To end of injustice in schools adults must join the struggle

Adults must listen to student voices against authoritarianism in schools rather than attempt to censor them, an education expert says. All stakeholders should join in fighting the deep-rooted problems to make the students’ voices louder.

Student heads that were shaved as punishments for their haircut. 

Oppression in schools has long been a controversial issue among students. Many school-related hashtags have trended on Twitter. According to The Matter, students talk about these through hashtags: the authoritarian culture among teachers, teaching approaches used, sexual and verbal harassment by teachers, primitive school rules, pointless activities, unfair tuition fees and other facts about their schools.

Due to authoritarianism in schools in the form of regulations, students lose their rights — including the right over their own bodies, the right to online privacy and the right to sexuality. Students chose social media, especially Twitter, to expose enforcement of outdated school policies and oppressive harassment by teachers.

Asst Prof Athapol Anunthavorasakul, a lecturer from Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Education, explained that the online movement reflects frustrations of digital-era youth, who have been oppressed by adults with an old-fashioned mindset, the mindset that older people and teachers are always right.

Athapol said speaking up now is a good beginning for students to grow up and become politically active citizens.

Anonymity on social media

A group of high school student activists known as Bad Student has been active as a platform to project other students’ voices both on Twitter and in reality.

Laponpat Wangpaisit, a member of Bad Student, said he has been advocating student rights and is disheartened to see that students from different schools are experiencing the same problems. From what Laponpat has noticed, most of the things students say on social media are doable but schools choose not to compromise; instead, they attempt to violate students’ freedom of expression.

When sending out tweets about experiences in schools, most students choose to remain anonymous. Laponpat believes the reason for this is that Thai people were not encouraged to speak out against what they believe is wrong. When it comes to students speaking out, Laponpat said they are more vulnerable to pressure from those in charge at schools.

Bad Student has reported teachers’ attempts to censor students from expressing their thoughts — including deducting behaviour points, verbal harassment, death threats, threats of legal action, telling students to quit and rewarding witch hunts.

Athapol said when the authorities are challenged, it is normal that they will exercise their power to maintain their authority, even if it means abusing others. Athapol explained that attempts at censorship reflect their fear of losing power. If they keep doing this, Athapol said they are at a disadvantage.

Laponpat said most teachers do not acknowledge that students have the right to express their thoughts on their social media accounts.

“Most teachers will think that it discredits the school’s image. So, they are not okay with it,” Laponpat said. “Teachers will only look from that perspective, which makes them see every comment as their enemy. So they will try to eradicate them.”

Virtuality to become reality

Their movement is in two worlds, virtual and real. Athapol said the messages students are trying to convey to the public send a very clear signal that they are ready to bring their virtual movement to reality.

Athapol explained that students in this generation have grown up in an obviously abusive political atmosphere, in which those in power use their power to oppress others. As school is a simulated and miniaturized society, students will experience the same thing as people in real society are experiencing, which makes them realize that the problem is closer to them than they thought, according to Athapol.

Athapol also said the movement should not be only virtual but should be brought into reality, which he said he is starting to see happen.

“Students standing up and raising their voices more, not only at one place but in many schools, is something adults have to acknowledge,” Athapol said, “because children’s voices that are getting louder and louder are making adults wake up.”

Earlier this year, Athapol said society got to see the movement of the digital-age generation when they brought their messages on Twitter to reality. Athapol said the movement was ignited and they were ready to fight, but it was put on hold by Covid-19. He believes once the Emergency Decree is lifted, they will come out and continue advocating their causes in the real world.

Another example is the movement of the Education for Liberation of Siam group — Education is Killing Me.

People watched one of a performance in the Education is Killing Me activity in 2019.

It is a very interesting transition where Thai society will, again, transform into a more democratic society, Athapol said. He said the voices of students are very loud now compared to voices of students who spoke out for their rights many years ago.

However, to make this transition effective and beneficial for everyone, everyone must be included in the process.

Effective transition by all stakeholders, especially students and teachers

Laponpat believes the majority of students have expressed their concerns in person with their institutions but their voices were not heard, so they turned to the virtual world.

Athapol sees that this reflects a lack of dialogue between those who rule and the ones under their power. Athapol said most teachers do not feel the need to discuss.

Change cannot be brought about only by the students in the fight. Athapol said teachers need to listen, and this must include all the schools’ stakeholders —students, teachers, administrators, parents and alumni — in the discussion.

Athapol gave Bangkok Christian College as an example. The school allowed its students to dress casually to school, Athapol said, because the administration developed a plan with input from students, parents and alumni.

However, the most important stakeholders remain students and teachers.

“Quite a lot of schools which allow students to participate would have smooth transitions and lead to teachers and students being friends . But if it happens that people on each side keep pushing against the other side, just trying to win, those schools will have bad relationships,” Athapol said.

While most students are ready to fight, Athapol said, teachers who share the same beliefs should stand by their side in fighting the problem.

Athapol believes that the majority of teachers are ready to move on from the authoritarian culture in schools, but they fail to use their role to support their students’ voices. Athapol said this group of teachers is a part of the problem.

“Actually, if we really try talking to teachers, quite a lot of the new generation are no friends of authoritarianism. But if they see this as an issue for the children, an issue for a few teachers in this struggle, this amounts to a green light for authoritarianism in schools to continue,” Athapol said.

Athapol pointed out that this is not a fight against individuals but against collective thinking. He said the adults who agree with the students must join them in projecting their voices to show that the majority of the people no longer value authoritarianism in schools.