The situation in which a split-second decision was taken by a school safety officer to clout two male students in order to diffuse a potentially lethal fight was one no school official should ever have to face. But though the outcome was an end to the fight, the official’s methodology in this instance was not consistent with his position as a safety officer nor was it acceptable given the policy of the Ministry of Education as well as the history of violence in our society. School officials should be setting an example. They should not be enforcing a code of might is right.
According to the officer, he is not advocating a return to corporal punishment in schools.
“The Ministry of Education has a policy and I am not going to advocate children be brutalised in any school or at their home,” the officer was quoted as saying in an interview published yesterday. Yet, his words are not consistent with his actions.
The officer judged that a certain degree of force was required, not excessive, but just enough to get his message through. But the problem is what was that message? That fights are to be parted with physicality? Who is to determine the appropriate degree of force that is acceptable in a given situation? First a clout, then a cuff and then what?
In this case one of the two students was holding a piece of iron. The question is why? Why did that child think resorting to brute force was a way to solve his conflict?
The answer was, ironically, best summed up by the safety officer himself.
“Sometimes children choose to be violent because they are growing up in communities where they see these types of behaviour and a lot of violence,” said the officer. He is correct. He must remember he is also a key part of that same environment. When students see Sir solving a problem by a few clouts, they understand it is okay for them to do the same.
The officer must be acknowledged for risking his life in order to protect both students. But it is unfortunate he felt the only way he could get the situation under control was by clouting.
Given the high levels of violence in our schools, there has been some resurgence of the debate as to whether corporal punishment should be practiced. The officer is of the view that it should not be, yet still felt constrained to use it in this situation. But are we aware of the history of corporal punishment and its role in our society?
Corporal punishment has been linked to slavery. It used to be the case that some believed child beating was something inherent to black communities. However, historians have long dispelled this racist belief. In West African societies, children were treated as gods. It was believed the coercion and hitting of a child could be harmful. It was only with slavery and colonisation that black communities began the practice of corporal punishment to ensure rigid compliance with the dictates of slave masters and, later, to keep children out of harm’s way in a society with an animus against the non-white.
When we discuss corporal punishment we should not be ignorant of our history. And we should not allow it to eclipse other pertinent issues facing the education system as a whole.
For instance, why was there only one safety officer present? Why was the child able to access a piece of iron in the school environment in the first place? What has led to children turning to violence? What role is being played by parents and adults? What is the impact of gender issues on all of this? Should we not also take into account dynamics surrounding assumptions we make about maleness and fatherhood? Would it be acceptable for a school official to clout two girls? In the meanwhile, school safety officers need to be given better resources to deal with dangerous situations. In this instance the officer was able to stop the fight. The next officer, however, may not be as lucky. Another group of children may be unresponsive to clouts. Then what?