It began with one student, Rey Raman, who witnessed her teacher slapping a young student hard on her face in a fit of rage because the young girl spoke up to explain a “mistake” she’d made during class.
Deeply disturbed by what she saw, Rey wrote about the incident on her Facebook page to call the teacher out (she didn’t name him or the art school, for fear of reprisal) and also to urge others who may have experienced such bullying and abuse to speak up too.
Rey lodged a report with Talian Kasih, the Women and Family Development’s helpline. She’s also seeking advice about making a police report, but not before finding out what if it is within her rights to do so.
Her purpose is clear: she wants to stop any further mistreatment of children in the art school or any other school or studio where abuse happens.
“In my mind, this was clearly abuse. And, what shocked me more is that no one who was there did or said anything to stop him. Although he took the young girl aside, we all heard the slaps.
“I heard the first two slaps and inched forward to get a clear view of what was going on and I saw him land the third hard slap... it was so forceful I was surprised she didn’t pass out. And then he told her not to “show her bl***y face” at class again, ” she recalls.
It was the first time that she’d witnessed abuse and Rey was traumatised.
“I sat in my car, shaking and crying. I spoke to a friend who used to study there about it and that’s when I found out that this had been going on for years. I decided to quit the school and to do something. No child should have to go through this anymore, ” she adds.
A culture of silence
Although Rey didn’t name the teacher or the arts school in question in her post, a few former students came out to share their horrific stories about the verbal, emotional, psychological abuse they’d experienced under the same teacher.
They recognised the pattern of bullying and abuse she’d described: slapping, shoving, throwing things in a fit of rage, verbal attacks that belittled their abilities and physical appearances and threats. The teacher, they all said, would pick on one or two students for a period of time and then move on to others.
“He was a good teacher and he exposed us to a lot of opportunities... we would not have gotten the same exposure elsewhere. And, maybe, because of that we didn’t say anything before this. We looked up to him, ” says one former student.
Though they feared the abuser – “it was like walking on eggshells all the time. I made sure I did my homework and I didn’t do anything that would trigger his rage” – they also respected him because he was their teacher.
“It’s complicated, ” says a former student. “I enrolled in the school when I was nine and I spent more time there then I did at home. I grew up there and the people there were like family. If your parent hits you, you wouldn’t report him, would you?
“Even now, speaking about this, it feels wrong. But I want to speak out because I am still trying to deal with the trauma from my experience there.
He belittles you. He makes you think that without him, you are worthless and I still feel that way, ” she says.
Another reason they were silent, shares another former student, is they’d seen what would happen if they were to speak out.
“Students who spoke out were either asked to leave or ignored. Or he’d become angry and act out. Mostly, we just learnt to deal with it or avoid making him angry, ” she says.
Crossing the line
The difference between a teacher who is strict and one who is a bully is clear, says psychologist Dr Anasuya Jegathevi Jegathesan.
“Is the treatment equal among all students? Or is it a few students who are singled out all the time? Also, does the teacher explain the punishment given to the parents or even the students. The disciplining should not be hidden and should be proportionate and fair to the behaviour of the child.
“Or, is it a power trip, ” says Dr Anasuya who heads the psychology programme at Taylor’s University.
Bullying, she points out, is always about power and control.
“When teachers bully, they are losing control not necessarily with the student but maybe in other areas of their life and they need an outlet to lash out. And so, they punch down on children who cannot retaliate rather than addressing the real issues, ” shares Dr Anasuya.
Veteran women’s rights activist Ivy Josiah agrees, adding that the students’ stories that are being shared on social media share some similarities with accounts of domestic violence victims.
“I recognise the patterns immediately. If a student lives in fear of the teacher, something is very wrong. If the slapping is repetitive and becomes part of the teaching style and if the students live in fear – it is clearly mistreatment. In this day and age, physical shoving, slapping, hitting and shouting that may result in making a person feel broken and small... all that is simply unacceptable.
“Very often in arts schools – whether it is dance or theatre – a teacher or director believes they have the artistic license to break their students down so that they can build them up again... to make them great performers. This simply isn’t acceptable.
“Surely this can’t be the only tool a teacher has to bring out the best in their students. It may be water off a duck’s back for some but for others, such mistreatment can be deeply damaging and we cannot take that chance, ” says Ivy.
A code of conduct
Arts schools and studios, says MyDanceAlliance president Bilqis Hijjas, at present tend to operate very independently with very little oversight from any regulatory body which can open the door for abuse and mistreatment of students, children as well as adults.
“Eventually, but this will take some time, it would be good to have a bill that requires studios, especially places where children are taught, to follow a regulatory code of conduct.
“They should also should be vetted and display an awareness about child abuse and protection and be committed to taking care of children’s psychosocial health. This way, no one has the excuse that they didn’t know that these behaviours were not acceptable, ” she says.
“In the shorter term, MyDanceAlliance is working with the dance community to come up with a Code of Conduct that schools and studios voluntarily sign on to demonstrate that they acknowledge these issue and pledge not to use physical discipline against students, look after the psycho social health of students, especially children and also a avenue for children to report abuse they have witnessed or experienced, ” says Bilqis.
Parents, she stresses, have a large role to play in making sure schools and studios have and follow a code of conduct.
“I think we need to raise awareness among parents because they wield the power, really. They need to put pressure on schools and studios to follow a code of practice or conduct before they send their children there, ” she says.
The role of parents
A code of conduct is crucial, agrees Dr Anasuya, to ensure check and balance in the way a school or any organisation where children are present operates.
“A camera, and not one just pointing at the entrance but wherever the students are, is a good idea. Rules that govern behaviour of teachers and students are also important in outlining what is acceptable and what isn’t – can a teacher be alone with a student when she or he is changing, for example. Or can a teacher communicate with the student off site, ” she says.
But apart from that, Dr Anasuya says that parents need to play a bigger role in making sure that their children are alright.
“Parents cannot assume their children are going to be ok just because they are with the teachers. You have to drop in every once in a while and check on them or what’s happening.
“If a child who was very enthusiastic about class suddenly loses that enthusiasm, or if her behaviour changes, you need to investigate what’s going on. It could be nothing, but it could be something serious, ” cautions Dr Anasuya.
Children, she says, often don’t speak up because they don’t know if they will be believed. They fear reprisal. And, often, they believe it when a teacher tells them that they are in the wrong.
“One of the reasons children don’t speak up is because they blame themselves. They believe that the abuser, who is a person in power, is right.
“Also, often it is because of parents’ rhetoric that adults are always right and that you must listen and respect the adult, adults have the best intentions and so on, ” says Dr Anasuya.
Children and young adults, she adds, often don’t understand that a teacher they respect and who guides them can be capable of “being bad”.
“Children see things as black and white and maybe a few shades of grey. If someone is good, he or she is good. They can’t see that someone who is good can do bad things. So it becomes the responsibility of other adults to watch out for children, ” she says.
Getting children to speak up about abuse, she adds, is something that has to be cultivated.
“You need to listen and talk to your children before they encounter a crisis situation. Talk to them about anything under the sun. It may not interest you, but you want them to be able to speak to you about anything.”
“Don’t get angry when they tell you things you may not agree with. You don’t have to always correct them... unless it is something really wrong, of course. If you don’t talk to your child and know what’s going on in their lives, they aren’t going to talk to you either, ” she advises.
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