“Removal” likely to be first and only resort in view of fuss over expulsion

Zero Tolerance Policy: Following discussions on the policy of zero tolerance to indiscipline in schools, the education ministry has reviewed, discussed and revised its earlier criteria for expulsion of a student from school.

The revised guidelines states that ‘offenses of criminal nature shall be dealt with as per the law of the land. “The student, if proven guilty of the crime, by verdict of the court, ‘may be’ expelled, depending on the nature of the crime,” the guidelines states. 

According to the earlier guidelines, a court verdict would determine if a child should remain in school or be expelled. “The child, if proven guilty of the crime by verdict of the court, both bailable and non-bailable, is automatically expelled,” it had stated.

Commenting on how only two lines, the expulsion aspect, of the 14-page policy has caught everyone’s, including the media’s attention, the education secretary Sangay Zam in a press conference yesterday said that there is a lot of misunderstanding with expulsion hijacking other preventive and corrective provisions of the policy.

“There seem to be a perception that we’re going to be merrily expelling children,” the secretary said. “I’d like to make very clear that the education ministry’s mandate is to nurture and help children realise their full potential, and that we’re not here to punish.”

The change in the expulsion criteria means that conviction may not necessarily result in expulsion but would depend on the nature of crime, the secretary said.

“Definitely, zero tolerance would be for violent crimes like murder and stabbing, but if it’s substance abuse, we’d recommend that the child go for rehabilitation first, and come back to school,” she said. “You won’t see a child with substance abuse problem being expelled.”

On if a student should be given a second chance to schooling after expulsion, the secretary pointed out that expulsion comes after many chances.

“We also believe that children should stay in school, that’s why we aren’t allowed to expel children below 14 years,” she said.

While the ministry wanted students and parents to believe that conviction for drug abuse would also result in expulsion, it would not happen in reality, the secretary said.

However, if a student is below 18 years, convicted for a violent crime, they are sent to the rehabilitation center in Tsimasham, where they can continue their schooling.

“But if you’ve crossed 18 years, served a sentence and come out, then we have the continuing education facility, where they can pay and continue their studies if they if they’re still interested,” secretary Sangay Zam said.

Royal education council member and honorary consul of Bhutan to the UK, Michael Rutland in an email interview said it is a basic principle of Buddhism that all thoughts and actions have inevitable consequences – the principle of cause and effect. “The education system and individual schools need to articulate this principle very clearly, so that students from the youngest age understand and accept that ‘intolerable’ behaviour cannot and will not be tolerated by school or society,” he said.

All thoughts and actions, he said, inevitably result in consequences’, and ‘zero tolerance’ is saying the same thing in different words – all behaviour, both good and bad, inevitably brings consequences.

“The problem is to ensure that the consequences are appropriate to the behaviour,” Michael Ruthland said. “What exactly are the appropriate consequences when dealing with young people? This question can only be answered after careful thought. Remember the old legal saying ‘hard cases make bad law’. And remember too the well-known principle of unintended consequences, whereby the ‘zero tolerance’ policy might create through its too hasty application problems, which are greater than those it is intended to deal with.”

Ministry officials reiterated that expulsion, which was incorporated in the policy to instill fear among students and parents, is the last resort that the school would take for those involved in violent crimes, and who would affect the safety of other children.

While the school’s discipline committee is empowered to impose other sanctions, the school management board would decide on expulsion. Schools should have a record of the child’s disciplinary history.

“Schools will go through all the processes of trying to reform, counsel, use preventive measures, then corrective measures and, if all has failed, there are still other measures like suspension, as long as the child is not convicted of a crime,” the secretary explained.

There is also a provision of “removal” from school in the guidelines, where, if a school feels that a child with disciplinary problems may improve in a new environment or school, the school may advise the parents to take the child to another school.  Removal from school in such cases is not expulsion, the secretary said.

During the consultation process for the policy, many schools raised concerns on expulsion, ministry officials said. “It’s sad that you have to put fear in people for them to behave in a certain manner, but the reality is that you have to have fear of consequences, because they know we can’t beat them.”

Chief human resource officer Sonam Wangyel said the ministry has already recruited 12 full time counsellors to help schools with indiscipline problems.  It will recruit 75 more.

Michael Rutland said the ‘zero tolerance’ policy comes under the ‘stick’ category that an education system develops to inculcate the highest standards of behaviour and morality in students.

“There’s surely no doubt that there is some behaviour which is literally ‘intolerable’,” Michael Rutland said. “And it’s this category of behaviour, which rightly justifies a ‘zero tolerance’ policy. It could also be argued that behaviour, which seriously harms the community, is also intolerable – but here there is the difficult question of who decides the degree of community harm done, and also when young people are involved, how great is the degree of intentionality; the dividing line can be exceedingly fuzzy!”

By Sonam Pelden

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