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Tunisia moves to curb violence in schools

Education minister says more than 14,000 cases of violence in schools have been recorded in as little as a three-month period

Asma Ajroudi

Published: Updated:

The Tunisian Education Ministry plans to put forward in the upcoming parliament a draft law aimed at curbing violence in schools, Education Minister Fathi Jaray has told Al Arabiya News.

Violence in Tunisian schools – both verbal and physical - appears to have hit worrisome heights after the popular revolution that toppled the country’s longtime authoritarian Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

In just the first three months of the 2012-2013 school year, the Education Ministry recorded more than 14,000 cases of violence at secondary schools and high schools, the minister said, adding that school vandalism and break-ins were included in the stats as instances of violence. In contrast, a report on the 2005-2006 academic year put the number of school violence cases at more than 2,000, according to Turess.com.

Alarmed by the upsurge, the ministry began to lead awareness campaigns, reach out to the media and coordinate with different government agencies to rein in violence at schools.

But campaigning alone is not enough, according to the minister.

“People will not stop vandalizing school properties for example when they know that the harshest punishment they are going to get is a trip to the police station or a restraining order,” Jaray said.

“But if they know that they will get, say, a month prison-term they will think twice.”

“Unfortunately humans are more inclined to destroy than build. We need preventive laws,” he added.

Recent media reports suggest that teachers and school staffers have been more subjected to violence since the revolution took place. A television show in 2012 featured a theater teacher whose jaw was broken and teeth were missing after being attacked by Islamist militants for teaching arts. Ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam label some forms of art as sinful.

Last month, an argument between a number of parents and teachers at a school in the governorate of Sousse resulted in the suspension of classes, according to a local radio channel Jawhara FM.

But many stories go unreported.

Sana Karoui, a school administrator in the coastal city of Sousse, told Al Arabiya News she was once verbally attacked by an “angry” parent for not admitting a student back to class after having gone absent for two days without justification.

“She accused me of hating her daughter,” said Karoui, adding that the student’s mother then verbally assaulted her then smashed her desk.

An official at the Regional Commissary for Education in Sousse said the frequent attacks on teachers are demoralizing teachers – and many are “now undergoing therapy.”

“They are sick and tired of this violence. Some stories are truly horrifying,” said the official who preferred not to be identified.

Al Arabiya News spoke to a number of teachers and education experts about the reasons behind the issue.

“The revolution is absolutely the reason why. No one fears anyone anymore,” said Dalel Feki, an English teacher. “Some students and even parents will scold you for the smallest of things such as a bad grades or attendance. And there is no one to protect you.”

“It’s like people were in jail then they were granted freedom all the sudden,” said school admin Najwa Dridi. “Everyone thinks they have the freedom to say whatever they want after the revolution.”

“But the biggest problem is the parents themselves,” said Salwa Najar, an instructor of English who said she was verbally assaulted by a parent last year for asking her son to stay from the hallway to not disturb her class.

“The mother came with two other women and began to yell at me. Luckily, the other teachers heard the argument and intervened,” she said.

“The Tunisian citizen no longer fears the teacher,” said Adnane al-Hanchi, another instructor.

“It’s like the citizen no longer thinks he will be held accountable for his actions. It is chaos. The whole social hierarchy has been flipped.”

“Everyone wants to revolt against the system – any system,” he added.

Karoui said graffiti attacking teachers was common at schools, with the French word “degage” – meaning “leave” or “beat it” in English – often painted on the walls. “Degage” was the main slogan that Tunisians shouted to ousted President Ben Ali during the 2011 uprising.

Other experts say school violence can sometimes be traced to domestic violence. Mokhtar Dhahri, an official from the Tunisian bureau of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said when children are oppressed at home they are likely to become violent at school or in the street.

“That is how they release their energy,” he said, adding that a UNICEF study found that 94.3 percent of Tunisian children were victims of domestic abuse, 36 percent of whom were physically assaulted at home.

There is still no available research that studies the psychological effect of the revolution and the ongoing instability – both on children and adults – and their relation with violence in school. But many teachers agree that there is “more need than ever” for more protective measures.

“The solution right now is for the ministry to place stricter regulations and impunities against those who assault teachers and school staffers,” said Dridi.