Corporal punishment in schools. Take a step back?

The issue of corporal punishment is back in the spotlight after public debate in recent years, following the Government’s announcement that it planned to reintroduce it in Samoa.

The controversial legislation – known as the Education Amendment Bill 2019 – was eventually passed by Parliament in January this year, despite opposition by members of the community as well as high ranking judicial officials.

Nine months after the passage of the law and a teacher has been reported to the Ministry of Education Sports and Culture (MESC) for allegedly assaulting a Year 13 student with a plastic pipe.

MESC Minister, Loau Keneti Sio, expressed concern and said the school principal is being investigated over the incident to verify reports that the student was allegedly struck a number of times on the torso and the face. 

“The incident is very sad to hear, he said. “The individual should have known much better about the law but I guess they decided to take the law into their own hands.” 

The Minister said he is disappointed and added that the teacher should not have used an object to strike the student. 

While we appreciate the level of proactiveness from Loau in relation to this matter, it must be said the Government was warned that reinstituting corporal punishment back into the education system would be detrimental for the community.

Let us take a look at the legislation in question. The Bill amended Section 23 of the Education Act, “to allow the use of force by a secondary school teacher on a child, if the force is used in reasonable circumstances, including but not limited to preventing or minimising harm to the child”.

The key words are: “If the force is used in reasonable circumstances, including but not limited to preventing or minimising harm to the child.”

How can you measure the impact of “force used in reasonable circumstances, including but not limited to preventing or minimising harm to the child”? Would the child be hurt by the impact of the force used? Would the teacher be stepping out of line the moment he or she lifted their hand to use reasonable force? And how traumatised would the child be by such an experience in an environment that should promote learning, life skills and facing the future with confidence?

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We look forward to the findings of the inquiry that the Ministry has started into the incident, in order to verify reports that the teacher allegedly used a plastic pipe.

With the investigation underway, Loau has assured the public that the MESC will run a seminar for teachers in Samoa to ensure they effect discipline in schools in “the right way”.

“But our Ministry is having seminars on the use of corporal punishment to discipline a child the right way," he said. 

Okay so what is really “the right way” to discipline a child? Should it just be a nudge or a tap on the shoulder? Or a poke in the eye or the banging of the knuckles on the students’ heads? Should the teacher use an object or should not use an object? If the student is taller than the teacher how should discipline be effected? 

And from the teachers’ perspective, why should they be further burdened with student disciplinary issues which should be the remit of a child’s parents? Aren’t they charged with the responsibility to create a conducive learning environment for Samoa’s next generation of leaders?

The questions have to be asked as the passing of the amendments to the Section 23 of the Education Act has only opened a can of worms for everyone concerned.

Now that the MESC has got its own its inquiry underway, perhaps this is an opportune time for the Ministry to do its own research, on the links between school violence and corporal punishment in other education systems around the world. There are states that banned corporal punishment in schools, in order to create a conducive environment for learning and to protect the rights of the child.

The Acting Chief Justice and Supreme Court Justice Vui Clarence Nelson in July last year described the amendments as “a retrograde step” for Samoa. 

“This law is a retrograde step. We’re going backward. We were heading forward but now we’re going back and this law allows teachers to physically discipline their students in a reasonable manner based on their judgment.”

Fast forward 15 months after the Justice’s comments and nine months after the amendments were passed by Parliament, an educator in Samoa has now come under scrutiny for allegedly applying that very law.

Just over a year ago the Office of the Ombudsman released details of a two-year inquiry into family violence in Samoa. Its findings were shocking and urgently called for behavioural change.

We believe corporal punishment in schools can normalise violence and would not augur well for this country’s next generation and their future.

Have a lovely Monday Samoa and God bless. 

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