The Council of Educators has failed to end corporal punishment,…
Corporal punishment is a euphemism for aggression. experts note that it is often not used as a tool of discipline but rather to exert power and control over students. Although corporal punishment is illegal in South Africa, it remains prevalent in many schools across the country. Despite this, the approach of South African Council of Educators (SACE) in disciplinary proceedings against teachers accused of corporal punishment seems to indicate that the council has failed to take a child-centred approach to corporal punishment cases by handing down pre-determined and demonstrably lenient sentences to teachers.
Corporal punishment has been outlawed since the implementation of the South African Schools Act 1996. But although its illegality has again been confirmed in the case of Christian Education South Africa v Minister of Educationthe SACE Annual Report 2018/19 reveals that more than 35% of complaints filed against teachers concerned corporal punishment. This figure rose to 38% in the Annual report 2019/20.
However, studies show that this does not accurately reflect incidents of corporal punishment, due to under-reporting. In the 2018 General Household Surveyone million students said they had experienced corporal punishment in the previous three months.
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SACE is a statutory body and the “trustee of the teaching profession”. It is in some ways similar to the Health Practitioners Council of South Africa (HPCSA), whose duty is to protect the rights of patients by ensuring that healthcare professionals adhere to the HPCSA’s code of ethics. SACE, which has the power to professionally sanction teachers found guilty of using corporal punishment, has an obligation to protect students from abuse and is in a unique position to eradicate corporal punishment. However, so far he has failed to do so.
SECTION27, on behalf of the Children’s Law Center and the parents of two severely physically punished students, recently appealed to SACE, contesting the sentences imposed on the two teachers. A teacher beat a seven-year-old child with a black PVC pipe, causing severe head and psychological trauma. The teacher further threatened the student not to report the assault. Later, the child developed persistent headaches and required emergency surgery.
The second teacher beat a 10-year-old student until she was bleeding from her ear. The student needed constant medical attention, which caused her to miss several days of school, and she then had to repeat 5th grade. The abuse suffered by the children made them fearful of going back to school.
In 2019, SECTION27 filed a complaint with SACE in both cases, after which investigations were completed and disciplinary hearings were held. The penalties imposed were identical: a fine of 15,000 rand (including 5,000 rand suspended) and removal from the teachers’ roll for 10 years, also suspended. The effect was to put the two teachers back in the classroom with a slap on the wrist. These sentences suggest that SACE automatically endorses sanctions for teachers found guilty of corporal punishment, regardless of factors such as the severity of the abuse, whether the teachers are repeat offenders, or the impact of corporal punishment on children. .
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To research states that corporal punishment contributes to a cycle of violence because it breeds hostility and aggression in children, and that corporal punishment causes psychological damage, such as: emotional damage; have a negative impact on self-esteem; cause negative feelings about school; and poor school performance. Evidence presented by children’s institute, who appeared as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the case against SACE, further highlights the effect of corporal punishment on students. This includes difficulty concentrating in class due to anxiety and threats of violence. Aggression suffered by students can cause an increase in cortisol levels (the stress hormone); increased adrenal response; the withdrawal of societal commitments; wet the bed; and aggressive behavior or bullying on the playground. Therefore, the impact of corporal punishment extends beyond a bruise or a cut, but deeply harms children psychologically and changes their behavior.
Two main arguments formed the basis of the challenge initiated by SECTION27 and the Center for Child Law of the sanctions imposed.
The first concerns Article 5(c) of the SACE law, under which the council has the discretion to impose any “appropriate” sanction in the case of corporal punishment. However, in practice, it relies on a 2016 document entitled “Mandatory Sanctions for Violations of the Code of Professional Ethics”. This document prescribes a standard sanction for teachers who have been found guilty of misconduct, such as assaulting students. It appears to follow a cut-and-paste penalties approach, simply stating the violation and the penalties that should be imposed.
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Evidence regarding the nature and severity of individual cases of corporal punishment and its impact on the students concerned therefore does not appear to have been taken into account by SACE in determining sanctions against teachers. In this way, the council did not enforce its spirit when exercising its authority.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that SECTION27 and the Center for Child Law advocate for tougher penalties for teachers in all subject areas. Rather, they advocate appropriate sanctions, which in some circumstances could be rehabilitative and could include anger management or other therapeutic initiatives before a teacher returns to class. Very serious cases may simply require the immediate removal of the teacher from the teacher roster to avoid further harm to students. In each case, it is important to consider the best interests of the students and the need to protect them from harm.
Experts have also said that non-violent methods of discipline are largely successful if properly implemented. Data provided by the Children’s Institute suggests that comprehensive teacher education programs in nonviolent methods, such as discipline of peace workshops, will prove useful to teachers when faced with discipline problems during teaching. These training programs will enable teachers to effectively defuse tensions in the classroom and to intervene effectively techniques that do not involve corporal punishment.
The second argument put forward by the organizations is that SACE did not give either the bullied students or their parents the opportunity to decide on the appropriate sanctions. In both cases, the teachers’ sentences were the result of their guilty pleas and entering into plea and sentencing agreements with SACE, without any consultation with the students or their parents.
Case law relating to Article 28(2) of the Constitution – which stipulates that the best interests of the child must be considered paramount in all matters concerning him – as well as the Children’s Act, believes that in cases involving children, children and/or their parents have the right to be heard. This does not mean that a child should be taken to the stand and subjected to cross-examination, but it can happen in different ways. For example, through intermediaries, letters to court or their parents speaking on their behalf in court. The fact is, SACE has a plethora of options to solicit children’s voices to protect them and give them the opportunity to tell their story during disciplinary proceedings – thus debunking the board’s argument about student retraumatization. .
If we are to raise our children and create a non-violent society based on dignity and respect, SACE will need to review its approach to corporal punishment. This should develop appropriate sanctions and training programs that better equip teachers for the classroom, while ensuring that students’ best interests and safety are protected. This is part of the relief sought by SECTION27 against SACE.
European Union funding supports SECTION27’s work on health and education issues. SM/MC
Zahraa Motani is an intern at SECTION27.