By Aruni Sunil and Sunayana Biswas
April 12, Chennai: In January, a student from Don Bosco Higher Secondary School situated in Perambur, Chennai, lost his life when he was made to ‘duck walk’ in school grounds, a usual punishment for late-comers. The boy was dehydrated and not given proper first aid. While this may raise concern about prevalence of corporal punishment in schools, many argue that this ‘duck walk’ incident cannot even be categorised as a case of ‘corporal punishment’.
Section 51 of the Tamil Nadu Education Rules allowed corporal punishment of children with the aim of disciplining. The rule said: “corporal punishment shall not be inflicted, except in case of moral delinquency such as deliberate lying, obscenity of word or act or flagrant subordination, and it shall be limited to six cuts on the hand and administered only by or under the supervision of the headmaster.” However, this rule was removed in January 2007.
Andrew Sesuraj, professor at Loyola college, child rights activist and project coordinator with the UNICEF, is of the opinion that the removal of this rule was the beginning of awareness against corporal punishment in schools. This amendment recommended that instead of causing mental and physical pain to the child, corrective measures like imposition and suspension from class should be adopted by teachers.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act of 2009 prohibits physical punishment and mental harassment under Section 17(1) and makes it a punishable offence under Section 17(2). Juvenile Justice Act (Care and Protection of Children) 2015, also established corporal punishment as a punishable offence. According to the Act, if a person employed in a child care institution is convicted of such an offence, they will be liable for dismissal from service and shall also be debarred from working with children thereafter.
Nonetheless, problems in implementation of the law points towards loopholes in the legal system itself. Section 88 and 89 of the Indian Penal Code disallows punishment for guardian or teacher for “an act done by consent in good faith for benefit of the child”. Although this does not directly allow corporal punishment, it has often been used in the defence of teachers and educators who partake in the same.
It is ironic that these sections are still held valid, despite India being one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1992. UNCRC lays emphasis on the responsibility of the state parties to “take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity with the present convention.”
Such discrepancy is also reflected in opinions and attitudes of parents, teachers and students towards corporal punishment in schools. Chairperson of Tamil Nadu State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR), M.P. Nirmala, is of the opinion that the ‘duck walk’ incident mentioned above cannot be tagged as corporal punishment. “Children should learn from failure. If they are not reprimanded, and are pampered all the time, how will they face any difficulty later on in their life?”, Nirmala pointed out.
Students from class ten of Little Oxford Matriculation school in T Nagar, said that the school had a strict policy against the use of steel scales in beating children. However, the use of wooden scales to hit children on their palms continues to be a common form of punishment. Children were also made to do around 50-100 sit ups for coming late and improper uniform. Students of Smt. Vasantben Chandubhai Shah Matriculation School, which is in the same area, alleged, “To punish us for improper uniform, the teacher hits our knuckles four to six times with a bamboo stick. Many of us do cry when hit, but we’re used to it.” Sit ups as punishment is a common practice in this school too. Not surprisingly, parents of children who go to these schools claimed that there have been no instances whatsoever of any sort of corporal punishment, and that teachers usually notified parents about all disciplinary matters.
“Teachers raising their voice at children cannot be considered as corporal punishment. There was a case from Shrine Vailankanni Senior Secondary School where children were isolated in a dark room as punishment. Now, that, is corporal punishment,” said Nirmala. This suggests that mental harassment as stated in the law is undefined, and hence, its enforcement is flexible. As in the above case, parents and teachers painted a rosy picture of this school too, commenting, “In case of any complaint, parents are immediately informed. Teachers do not hand out any form punishment to the students.” Students who were surrounded by their peers and parents, chose to remain silent.
A common misconception is that cases of corporal punishment are higher in public schools. “Big private schools charge high tuition fees and can adversely affect the child’s future if parents choose to speak out against the school. Therefore, most cases of corporal punishment in these schools go unnoticed and unreported,” said Nirmala.
Chellaselvakumar, general secretary of Right to Education forum and one of the founding members of the SCPCR, said that the instances of corporal punishment are higher in private schools due to the pressure put on parents in the form of high fees which translates into high expectation from children. “These schools work on a business model and are backed by politicians, who use their influence to bury the cases of corporal punishment,” he added. Children from lower middle-class families are enrolled into big private schools in places like Namakkal, Erode and Salem, where parents struggle to fulfil the demands put forward by the school.
Children from marginalised (caste, class) communities face difficulties to sustain in these private schools. “Many children are singled out and humiliated by teachers in front of their peers, as parents often find it difficult to pay the huge amount charged as fees, on time,” said Chellaselvakumar. It is a status symbol for most families to enrol their children into private schools, as most parents believe that these schools have better standards of infrastructure and education. In reality, the teacher to student ratio in such private schools is skewed, going against the RTE guidelines which specify the ratio to be 40:1 as the maximum capacity. Ironically, government schools are a lot more responsible in these matters as they are answerable to government authorities during routine inspections. Therefore, pressure on children and teachers demanding speedy completion of syllabus and high results is reduced. According to RTE, minimum qualification to enter the teaching profession is Bachelor of Education (BEd), but many private schools don’t pay heed to the rules, bringing down the quality of education. “These schools function as breeding farms where students are treated as mass produced commodities,” said Chellaselvakumar.
“16 cases of corporal punishment have come to us from Villupuram district, and 10 from other nearby districts. There is a caste dimension to chores like cleaning toilets and fetching water meted out as punishment by teachers belonging to dominant castes, to students from marginalised groups,” added Chellaselvakumar.
According to Andrew Sesuraj, one cannot view corporal punishment as separate from culture and the education system prevalent in the country. Corporal punishment is a systemic problem which is to be treated as a part of the whole, and not as an aspect in itself. “Many schools and teachers face intense pressure to finish the syllabus. So, instead of focusing on comprehensive development of the child, there is unnecessary emphasis on completing portions in time, regardless of whether students are actually learning or not.”
Most teachers are strong advocates of “spare the rod, spoil the child,” since they themselves were brought up in an educational system where corporal punishment was the norm, and seen as being of “benefit to the child.” This leads to most teachers justifying methods of punishment like sit-ups and beating on knuckles and palms using wooden scales and sticks, as “traditional and successful methods of disciplining.” Normalisation of this kind of punishment was evident from the attitude of a few children who were interviewed. “Teachers use animal names such as donkey, monkey, buffalo to shout at us, when we don’t complete our work,” said Janaki and Vaishnavi from Little Oxford School, as they laughed amongst themselves.
Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh recently saw a case of corporal punishment where a 12-year-old girl was slapped twice in each cheek by 14 classmates over a period of six days for not completing her homework. The school principal was later quoted in the media, claiming that the slaps were “mild and friendly”. Such encouragement of violence amongst children might lead to normalisation of violence and promote tendencies of bullying amongst children. “In such environment, children grow up thinking that it is okay to use violence,” said Shreya Hiryur, child counsellor.
Age is an important factor that must be taken into consideration while evaluating the impact that certain methods of punishment might have on children. “Sarcasm, for example, might not work on younger children, while the same might be very humiliating to an older child,” added Shreya.
Often teachers take refuge by claiming to be helpless when asked not to use corporal punishment. Teacher wash their hands of the matter when students flout school rules. This leads children to believe that their character is inherently flawed because of the constant criticism from teachers.
Child Psychologists and counsellors are of the opinion that shouting and beating the child should be replaced by positive and participatory methods of punishment. According to Shreya, corporal punishment instils in children “fear of the punisher, and not punishment.” Since most cases of corporal punishment do not go out of hand, it is very difficult to convince teachers that this is not the right approach. According to Prateeksha Khatri, child counsellor with Billabong International School, “sudden discrepancy in the child’s behavioural pattern caused by corporal punishment should be immediately brought to the notice of a psychologist.”
Teachers need to understand and communicate with students instead of instilling fear using corporal punishment. Alternative methods could include two extra hours spent in the library or an essay explaining why the child has come late, etc so that the child him/herself realises the mistake and rectifies it. “Teacher should be a friend and must understand instead of passing judgements and to inculcate this kind of attitude, teachers need counselling, workshops and training,” said Prateeksha.
Under schemes like Sarva Sikhsha Abhayan, workshops have been conducted to train teachers in alternative methods of disciplining. “Such one-day training sessions are not enough to bring about the necessary attitude change, as they focus only on the consequences of corporal punishment, and do not propose alternative methods or provide guidance on how they can be implemented in schools,” said Andrew.
K.R. Montford Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Perambur, came up with unique and effective alternative methods. In 2015, the students of this school, came up with a campaign that proposed simple alternative methods for betterment of student behaviour without resorting to verbal and physical violence. They designed the ‘wheel of change’ that has many tasks marked on it, such as preparing a lesson plan, taking a class for their peers, conducting assembly sessions, reviewing books, writing notes for classmates and preparing a question paper. “Instead of beating children which only induces fear, we are making them take up more responsibilities”, Anitha Daniel, principal of the school was quoted as saying in the Times of India. The students have also tried to spread this ‘Anti-corporal punishment’ campaign to other schools in Chennai by organising visits and addressing them.
Chellaselvakumar, with his team, which comprises educationists, child rights activists (representatives from NGOs and independent activists), and lawyers, along with government officials, are working on a State Child Policy, which focuses on the rights of children in educational spaces. It has a section which deals with total eradication of corporal punishment, and how this can be brought about. The team is optimistic about implementation of the policy in Tamil Nadu by the end of this year.
The problem with corporal punishment is that it has been accepted by the teaching community and the society at large, as the most effective method of disciplining students. Broadly polarised opinions held by teachers on one hand, and activists on the other, regarding the issue dissipates the seriousness of the few cases that are reported and brought to the attention of the public.
It is necessary for all the stakeholders in this matter to reach a common ground in order to ensure the implementation of existing policies. Teachers and parents shirk responsibility by falling back on popular narratives like, “the problem is in the system,” and “beating is the only option.” Models like that of K. R. Montford will be possible only when students, teachers and parents work hand in hand. However, it is equally important for the school management and authorities to create an atmosphere that facilitates this discourse instead of laying unnecessary emphasis on record-breaking results.