Mother, teacher, MP call for change as student dies after punishment

Abuse in the Thai education system has resurfaced with the death of a student from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy 2 days after a teacher made him do 100 squats as a punishment for not doing his homework. It amplifies the calls for education reform and tougher enforcement of regulations to stop violence in schools.

The vigil ceremony for students who died from education issues held at the students protest on 5 September 2020.

The death took place on 7 September, 2 days after the teacher inflicted the punishment despite the student showing a medical certificate, explaining that he was too sick to do homework. (Source: Khaosod, Komchadluek)

The death comes just as student protesters have protested against harassment of students in schools and school-related deaths among their main demands for education reform on 5 September.

While his parent have decided not to file a legal complaint, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has not taken any action and the punishment and the death have still not been linked, Prachatai English talked to a mother, teacher and policy maker about their concern over the incident which reflects a constant risk of death in schools.

A mother calls for cultural change regarding corporal punishment

Nuttaa Mahattana, an activist and mother of a 13-year-old son, felt terribly sad as the boy who died is the same age as her son. She is disappointed that physical punishment is still used despite the MOE regulations prohibiting it. This reflects on the Ministry’s inefficiency or incompetence in implementing policy. 

Rule of the Ministry of Education on Penalisation of Pupils And Students, B.E.2548 (2005) allows 4 kinds of punishments: warnings, probation, deducting conduct scores, and performance of activities with a view to behavioural adjustment. No violence of any kind is allowed as a punishment.

For this case in particular, Nuttaa wants to see immediate action taken by the MOE by pursuing legal action against the teacher and to providing some form of compensation to the family. 

“I still remember at the time I was like 9 years old, there was a teacher who would come into the classroom, scolding children for no good reason, quite harshly and the kids are so young. So this happens, and it's still there”, Nuttaa relayed her school experience, things like mandatory haircuts which still exist today.

She urges the Ministry of Education to take 3 steps to solve the problem: be responsible for this case and take legal action against any teacher who inflicts violence on students; ensure that teachers understand the legal consequences for assaulting students; and lastly, a cultural change within the education system and a change in the mindset of people. 

“If there is still a culture of authoritarianism in schools like this, no matter what kind of rule is issued by the Ministry, it will be ignored as in the past. The Ministry has improved their regulations a lot already. 

“It’s not like they have the wrong regulations, they have appropriate regulations about punishment and all. But they are ignored because [of] the culture in the education system so there must be cultural change, change in the mindset.”, said Nuttaa. 

On 9 September, Nuttaa posted an open letter to Nataphol Teepsuwan, the Education Minister, to take serious action to put a stop to repeated violence in schools. (Source: Matichon)

Community of parents should unite against teacher aggression

Viroj Lakkana-adisorn, an MP from the Move Forward Party (MFP) and spokesperson for the House Committee on Education, questions whether physical punishment in schools is being carried out only after other positive reinforcement methods have failed. 

“...Can the teacher use other methods, such as having him submit the homework later, either after school or at lunch time? What will be gained from punishment? This is the use of power. This is the brutality embedded in authoritarianism,” said Viroj.

He said in the past 2 months, the Committee has received 20 complaints about harassment of students. The Ministry must take a serious stance on teachers' assaults on students by using any legal and disciplinary procedure at its disposal to deter teachers from repeating the behaviour.

Viroj urges the Ministry to work actively to reform school boards, which oversee school activities, to include all stakeholders, including teachers, alumni, students, parents and the community. Protection of children's rights and putting a stop to atrocities in schools must be one of the primary objectives.

He also urges the parents in the community to take an active role in checking teachers’ abuse of power.

“With the Ministry of Education as the host, there are agencies to start legal proceedings against teachers who still commit violations and mount an ongoing campaign. Meanwhile, the community of families has to try to mobilize to take a greater role, and push to have more role in protecting their children.”, said Viroj.

Teacher engagement with students should change

“Is it wrong to be sick?”, asks Ongkarn Chomvisarutkul, the director of kindergarten school and a former English teacher who has always disagreed with corporal punishment.

Ongkarn feels sad and angry and says that the case of illness is absolutely unfair. He thinks that teachers should instead engage with students to encourage them. A 100 squats violates Section 6 of the Ministry’s Rules [which bans physical punishment]. There is no benefit and could be both violent and humiliating if it was in front of other people.

“…I have never physically harmed students because I have always held that they’re someone’s children.”

“Once I got into the world of education, read books on psychology and had my own experience. I found out that it [corporal punishment] had no benefit as I had thought. It is not a fact. It is just a belief that people believe in incorrectly.”

Ongkarn said that authoritarianism, the teacher’s ego and sayings such as ‘The cane makes a man’ and “To love a cow, tie it up; to love a child, hit him/her,” are the reasons why corporal punishment still exists in school. He also urges teachers who still use this punishment to change their mindset and to understand their students more. 

“Teachers have a duty of helping and coaching students, not tyrannizing them”, said Ongkarn.

Bamaejuri and Thidatep are Prachatai English interns from Mahidol University International College (MUIC)