Hitting a preschooler on the head. Pushing a toddler down on the floor. Shoving a black plastic bag over a child's head -- a technique security personnel use to torture terrorists. This was how a group of teachers at a famous private school "disciplined" kindergarteners.
The country was shocked and angry. But when it comes to abuse by teachers and school violence in Thailand, incidents like these are merely the tip of the iceberg.
News about severe beatings and other harsh treatments at schools has become so frequent it no longer shocks. But the physical abuse by teachers at Sarasas Witaed Ratchaphruek School was in a class of its own. Not only did it concern violence against toddlers, but the scandal also destroyed the myth that expensive private schools are safe for children.
Had it not been for one family's worries about their child's fear of going to school and their request to see security camera footage, the serial violence against kindergarteners there would not have been exposed.
The Education Ministry prohibits corporal punishment. Yet school violence continues unabated. According to a survey in August by the Thailand Development Research Institute, as many as 60% of students say they are facing corporal punishment in various forms of physical violence.
Worse still is the ongoing sexual abuse of students. Although rape or sexual harassment is a crime and a serious breach of teachers' ethics, the predators almost always enjoy protection from other teachers and principals. This culture of impunity rooted in school authoritarianism allows predators to freely exploit school students. This must end.
Education policy and school management must be based on respect for human rights. This respect must be the core principle in national policy on human resources development. And schools must strictly adhere to this principle. We can no longer let abusive teachers and systems destroy the kids who are our future.
Abuse and violence by teachers have severe short and long-term impacts on children physically and mentally. The trauma often derails their education, making them want to quit school. For those who stay on, their academic performance often drops.
Equally worrying, violence is self-perpetuating; the abused often becomes the abusers themselves, continuing the cycle of violence from one generation to another.
Violence against children also affects the national economy because it hurts the young generation's ability to realise potential and generate income in the future. According to Unicef, violence against children affects economic growth by 1.4% to 2.5% of GDP in Asia and the Pacific. This is what the government and parents should do in order to prevent and alleviate the problem of violence from teachers.
Firstly, produce a new generation of teachers and education personnel with an open mind. The teacher education system must focus on proper child development, instil awareness on child rights protection, and observe classroom management with non-violent interventions.
The kindergarten violence scandal also exposes schools' common practice of hiring unqualified teacher assistants. At present, school babysitters are required to have only a Mathayom 3 education without specialised training in childcare. There is simply no quality control system to ensure very young children are in good hands.
In Finland and Sweden, babysitters at schools must have specialised training in how to organise appropriate activities for preschool children. In Singapore, the government must also pay for school babysitters' training.
It is mandatory for both public and private schools in Thailand to beef up their screening of teachers and babysitters. For example, the teachers must pass the assessment system of the Teachers Council and have professional licences. There must also be a proper system to recruit teaching assistants and babysitters as well as the tests they must pass to ensure they are qualified to teach small children.
Secondly, decentralise. The school monitoring mechanisms must be decentralised and run by local communities because the current top-down, centralised system has failed to respond to local needs.
At present, the Teachers Council is the sole authority to monitor teachers across the country. Apparently, the job exceeds its capability. The schools' internal monitoring system is not working either. The schools' monitoring committees are almost always set up without external parties, turning them into a mutual protection racket. It's why rogue teachers are not punished.
Change is possible if local communities have the authority to monitor and control teacher quality. The first step is to include representatives from local communities or civil society organisations in the schools' monitoring committees.
The Education Ministry has already adopted this inclusive approach by setting up a centre to protect and support the students who are the victims of sexual assault. But there are no channels yet to address other forms of teacher violence. The ministry then should set up a channel for students to report abuses with privacy protection. The ministry should also be proactive by getting the facts from parents and local communities instead of listening to school authorities alone.
Thirdly, punish the violators. Rogue teachers continue to assault students because they know they can get away with it. At present, Thailand has at least nine state agencies with plans and ready resources to tackle violence against children, including sexual and physical violence in schools. Yet, 73 to 77% of children aged between one and 14 are facing violence each month.
What we need is state conviction and commitment to punish abusive teachers. Now, schools handle scandals by setting up internal committees to protect colleagues. If buying out the victims does not work, they often resort to intimidation. Allowing the police and external parties to investigate the crime can reduce the current efforts to derail justice.
If the teachers are guilty of the crime, they must be punished accordingly. Merely transferring them to other schools or other state agencies -- even firing them -- is not acceptable.
It is also crucial to provide physical and psychological healing to the victims by experts such as physicians and child psychologists. Equally important is ensuring safety and protection to the students against threats and intimidation from the offenders and their supporters.
Fourthly, empower the parents. They are the anchors to retain the students' psychological stability in a time of emotional crisis. Their child-rearing approach is therefore important. When state mechanisms fail to protect students, at least the children can depend on parental love and support. Many parents are now more open and understanding, having given up the traditional authoritarian mode of control.
But a large number of parents still firmly adhere to the motto "spare the rod and spoil the child" although lots of research has shown adverse effects of corporal punishment on children's psyche. If we want children to grow up and become quality citizens who can realise their aspirations and contribute to the country, we need to respect child rights.
We need to understand how children learn and nurture their creativity. We need to believe in their potential. We, therefore, must avoid violent punishment that hurts children physically and mentally. Equally important, we must ensure that no children are still facing assaults while abusive teachers remain free. This is only possible when we start fixing the authoritarian education system which has no respect for the rights of children.
Thunhavich Thitiratsakul is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.