Judge: Teachers can’t use corporal punishment as discipline

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

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CORPORAL punishment cannot be used as a tool by teachers to discipline students, a High Court judge has emphasised as he advocated for a school-violence prevention and response plan for educators.

“In this republic, corporal punishment is not permissible under law,” Justice Frank Seepersad said after the State agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the mother of a secondary school student who was slapped by a music teacher at a school in Sangre Grande in 2019.

On Tuesday, before the start of the trial, attorneys for the State indicated they had received approval from the Attorney General to settle the matter and accept liability for the teacher’s actions on June 24, 2019, when he slapped the student, who wrote on a piece of paper that the teacher had kissed a female student.

In its defence, the State accepted the incident took place after the teacher “lost his control,” but had defended the slap as lawful and reasonable force.

On Tuesday, attorney Ebo Jones told the judge the State was prepared to accept full liability in the assault and battery claim the boy’s parents had filed.

In agreeing with the State’s position to settle and pay compensation to the boy for the assault, Seepersad referred to the Children Act, which prohibits anyone, other than a parent, to use corporal punishment to administer reasonable punishment to a child. He also referred to the teaching service regulations, which set out a teacher’s duties.

“The law is clear: the use of any form of corporal punishment is not permissible in a school setting as a form of discipline whether or not there was a lack of control,” Seepersad said, adding that slapping a student cannot be viewed as a lawful act by a teacher.

In disposing of the case, Seepersad suggested the Ministry of Education should consider developing a school-violence prevention and response plan outlining steps for teachers to follow to deal with situations. He also advocated for support systems in schools for both students and teachers.

The judge also said it could not be discounted that two years of no physical school because of the pandemic, reintegration and retooling were important for teachers and students.

Only last week, in an attempt to stem the tide of violence at schools, the Education Ministry implemented short-term measures as an inter-ministerial committee compiles a report to address the problem and reduce indiscipline in schools.

One of the short-term measures involves the participation of the police, which will increase patrols at 15 schools and receive reports for further investigation and action with regard to anyone involved in altercations both within and outside the school groundsd.

Seepersad acknowledged the “alarming levels of dysfunction” in society.

As he referred to the facts in the case, he maintained, “however provoked a teacher may feel, he, as a professional adult, ought not to allow himself to lose self-control and react in the manner he did.”

The judge said children enjoyed the same rights in law as adults. He also referred to the recent damning report on the levels of abuse in children’s homes, saying children in the State’s care must also be nurtured, loved and appropriately disciplined.

“Licks and violence, as a means of correcting disciplinary infractions has to be curtailed.”

The use of corporal punishment, he said, can affect a child psychologically and potentially lead them to adopt unhealthy lifestyles and behaviours later on in life.

He also said teachers had the responsibility to shape the nation’s youths and should receive help to deal with issues of conflict.

“I am appreciative of the efforts taken to settle the matter. This is important because of the issues that arose and interplay and teachers and students, and ability to engage in disciplinary actions when situations arise in schools,” he said, adding that the stance of the State was the “right position in law.”

According to the lawsuit filed by the boy’s mother, the incident was reported to the police after the teacher apologised to her and her son at the school.

In his witness statement, the boy alleged another teacher who supervised a music exam provided students with paper to say if they had any issues with the test or the teacher. He admitted writing about the teacher kissing the female student, which, he said, was a rumour circulating in the class and he felt “it was an issue which someone in authority needed to know.”

He said he explained to the other teacher why he wrote what he did and was told not to let it happen again and to apologise to the teacher. The boy said he went to the administrative building to apologise and the teacher began shouting at him, “You have any proof that I kissed her?”

“I became very afraid and did not respond.”

He said the teacher slapped him, twice, on either side of his face, in full view of others.

The boy also said there had been no cause to discipline him at the school in the past and since the incident, he has been afraid to go to school or be assaulted or victimised by the school.

Also appearing for the State was attorney Ryan Grant.

The boy and his mother were represented by attorney Elvin Cudjoe.

If the parties do not agree on an amount for compensation, it will be referred to a High Court Master for determination, as ordered by Seepersad.