Dubai: Loujain Hussain has spent over a week lying comatose at the Shaikh Khalifa Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi.
As the 11-year-old girl battles for her life following a horrific attack by a group of grade four boys who repeatedly kicked and punched her during lunch break at an international school in Abu Dhabi, an XPRESS investigation reveals that most teachers feel helpless when it comes to disciplining students.
“Parents are not bothered to listen to us about their child's attitude towards studies or classmates. They believe their child is an angel” Tweet this
Most schools have defined mechanisms to deal with student behaviour and the Ministry of Education has also issued a clear-cut Student Conduct Disciplinary By-Law, which goes into specific scenarios of misconduct and ways to address them (see box). But as it turns out, the ground reality is not black and white.
A four-year-old boy flinging a chair across the classroom, an eight-year-old girl being isolated by her friends, a 12-year-old who is repeatedly punched in the back by his classmates, a group of 11th graders coming to blows after a fight — such scenes are not uncommon in UAE schools.
"They are happening too often, more than they ever should. I'm more concerned about the incidents that go unreported," said Saminah Shaheem, Consultant at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai, who regularly conducts workshops on bullying. But prevalent as the scourge is, teachers say they can only do so much.
An Indian teacher at a prominent Dubai school said, "I teach three- to four-year-olds. Even at this age, some boys can be very naughty because they are pampered at home. But as teachers, we have to exercise utmost restraint when we deal with such children. Forget spanking, which is a complete no-no, we cannot even speak to them loudly or point a finger at them."
Another teacher said, "Under the current scheme of things, it's the teachers who have to be more accountable for their behaviour than students for their misbehaviour. Let's also face it, many teachers are here for a living, not for a cause. So it's rare to find someone going that extra mile to enforce discipline."
A school's ability to keep order is as much a reflection of its students as it is of its teachers. Mohammad Darwish, Chief of the Regulations and Compliance Commission at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), said, "KHDA expects all private schools to design, approve, implement and review as necessary a behaviour management policy that covers the entire school community. The policy should reflect zero tolerance of any verbal, emotional and physical abuse from members of the school community — adults and children alike. Instances of all forms of abuse should be reported to the relevant government authority for next steps and action."
An official at an international school feels that the official procedure could sometimes send out the wrong signal.
"We cannot suspend a student for a gross violation of conduct without the consent of the educational authorities. We are expected to document such incidents in writing under federal education bylaws, so due process has to be followed. I say let the school suspend the student first, and then have the meeting between all sides to reinstate the pupil or not. Otherwise, it sends a wrong message that schools are not to be trusted, that they don't know their own students. And it can make students less worried about consequences."
Parents in denial
At the core of the problem are parents who are either in denial or have little time for their children.
An Indian teacher at a private Sharjah school said she no longer feels she has the moral duty to ensure her students are well-behaved in class.
"Parents are not bothered to listen to us about their child's attitude towards studies or classmates. They believe their child is an angel," she said, and added, "My colleagues are also fed up by this indifference." However, most schools are careful to keep an open line of communication with parents. They also maintain a record of a child's bad behaviour.
Savvy Kisani, Director of the Little Nest Nursery in Al Jafaliya, said, "We have not had any untoward incidents so far. But if we find that a child consistently misbehaves and that we need to speak to the parents, we do show them our records, including video clippings at times."
Mathew Greening, Deputy Principal of Dubai International Academy, said the school had a comprehensive anti-bullying policy with all staff trained to recognise the signs. Besides close monitoring by teachers, CCTV cameras installed for security purposes also capture any unruly behaviour.
A spokesperson for the GEMS education group, which runs over two dozen schools in the UAE, said: "GEMS schools have very clear rules published in their annual handbooks (provided to students and parents), which outline how discipline is managed at schools. Teachers are supported by the administration when in-classroom discipline is required. Administrators handle more serious cases." He said, "Adult presence in all areas of the school, including playgrounds and shared common areas, is crucial. Students must see adults as part of their school life and recognise that adults are there to protect and support their growth."
Often, bullying can manifest itself outside the school premises. As M.L. Augustine, Managing Director of School Transport Services, which carries thousands of children to school everyday, said, "We do have instances of children fighting, screaming, not wearing seat belts, etc, on the school bus. If we find something amiss, we send an incident report to the school for any required action."
Tim Waley, Principal of Uptown School, Dubai, said enforcing discipline among students is not the school's responsibility alone. "When communication between parents and teachers is overlooked, that's when a problem could arise. There are occasionally situations where a parent's first response is to believe their children in relation to some misdemeanour without first seeking the full picture — it's like a predetermined response. Parents will then get a different picture of the school; it's important to hear all sides of the story.
"Parents [of erring students] may not like it, but they need to be open to discussions. It's worse not to hold children accountable and responsible for their actions," he said.
"Parents in some cases directly reach out to higher authorities first [like the KHDA or Ministry of Education], thinking they will get what they want out of the situation. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't."
Experts believe ambitious and aggressive parents push children to excel at any cost, with the result that moral values take a back seat. "It bothers me that some children don't think twice about misrepresenting facts just to get ahead of the game," said college counsellor Shyamala Elango. "By letting them get away with it, we could just be raising a generation of bullies."
Alarmed at the widespread malaise of bullying in UAE schools, Wail Huneidi, a Jordanian father of two in Abu Dhabi, has launched an anti-bullying campaign. "Often, bullying in the classroom goes unchecked because teachers are either afraid to act or don't recognise the problem. There is an urgent need to create greater awareness in this area."
Shaheem said the fight against bullying needed "a 360 degree initiative involving teachers, parents, children and general practitioners".