child Commission Investigative Officer Andre Gonsalves and Commissioner Nicole Cole revealed some disturbing cases of corporal punishment in schools. For example, some years ago, a child had his arm broken in two places. He was beaten with a piece of wood by a teacher at Redeemer Primary. In Yarakita, a child was punished for having a Mohawk hairstyle. Earlier this year, a young man was suspended from the Timehri High School because he designed his eyebrows and the pants he was wearing were deemed too close-fitting. The young man, an entertainer, had designed his eyebrows during the school break. He remained suspended for three weeks and returned to the school when his eyebrows regrew, but in the same trousers. A teacher pushed him and a fight ensued. The child was transferred to another school, but there were no consequences for the teacher.
More recently, a five-year-old from Ketley Primary returned home from school last Friday with red marks across his body. He had been beaten by a teacher for apparently ‘flipping’ in the classroom. The teacher claimed she beat him with a ruler but at least three student witnesses said it was a whip. According to information garnered from a relative of the child, the head of the school summoned an official from the ministry to deal with the matter. The teacher, who had the support of other teachers, subsequently claimed that a bench had fallen on the boy. The matter was eventually settled with an apology from the teacher, who was involved in at least one similar case before.
It was Commissioner Cole who brought to light the most recent case via social media, much to the outrage of many. Anger often drives many parents to retaliate with violence when such incidents occur. Teachers have been physically harmed. There are also those cases where children would receive harsher punishments from parents, further nurturing the violent culture we live in.
We continue to feed this cancer in our society. We do not spare the rod, fearing that we will spoil the child while ignoring the long-term effects and accepting lies, excuses, and anything to escape from culpability for what is not discipline but child abuse.
There were those who tried to justify the teacher’s action: What would have happened if the child had hurt himself by flipping in the classroom is a question that has been asked. But it was the teacher who in fact hurt the child. How do we justify beating a five-year-old to the point of leaving marks on his skin because he was being a playful child? How do we give no consideration to the negative effects the incident could have on him, such as developing an abhorrence for learning and teachers.
Teachers are some of our most valuable resources. They are responsible for not only the transference of knowledge to but also for the shaping of young minds. They are a part of the population that should be honoured and treated fairly in terms of the classrooms they are made to manage and the benefits of the job. Many teachers are under pressure. Most are underpaid and are often tasked to teach more students than they can manage. It cannot be easy to manage large numbers of children, including many who misbehave or do not cooperate with them. These teachers also have their personal lives, where they often deal with challenges like the rest of us. Unfortunately, some may in fact transfer their frustrations to the children under their care, which results in incidents such as the one at the Ketley school.
There is currently no policy against corporal punishment in Guyana. However, if a child is to be disciplined, it is the head teacher of the school who is supposed to decide the punishment. Still, there are teachers who beat children without any consultations with the head.
We need to adjust our thinking and stop holding on to the belief that corporal punishment is necessary to maintain order. In two of the cases aforementioned, children were punished for their appearance. Shouldn’t the first concern be educating children? Couldn’t these cases be dealt with differently by consultations with the parents? And why do we continue to hold on to nonsensical ideas about people’s appearance?
Jamaica has adopted a concept called Child Friendly Schools (CFS). Positive discipline, such as counseling for students with challenges, is a part of it.
In the Strictly Positive Resource Guide on Positive Disciplinary Actions, produced by Jamaica’s Ministry of Education and UNICEF (which was adopted from Positive Discipline in the Inclusive, Learning Friendly Classroom, UNESCO), Prime Minister of Jamaica Andrew Holness stated in his message, “In order for the education system to fully deliver this outcome, we must make sure all facets of the system, including our disciplinary practices, are consistent in how they prepare students to take their place in the world. I am of the belief that our children indeed live what they learn and in many instances, we are teaching anti-social behaviours and violence by our use of corporal punishment to correct maladaptive behaviours in students.”
As Jamaica continues to make progress in eliminating corporal punishment from schools, it will be supported by legislation. Can we not do it here? It is time the Ministry of Education demonstrates that it is serious about the holistic wellbeing of our children by tackling the eradication of corporal punishment in schools and implementing positive alternatives. How long will we continue to deceive ourselves into thinking that we do not harm children beyond the physical injuries? Consider the stories we see in our news daily—too often we are shocked by the violence that occurs and we ask: Where did we go wrong as a society? Maybe we start going wrong when we think that it is right to abuse children in the name of discipline because we ourselves are broken.