Fighting Words

The Education Ministry has formulated new regulations to deal with school violence. The regulations, the details of which will be published in a special circular in the next few days, constitute a much stricter approach to controlling violence perpetrated by schoolchildren. Violent acts will be classified according to three different categories of severity. Each category has a designated punishment, which may include temporary suspension from school or, in extreme cases, expulsion.

School principals who read the pamphlet expressed satisfaction with the new policies. "It is high time the Education Ministry woke up and gave us proper tools to deal with the violence," one said. But legal experts warn that certain paragraphs in the director general's letter go against the law safeguarding the rights of students. They said the proposals could be described as "an educational policy based on a regime of fear and threats."

The ministry's psychological advisory service has been working on the issue for the past few months, in part due to the last state comptroller report's harsh criticism of the issue. A committee was formed with representatives of the teachers organizations, principals, local authorities and the police. Haaretz has obtained a draft of the pamphlet, which is due to be published in the coming days.

In a comprehensive study of school violence carried out three years ago by Prof. Rami Benvenisti of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, some 20 percent of pupils reported that they had been victims of serious physical violence or sexual harassment at school. Some 80 percent of the principals, who participated in the study, reported that students in their schools had been involved in verbal violence; some 50 percent said their pupils had been involved in "mild physical violence," such as threats, pushing and punching.

The new directives will provide a detailed "catalogue" of misbehavior and violence, which distinguishes between mild and serious offenses. For example, a pupil who does not wear his school uniform, or comes to school "inappropriately dressed," will face having his parents "called to school to take him home to ensure his appearance is improved immediately."

Other less serious violations include verbal violence, such as threats or racist slurs, and physical violence, such as kicking or pinching, which is carried out only once. If violations like this recur, however, the degree of seriousness attributed to it will increase. Boycotting someone, spreading rumors on the Internet or mild physical violence and constant bullying, will be considered second-degree violence.

The new regulations are particularly harsh with regards to the third and most serious degree of violence. This pertains to physical violence, which ends in injury, to violence carried out under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and to the destruction of property. In the case of vandalism, a pupil will be required to take "corrective action," which may include payment, or, if the family does not have means, some equivalent for the damage. If the family can afford to pay but refuses to do so, the regulations hold that the school should consider defining this as a violation of the third degree.

Other forms of third-category violence include carrying a dangerous item, using a cellular telephone to take pictures during classes, distributing pictures of pupils or teachers for devious purposes, and being present at a violent incident in which the pupil shows encouragement for the act of violence.

A third-category incident in which someone is injured will be dealt with "in a fixed and unified manner" in all the schools, the circular states. Any pupil found guilty of this kind of violence will be suspended from school - in the case of an elementary-school pupil, for four days, and in high school, for eight days. In other cases of third-degree violence, the principal will declare a "serious situation" and suspend regular school activities; the principal will have the prerogative of suspending all offenders for a few days. When it is deemed necessary, the offending students "will have to be accompanied by an adult in the school area," and if the pupil objects, this will likewise be considered a serious offense. Under the new directives, all students will be barred from smoking at school or at educational events, but nothing is mentioned about smoking on the part of teachers.

'A realistic response'

One of the principals who read the draft responded that it provides a realistic response to the ever-growing problem of school violence. "We are constantly acting as if we are on a battlefield," he said. "Some of the pupils perpetrate terrorism on their counterparts and on their teachers on a daily basis. We don't have sufficient tools to deal with this phenomenon, which is merely getting worse. Establishing unified and clear categories for the offenses is the start of a change."

Another principal said that "in the past few years, the Education Ministry supported pupils' rights to a greater extent than those of the teachers. Teachers are often afraid to intervene and speak to the pupils for fear that they will not be backed by the system."

On the other hand, people in the educational system who deal with schoolchildren's rights say that the new circular does not make any mention of violence on the part of teachers toward students, and that there is no room for "a just process" according to which a pupil would receive a hearing before being punished. They also came out against holding students responsible for acts committed on the part of their parents. "The Education Ministry is on the defensive and instead of teaching and offering tools with which to safeguard mutual respect of rights, it has chosen the easy way out by casting fear," one of the detractors said. "This is not education, but rather a regime of fear. Apparently it is much easier to frighten a weak population like the pupils than to deal with a complex educational process."