Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Just moments before being sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter, mathematics teacher Haitham Nabeel Abdelhamid, aged 23, sobbed and shouted at the top of his voice “I didn’t mean to kill him…I just wanted to discipline him.” The lawyer read out the forensic report which confirmed that the death of Islam Amr Badr, aged 11, was caused by the teacher kicking the child [in the chest]. The kick resulted in four broken ribs, internal bleeding, bruising of the muscle, and heart failure which led to Badr slipping into a coma, and eventually dying.
The death of Islam Amr Badr, who was a student at the Omar Bin Al-Khattab School in Alexandria, has sparked the debate about violence against students in Egyptian schools. Local newspapers are full of stories that reflect the variety of violence that can be found in Egyptian schools; violence against students by teachers, or inter-student violence, or even violence between teachers themselves.
A school in the village of Tatoun in the Faiyum Governorate (close to Cairo) saw its teachers union membership revoked after it was discovered that teachers were forcing students to strip off their clothes and stand naked in the yard. Also in this governorate, a primary school teacher -with the aid of some students- chased an English-language teacher out of the school and into the street, resulting in the police having to intervene.
In the suburb of Masr Al Gedida [Heliopolis] in Northern Cairo, a teacher physically assaulted a 2nd year Preparatory School student [aged 12-14 years old] after he asked to go to the toilet. Whilst also in this same area, a teacher was transferred into the administrative sector after she trampled on a primary school child.
In the Old Cairo district of the city a teacher accused students of setting fire to his car after he had told them off in class.
Another teacher in the Helwan district of Southern Cairo physically assaulted a student resulting in cuts to his face. When the student’s mother went to the school to complain, the teacher attacked her as well.
While in the Monufia Governorate a primary school student attacked another student with a pair of scissors resulting in facial injuries.
All of the above are not fictional events, but actual incidents which occurred in Egyptian schools, and are just a sample of the stories that were revealed in the press in just the month leading up to the Islam Amr Badr case. It is this case which has caused alarm bells to ring in the community, and attention to be paid to what is truly going on behind school walls.
The violence seen in Egyptian schools has resulted in members of one local council in the Sharqia Governorate to propose the establishment of police monitors within schools; this proposal was met with strong criticism from many education experts. While the local council of the Al Azhar district in Cairo has proposed an innovate way of dealing with violence in schools, namely establishing a hotline dedicated to receiving and investigating complaint of violence by a specialized team who would then pass this information on to officials.
Before the Islam Amr Badr incident, a number of reports warned against the rise in violence in Egyptian schools. One report conducted in 2007 by the “Egyptian Center for the Rights in Education” stated that violence in Egyptian schools has been widespread since the 1970s, especially in poverty-stricken areas, and in Upper Egypt. This study attributed violence in schools to seven factors; the reliance on memorization as the only way to deliver information, teachers use of corporal punishment, use of ill-treatment as a means to control students, lack of governmental oversight with regards to the education system, high number of different subjects/lessons, lack of school activities, and the excessive allocation of school work which cannot be completed in the time available.
Another study undertaken by the National Center for Social and Criminal Research found that 30 percent of students have been subjected to violence, and that 80 percent of violence that occurs in Egyptian schools occurs between students. Regarding the objects used by students in violence against other students; the most popular weapon is the belt, followed by nails, and knives. This study also showed that 91 percent of students who are caught and disciplined are subjected to punishments which could be labeled as violent.
Another study performed by the National Center for Research revealed that 42 percent of teachers use violence as a means of controlling the teaching process. This recent study validated the statement given by Haitham Nabeel Abdelhamid with regards the death of his student Islam Amr Badr when he said “I wanted to discipline him after he had failed to hand in his homework.” There is perhaps an outlook shared by some families with regards to the necessity of using violence as a means of education. This study showed that there was a correlation between the use of violence as a means of education between school and home-life, and the number of families who use violence in this way has increased by 42 percent.
According to Dr. Mohamed Al-Mahdi, a psychiatric consultant based in Cairo, poverty also plays an important role with regards to the creation of violence. However, despite the global economic crisis which is currently affecting the entire world without exception, in Dr. Al-Mahdi’s opinion Egyptian schools are not over-affected by this, since they “reached rock-bottom long ago.”
Dr. Al-Mahdi said that “there is a correlation between the relationship of poverty and violence. The poor suffer from a higher degree of deprivation, they try to remedy this but when this fails they feel disappointment which in turn festers into anger, and this is the main cause of violence whether this violence occurs between students, or between students and teachers.”
Ahmed Kamal Eid, a biology teacher in a secondary school in the city of El Mansoura revealed some of the pressures faced by teachers saying “We are working in difficult conditions. I am required to teach 28 lessons per week, lessons which are 45-minutes long and to classes of at least 55 students. This is in addition to other duties such as social and cultural activities. In light of this, sometimes a teacher is compelled to use force in order to control the class, especially since some students from poor backgrounds have grown up with a cultural heritage of ‘if he hits you, hit him back’ which only promotes violence. In such a violent environment, force can be used as a yardstick for control.”
Eid did not hide the impact of financial pressure on the behavior of teachers, and despite being a teacher for 9 years Eid’s salary has not exceeded 530 EGP [Egyptian Pound] which translates to around $95 per year. He said “life pressures can sometimes cause a teacher to be angry as a king of psychological effect of self defense, and this increased pressure is then translated into violence.”
Economically, all elements of the education sector in Egypt are facing difficult circumstances. The shortfall in the number of teachers at all education levels has now reached 95 thousand, while experts have criticized the 1.9 billion EGP decrease in the education budget. Many teachers have expressed resentment at the new cadre of teachers who have been given a pay-rise by the state. Other complaints are at the relatively low increase [in salary] when compared with the rate of inflation, even though the government has announced an allocation of approximately 2.5 billion EGP to solve this problem.
And so the Egyptian education system continues to decline, as its teachers search for an outlet for their social and economic frustrations. They [teachers] begin their school day standing in front of students who are burdened by their society and all of its problems. These students come to their rickety class-rooms and inhabit an environment of anger and violence transforming these class-rooms into arenas of conflict.