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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Old School

We need a more nuanced approach to punishing bad behaviour.

Published: October 7, 2013 5:26:32 am

There are few things in a child’s life that can be more memorable than a school trip and my son is deliriously excited about an upcoming weekend in Jaipur with his classmates. This provokes outstation trip folklore and legends that have been shared in hushed tones from batch to batch. One story goes,a class 11 student carried a bottle of whiskey on an excursion,plied all his friends with alcohol and got rip roaringly drunk. He was expelled.

Another time two teenagers were caught smoking ‘weed’ and promptly asked to leave the school. God help you if you get into a scrap with a classmate and are accused of bullying. Zero tolerance in the schooling system means much more than just a phrase,and kids are getting tossed out of school for what seems to be,on the face of it,fairly minor offences.

This reminds me of a friend,who got caught smoking on a terrace in her boarding school in the ’90s. Her parents were summoned but despite their teary pleas the principal remained adamant and expelled her,saying if she didn’t uphold the rules,the institution would fall apart. Their only concession was she could take her board exams,in the same year,from the school. My friend describes her train journey back to Delhi with her livid and distraught parents for company,as the worst day of her life. She went on to score a 94 per cent in her boards and has a successful career now,but is still bitterly resentful that she didn’t figure in the class photo or get to attend the farewell party. They’re not called the turbulent teens for nothing.

While I’m all for the harshest punishments for bullying or aggression,does a bad judgment call of smoking and drinking on the school premises really deserve an expulsion? All experimentation with illegal substances,alcohol and cigarettes happens in extreme youth. Everyone’s trying to find their identities,it’s just trial and error,a part of growing up. The Directorate of Education (DoE) says no matter how unruly a child’s behaviour,he must be retained,even if he’s attacking a teacher. If the kid is totally out of control he should be taken to a children’s court. But a school cannot expel a student after the Right To Education (RTE) as the action can be challenged in court. Still,expulsions in schools and colleges are growing.

People in education favour the draconian,zero tolerance approach because they claim it would be impossible to control a classroom without fear of consequences. The syllabus would not be completed on time and there would be chaos and pandemonium without strict rules and discipline. In India,we don’t have the manpower or resources to try out more nuanced approaches,so very often a fight and a substance abuse issue,two very different problems have the same harsh punishments for the offenders.

How do you balance classroom order but understand a slightly difficult student’s individual needs? There is a tendency to presume that it’s entirely the fault of the parents when a child is misbehaving but children even from the most stable homes can have their moments. Very often the parents themselves are in shock at suspensions and need counseling to cope.

In the West,even kindergarteners are not spared. After the spate of school shootings in the US,there seems to be extreme paranoia. If a kid mentions a weapon or gives any indication of having access to one,the school has the right to expel the student. That still somewhat makes sense,but a suspension for a fight or a temper tantrum or disruptive behaviour seems excessive. Some schools in the US have begun experimenting with alternatives to expulsions like making students write about their behaviour and the choices they made. Getting thrown out of the school system can scar children forever and they deserve several chances for reformation before such a drastic step.

Leher Kala

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