Students should be able to stand up to abusive teachers, and teachers should be equipped with the right tools to manage their classes. The law can deter corporal punishment, but to end this form of abuse, society needs to invest in educational institutions and courts need to consistently punish wrongdoers, writesISHIKA GARG.
“EVEN animals are protected against cruelty… Our children surely cannot be worse off than animals,” said Justice N Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court as he recently ruled in S. Jai Singh and Ors. vs State and Anr in March. This case relates to a student who died after he was made to do a “duckwalk”—a form of corporal punishment—for arriving late to school. Justice Venkatesh ruled that despite legislation against such forms of punishment, they are still practised in educational institutions across the nation.
Corporal punishment is the use of physical force against a child as a ‘corrective’ form of enforcing discipline. Usually, teachers who are unable to discipline their students take recourse to physical assault.
The attitude of the judiciary is also ambivalent towards the deep-rooted problem of corporal punishment. The Kerala High Court has held in Rajan vs Sub-Inspector of Police that “reasonable” use of force by a teacher to discipline the student shall not be a crime. However, is it the extent or the existence of physical coercion that constitutes an offence in this case? The reasoning in the Kerala case is inherently flawed.
Schools often apply an incorrect standard in cases of corporal punishment. They examine the severity of the physical injuries caused to a child when what needs to be understood is that any physical force can be potentially disastrous for a child.
Often, teachers cane, spank, or duckwalk a student, and there have been cases of tying up children to “discipline” them. Evidence shows that spanking can negatively impact the brain and cause children to experience withdrawal. Some children might start viewing violence as an acceptable way to ensure compliance. They may use violence to achieve the behaviour or responses they wish to see in others. This normalises violence in tender minds.
Understanding the urgent need to protect children from this barbaric practice, the learned judge emphasized the need for a special law to deal with corporal punishment in S. Jai Singh. A legal-constitutional framework that expressly prohibits physical harm to school students already exists.
Section 17(1) of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 expressly bans subjecting a child to mental harassment or physical punishment. Cruelty to children is also prohibited under Section 23 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000. These laws hold teachers and adults liable for assault or corporal punishment of children. However, these policy reforms have done very little to eliminate the menace.
A study in Andhra Pradesh estimated that 72% of girl students experienced physical punishment. Another study of public schools found that more than 80% of students in Gurugram got corporal punishment.
There is a deeper issue at play here, and to understand it, we need to look at why teachers allow corporal punishment in classrooms. Teachers use physical punishment (or mental harassment) because of a general lack of awareness or interest to explore options other than violence and abuse.
While a special law may increase the punishment for this crime, we need to deter the practice. In criminal justice, the theory of deterrence functions on the assumption that individuals make rational choices and would therefore not indulge in a criminal act that invites severe punishment.
Hence, deterrence is more likely to work for premeditated offences and not those which result from sudden emotions. Teachers commit violence against children when swayed by emotion. Say, when they feel frustrated at being unable to manage the classroom.
Studies show that policies that seek to improve enforcement and achieve their targets sooner are more likely to ensure deterrence. Unless the structural factors underlying violence are addressed, a special law is unlikely to provide deterrence.
While systemic issues such as understaffed and under-resourced public schools with overcrowded classrooms place additional stress on teachers, teacher training, especially in alternative methods to tackle classrooms, are also needed.
One neglected yet effective option is to help cultivate the teacher-student relationship. Meaningful child participation and teacher engagement in support of the learning process can reduce violence in schools.
An assessment of schools in Malawi, where teachers refrained from corporal punishment when they learned continuous assessment and started involving students in the learning process, confirms this. Another step is to appoint social workers who can professionally mediate the relationship between teachers and students.
Every school should be encouraged to appoint workers who can intervene as counsellors to help students overcome learning disabilities or relationship issues with teachers. Such workers can encourage students to speak up against violence from teachers. It is also a good idea for teachers to acquaint themselves properly with the ‘Child Friendly Schools Manual’ published by UNICEF and strive to implement it.
Physical punishment scars the body and mind of a student, robbing them of dignity. Children must not lose their rights just because they have passed through the school gates. Allowing teachers to lose control over their behaviour while teaching restraint to a child creates a paradoxical situation! It needs to be addressed by the law and measures beyond the law.
(Ishika Garg is a law student. The views expressed are personal.)