Reform urged to end school abuse

Reform urged to end school abuse

Holistic strategy needed to overcome endemic sexual harassment

Nalinrat Tuthubthim holds a placard saying: 'A Teacher Committed Sexual Abuse Against Me. Schools Are Not Safe' during a recent protest. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)
Nalinrat Tuthubthim holds a placard saying: 'A Teacher Committed Sexual Abuse Against Me. Schools Are Not Safe' during a recent protest. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)

Sexual abuse can be prevented by not only reforming the justice system to make it fairer for victims, but also educating youngsters and those around them right from kindergarten age to be vigilant for predatorial behaviour, according to social activists.

Harassment can happen to anyone and anywhere -- even in schools and tutorial classes -- and the victims include people with autism and disability, said Supensri Puengkhoksung, manager of the Social Equality Promotion Foundation.

Reflecting on her 30 years of experience in helping people who faced sexual harassment and abuse, she said people need to be taught from an early age to be aware of the problem so they can prevent themselves from becoming victims.

Building early awareness

Children in kindergarten should be taught how to recognise inappropriate behaviour, especially from people they don't know or haven't known for long, as part of the curriculum, Ms Supensri said.

Older children, meanwhile, should be taught not only what the process is for reporting abuse, but also that their complaints will be taken seriously and dealt with confidentially.

She said it is important to also be able to access help from state agencies.

"Safe spaces must be created in public places and schools should be equipped with alert systems that can be triggered when an emergency occurs," Ms Supensri said.

Justice system needs reform

The justice system also must deliver prompt punitive actions against sexual offenders, to assure victims they are being treated fairly. Details of the investigation must be also be kept under wraps, she added.

She pointed to lax law enforcement as the cause of repeated sexual abuses, saying the system has failed to deter offenders from going on to commit more crimes. In educational establishments, victims -- most of whom are students -- often end up quitting out of embarrassment. Meanwhile, few school executives are willing to commit serious time and energy to investigate claims of sexual abuses, out of fear of damaging the school's reputation.

As a result, perpetrators rarely face any punishment, while victims and their families have to endure stigma from the harassment, Ms Supensri said.

"When abuse is wrapped up by way of civil settlements, the perpetrators don't feel the need to repent for what they did. Many cases of abuse involve people in a position of power who are never subjected to criminal or disciplinary action," she said.

Ms Supensri said there is plenty of room for improvements in the justice system. For example, in criminal proceedings, the burden of proof falls on the victim, meaning they have to provide the evidence to substantiate their accusations against the perpetrators.

In many cases, victims don't have the same power and/or social status as their abusers, which complicates their effort to secure evidence to back their reports.

As such, Ms Supensri suggested that in sexual abuses cases, the burden of proof should fall on the suspects, and judges should be allowed to ask them to present evidence to prove or disprove the charges they face.

Underreporting an issue

Pol Col Jiraklit Jarounapat, superintendent of the Children and Women's Protection Subdivision, said sexual crimes in schools, as "heinous" as they are, are seldom reported.

Young victims often choose not to inform their parents or police as they believe their abusers, who are often teachers, may further ruin their lives by giving out bad grades. As a result, many cases of abuse at school are never brought to the authorities' attention.

Pol Maj Gen Siam Boonsom, commander of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division (ATPD), said abusers in schools were mostly physical education teachers and after-class tutorial instructors.

The majority of victims were in primary school and lower high school students, who said they were violated during field trips and extra-curricular activities outside of school, he added.

"Parents shouldn't let their children attend activities outside of school for long periods of time, or go on trips with their teachers alone," he said.

"We shouldn't take any chances."

In May, the Education Ministry wrote to the Royal Thai Police office asking that the police oppose bail to teachers accused of sexual offences.

A wake-up call

Sexual abuse in Thai schools grabbed public attention after Nalinrat Tuthubthim, 20, showed up to a pro-democracy rally holding a placard saying which said, "A Teacher Committed Sexual Indecency Against Me. Schools Aren't A Safe Place", while dressed in a school uniform.

Sompong Jitradub, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Education, said what happened to Ms Nalinrat reflects the government's failure to protect students and should serve as a strong wake-up call to all stakeholders to protect students better.

"Schools should be safe havens for children and teachers must protect the children in their care, not harm them."

Mr Sompong said although most Thai schools have a student affairs division to support students outside the classroom, many lack accessible and child-sensitive complaint mechanisms for students who were sexually abused to use.

"Most victims don't know who they can turn to. They need someone or a channel they can trust,'' he said.

Join hand to help out

Mr Sompong suggested that confidential reporting channels should be established in all schools and staff and students alike must know how to use them. Schools should also have clear referral pathways to social welfare agencies and work with multidisciplinary teams to provide support to survivors of violence and abuse.

The expert also warned schools not to focus on protecting girls as sexual assaults can happen to boys too. LGBT students are also facing higher risks of abuses, he said.

Earlier this year, the Education Ministry established a centre for sexual assault victims to protect children from predatory teachers.

The centre now serves as the ministry's main agency in tackling sexual assaults at schools. The centre has so far received 16 complaints, which have led to the revocation or suspension of teaching credentials.

Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan has stressed that he will not tolerate any form of sexual harassment in schools. "Under my watch, there will be no more transfers to inactive posts," he added. "Every offender will be immediately fired."

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