The death of an 11-year-old pupil after being beaten by his teacher has thrown a light on the murky world of discipline in state schools
By Reem Leila, Al-Haram Weekly, November 12, 2008

The trial on manslaughter charges of Haitham Nabil Abdel-Hamid, a 23-year-old mathematics teacher at Saad Othman school in Alexandria, begins on 16 November.

Abdel-Hamid is accused of causing the unlawful death of 11-year-old Islam Amr on 27 October. When Amr refused to hold out his hand to be hit with a ruler along with 15 other students who had failed to do their homework Abdel-Hamid took him outside the classroom and beat him so severely that the 11-year-old died. In his defence Abdel-Hamid says he was only trying to "discipline the boy, not to kill him".

The forensic report indicated that the immediate cause of death was a kick to the stomach that left the second and fifth left ribs broken, resulting in a drop in blood pressure that led to heart failure. Amr was dead on arrival at hospital.

Though corporal punishment was banned by ministerial decree 591 issued in 1998 it remains common practice in state schools where hugely overcrowded classrooms have resulted in growing discipline problems.

News of the death of Amr at the hands of his teacher topped local newspaper headlines, triggering a string of condemnations that have culminated in calls for the resignation of the Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and the Minister of Education Yosri El-Gamal. El-Gamal subsequent expressed his "deep regret and sorrow" over the "incident", promising compensation and, three days after Amr's death, convening an emergency meeting to reiterate the ban on the use of violence and physical punishment in the classroom.

Under existing rules teachers who use corporal punishment should automatically face an administrative investigation which can recommend the withholding of a portion of the teacher's salary, removal to another school, or dismissal. Yet the regulations are applied laxly at best.

In another incident this week, 10-year- old Khadiga Alaa Mohamed, a student at Ahmed Orabi primary school in Heliopolis, died after her mathematics teacher, 37-year-old Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, attempted to punish her along with other pupils for not doing homework. Requested by the teacher to stand up and come to the front of the class Mohamed collapsed. Khadiga's mother refused to report the incident to the police, staying that Abdel-Fattah had not touched her daughter. A forensic report failed to find any evidence of violence. Cairo Governor Abdel-Azim Wazir immediately ordered LE5,000 in compensation to be paid to the family and suspended the teacher from his duties pending investigation.

Last year a primary school pupil lost the sight in one of his eyes when a teacher threw a pencil at him.

Fawzeya Abdel-Sattar, professor of law at Cairo University, points out that if Abdel-Hamid is found guilty of manslaughter he faces a maximum sentence of seven years, though with a good lawyer a voluntary manslaughter conviction could result in just a three-year sentence.

Though physical punishment in Egyptian schools was banned a decade ago monitoring mechanisms are almost non- existent. Few would argue that Egypt has a long way to go before beginning to meet its commitments contained in the Cairo Declaration, signed under the auspices of the UN in 2005. In the preamble to the declaration the signatories recognise that "children are citizens and fundamental partners in the democratic process" and are urged to bear in mind that "all policies, programmes and mechanisms pertaining to combating violence against children should be in conformity with the principles spelled out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child" which include the "protection of children from corporal punishment and, explicitly, prohibiting corporal punishment in all settings including in the family, schools and other institutions".

Manal Shahin, director of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood's children's hotline -- (tel: 16000) -- says that in the last two years 85 teachers have been punished, based on student and parents' complaints, for using corporal punishment in the classroom. But in one recent case, she recalls, in which a teacher broke the arm of a primary school pupil, all that happened was that he only got a three-day reduction of his salary and was removed to another school. "Physical punishment creates a wide gap between the child and adult," explained Shahin.

According to statistics published last year by the UNICEF, 50 per cent of children in Upper Egypt and 70 per cent of children in urban areas report corporal punishment in schools. Verbal -- 50 per cent of pupils say they have been threatened with either low grades or expulsion -- and sexual violence is also common.

"Too often, when officials are confronted with reports of violence, they claim that they are isolated cases," says Shahin.


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