School under scrutiny over student abuse allegations

School under scrutiny over student abuse allegations

Preparing for the future: Youngsters follow behind their teachers at Sarasas Witaed Ratchaphruek School in Nonthaburi. Parents of kindergarten pupils who were allegedly beaten by their carers at the school have demanded swift legal action.
Preparing for the future: Youngsters follow behind their teachers at Sarasas Witaed Ratchaphruek School in Nonthaburi. Parents of kindergarten pupils who were allegedly beaten by their carers at the school have demanded swift legal action.

The abuse of kindergarten students at the Sarasas Witaed Ratchaphruek private school in Nonthaburi's Pak Kret district is a clear wake-up call for all stakeholders to come up with better child-protection measures.

The private school's Pak Kret branch hit the headlines last week after viral videos of a teacher, identified as Ornuma "Khru Jum" Plodprong, showed her abusing kindergarten children in class.

One video shows the teacher shoving a three-year-old student to the ground and pulling another across the room.

Another video shows Ms Ornuma banging the heads of students against their desks and twisting their ears until they screamed in pain.

The most disturbing video was the one showing Ms Ornuma dropping liquid from her menthol inhaler into a male student's eye and laughing as the boy cried.

The string of alleged assault on preschoolers came to light after a parent of a student noticed her daughter refused to go to school and discovered bruises on her body. The parent later asked the school for CCTV footage and learned about what had happened.

After the videos went viral, other parents of children from various classes and grades marched to the school and demanded to watch CCTV footage of their children's classrooms, suspecting they may also have been victims of harsh corporal punishment by teachers at the expensive school.

Shockingly, most of the incidents of violence against the children occurred while other faculty members were present but did nothing to stop them.

Pol Lt Gen Amphol Buarapporn, commissioner of the Provincial Police Region 1, yesterday said CCTV footage revealed 30 students at the Sarasas Witaed Ratchaphruek school had fallen victim to abuse by teachers.

The footage was reviewed between Sept 16 and 28, he said, adding the 30 victims had been abused by teachers 54 times. Twenty parents had already filed complaints with Ratchaphruek police.

So far, police have pressed charges against Ms Ornuma, Pamornlak "Khru Ple" Rassameemethakorn and Mawin Live Avang Orajola over accusations of physical and emotional abuse of children under the Child Protection Act.

Ms Ornuma and Ms Pamornlak are Thai, while Mr Avang Orajola is a Filipino national.

Ms Ornuma faces 10 counts of physical assault while Mr Avang Orajola is facing similar charges and working in the country without a permit. Mr Avang Orajola has been fined 5,000 baht.

The cases at Sarasas Witaed Ratchaphruek School raised concerns about the lack of protection for children in schools and prompted calls on authorities to reinforce their efforts to prevent abuse in schools.

Athapol Anunthavorasakul, an education expert at Chulalongkorn University, said the cases represent a failure to protect children and they should serve as a wake-up call to all stakeholders interested in better protection for children.

"Schools must be safe havens for children, and no child should suffer from any form of violence," Mr Athapol said.

"Teachers must be the ones who protect the children in their care, not the ones who harm them," he added.

The expert said he was shocked upon learning the Sarasas school had allowed Ms Ornuma and other staff members, who never went through professional training in early childhood education and did not have a teaching licence, to work with small children between the ages of 7 and 8.

"Kindergarten is the most crucial stage in a child's academic development," he said. "It is the stage where they receive their first formal year instructions, and it is also where they get introduced to new skills.

"It is a delicate stage in children's development -- it should be handled by a highly-trained teacher," Mr Athapol added. "Not everyone can be a kindergarten teacher."

He noted kindergarten educators must have the ability to work with children as well as motivate them. He said it is important for kindergarten educators to display patience or have the ability to endure difficult circumstances when working with young students.

"Working in noisy and chaotic environments could create high levels of stress and the feeling of depression," Mr Athapol said. "Preschool educators must also perform a wide variety of tasks which require patience, creativity and empathy.

"When teachers are stressed out or depressed, it can be harder for them to meet children's emotional needs."

He said teachers should be required to pass a set of assessments, both academic and psychological, every semester to ensure they are ready to work with small children.

They should also be allowed to take a break and come back when they're emotionally ready, Mr Athapol stressed.

"In some countries, kindergarten teachers have to take a break for one week after spending time in classrooms for three weeks," he said. "Teachers who are not psychologically ready have higher chances to use violence and abuse students.

"We need to reduce the risk and screen them."

Dr Suriyadeo Tripathi, director of the National Institute for Child and Family Development at Mahidol University, said violence against children violates the constitution, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the kingdom's Early Childhood Development Act.

"A blacklist of ill-behaved teachers and other personnel who violate students' rights should be established by the [education] ministry so parents or schools can request background checks before hiring educators," Dr Suriyadeo said.

"Kindergarten years are the ones that lay a foundation for students' success in their future studies."

Dr Suriyadeo said children who are abused can later experience negative physical, learning and mental health issues.

Children are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleeping and eating patterns and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, he said.

Their academic performance and school participation record will also be affected, Dr Suriyadeo said.

"Children who are abused by adults can also engage in violence and other risky behaviours during adulthood," he said.

"They are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs as adolescents and adults, dropping out of school, and having criminal convictions and be abusive toward their spouses or children."

Attapon Truektrong, secretary-general of the Office of Private Education Commission (Opec), said the episodes of assault at the Sarasas Witaed Ratchaphruek school will be severely dealt with.

He said his private education commission will spare no effort to look into the abuse and bring everyone involved into account no matter what the level was.

Mr Attapon said a panel has been set up to follow on the progress of solutions to the abuse against students and other issues at the school.

Consisting of the permanent secretary for education and representatives of the Department of Mental Health, the panel will closely monitor the rehabilitation of the affected students and their parents, he said.

According to Opec, there have been recent complaints about bullying and inappropriate punishments at 34 Sara­sas schools. The Sarasas group now operates 49 schools around the country.

"We also asked all private schools nationwide to tighten their safety measures and improve recruiting efficiency to ensure that this kind of problem won't happen again," Mr Attapon said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha recently called for educational personnel of all levels to exercise caution and judgement before disciplining students.

Violent punishments, hardcore physical exercises, or bullying must not be conducted in schools in any case, he said.

The mother of a boy assaulted by Ms Ornuma told the Bangkok Post recently that she was very disappointed to find out her son was abused by teachers at school and demanded the school to come up with better student abuse prevention methods.

"As a parent, I work very hard so I can afford to send my child to this expensive school," the mother said. "I expect [my son] to get a quality education, but what I get in return is unacceptable.

"Not just my son -- no child should suffer from any form of violence in schools. My son is still frightened of going to school."

The mother said schools nationwide need to better screen their teaching staff, and all school classrooms should be fitted with CCTV cameras to protect children from abuse.

"The Education Ministry rules clearly forbid teachers from using physical punishments," she said.

"If the school is seen as failing to ensure a safe and nurturing atmosphere for children, it should be closed."

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