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Discipline in schools: what the law says you can and can’t do

There are various ways learners ought to be disciplined in schools, and corporal punishment is not one of them, having been banned since 1997. On November 4, The Citizen reported that Daeraad School in the North West stripped an 18-year-old learner naked and held her in solitary confinement for nine days. This was punishment for sporting the wrong haircut and refusing to shave her head. Daeraad is a boarding school in Potchefstroom for learners with behavioural problems. Its principal, Abel Rudman, has denied the allegations against the school. According to experts, this ‘punishment’ is unacceptable. The Daily Vox explains what forms of discipline are legally permissible in schools.

What methods are schools allowed to use to discipline pupils?
There is a difference between discipline and corporal punishment, Dr Shaheda Omar, director of clinical services at the Teddy Bear Clinic, told The Daily Vox. “Discipline means teaching acceptable behaviours and unlearning maladaptive behaviours with support, guidance and direction in managing behaviour,” she said. Discipline is about setting limits, clarifying roles, responsibilities and mutual expectations and creating a predictable, orderly and stable life. It is not punitive and is in the best interests of the child. On the other hand, corporal punishment intends grievous bodily harm and violates the basic rights of the child, Omar said.

What does the law say?
South Africa has a number of laws that protect learners from corporal punishment and abuse. Section 12(1) of the Constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom and security, including the rights: to be free from all forms of violence, not to be tortured, treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way. Section 28(1)(d) protects every child from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation. Section 10 states that everyone has inherent human dignity and the right to its protection.

Section 10(1) the South African Schools Act provides that no person may administer corporal punishment at a school against a learner. A person who contravenes this provision is guilty of a criminal offence, and, if convicted, can receive a sentence that can be imposed for assault. The 1997 Abolition of Corporal Punishment Act banned corporal punishment in schools as well.

Section 7(1)(h) of the 2005 Children’s Act says “any behaviour that would inflict injury on a child whether it is physical or emotional is not allowed,” Omar said. If at any point the discipline imposes suffering on the child it is not permitted, she added.

The National Education Policy Act of 1996 mandated that the minister of education develop policies about the control and discipline of learners, said Mila Kakaza, spokesperson for education advocacy NGO Equal Education. This was to ensure that “no person shall administer corporal punishment, or subject a student to psychological or physical abuse at any educational institution”.

What are some examples of corporal punishment?
Forms of corporal punishment include hitting with a hand or an object, pinching, burning, throwing objects at a learner, forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions, kicking, grabbing, scratching, pulling hair; or denying a child meals, the use of the toilet, and shelter from heat or cold, Kakaza said.

What methods should schools be using to discipline learners?
“The focus must be on maintaining a safe and dignified schooling environment for learners,” Kakaza said. Reward charts, merit and demerit systems, taking away privileges, time-outs, detention – where learners can do school work – and picking up litter are viable options. Any other ways of discussion and engagement that allows learners to learn insight into their wrongful actions are encouraged, Omar added.

Does discipline differ when it comes to learners with behavioural problems or special needs?
Disciplinary methods are the same for learners with behavioural problems, Omar said. It is important to take cognisance of the emotional level of functioning of the child with special needs and respond accordingly and appropriately, she added. “[Learners] with behavioural problems are acting out and crying for help and need structure, routine, and predictability in their lives,” Omar said, “they should be treated like all other children.”

When it comes to learners with disabilities, Kakaza said, “teachers must be trained to appropriately assist learners with disabilities, and that means understanding the specific disabilities of each learner”. However, learners with disabilities are more vulnerable to, and more likely to experience physical abuse than children without disabilities, Kakaza said. A 2012 UNICEF report entitled Violence Against Children in South Africa explains that children with disabilities are easy targets for abuse because they may be less able to report it, and are less able to defend themselves.

What was wrong with the way the learner was treated at Daeraad School?
“Solitary confinement is an extreme and unlawful form of discipline and may not be exercised by a school,” Kakaza said. Equal Education welcomes the police investigation that is currently underway.

Dr Omar said the action taken at Daeraad School was drastic and would infringe on the wellbeing and best interests of the learner. “It could be more harmful than helpful, inducing trauma in the child,” she said.

When can school staff be taken to court or apprehended for abuse?
An educator or school staff member who has violated a child may have to follow legal processes. Section 110 of the Children’s Act says teachers are legally obliged to report abuse to appropriate authorities. The district office will investigate complaints of corporal punishment against school staff and, depending on the outcome, will refer the case to the Labour Relations Directorate for further investigation and disciplinary hearings.

The Employment of Educators Act, as amended, distinguishes between misconduct and serious misconduct and attaches different consequences to each, Kakaza said. If the misconduct is also a criminal offence, separate and different proceedings will occur. Serious misconduct could lead to dismissal. Other forms of misconduct could lead to counselling, verbal or written warning or final warning, fines, suspension, demotion, or dismissal.

What can pupils do if their school has infringed on their rights?
Learners who have been abused by their schools need to escalate the complaint to the highest structures. The learners can report it to the head of department (HOD), and if it is the HOD who has inflicted this punishment then the learner should take it up with the principal. The next platform would be the school governing body, Omar said.

Incidences may also be reported to outside bodies like the department of social development, department of education, the police, and the South African Council for Educators, Kakaza said. “It is important to note that learners must be made aware of how to report corporal punishment, and that systems must be put in place that allow learners to report incidences while protecting them from reprisal,” she added.

Learners who need legal support may contact the Equal Education Law Centre on info@eelawcentre or 021 461 1421.

Featured image via Public Domain Pictures

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