x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

School violence: the truth behind a tragedy

Family and neighbourhood violence can spill over into schools, says the head of the Ministry of Health's school health programme.

ABU DHABI // When Tarek Gad heard that a young girl was in hospital after a fight at his children's school, he felt helpless.

"Of course I am worried," said Mr Gad, father of four pupils at Al Maali International School. "But what can I do? It may happen like that in any other school."

Indeed, while the brain haemorrhage suffered by 11-year-old Lujain Hussein after a playground fight is unusual, fighting itself is common.

A study by the World Health Organisation in 2010 found that nearly half of pupils in the UAE aged 13 to 15 had been involved in a physical fight with another pupil in the previous year. More than 22 per cent said they had been bullied during the previous month.

Teaching at an all-boys government school in the capital last year, Adeyela Bennett saw children taunt, hit and sexually harass their peers.

"These kids were hitting each other across the head, throwing things, throwing rocks, using blunt instruments," said Ms Bennett, who now teaches at a private girls' school in Dubai. "They played rough."

Ms Bennett, who used to teach in the United States, was driven to tears by her experience in Abu Dhabi. Children verbally harassed her. Other teachers were hit by pupils.

"The administrators didn't know how to deal with it, so they would pacify them with toys or candy," she said. "There has to be a code of conduct."

The violence among children bothered Ms Bennett the most.

"I couldn't stand seeing them throw rocks at each other," she said. "It was terrifying."

Mariam Al Matroushi, head of the Ministry of Health's school health programme, said family and neighbourhood violence can spill over into schools. "A school environment, you cannot isolate from the community in general," she said.

Teachers can play a crucial role. "Schools should be more controlled," Dr Al Matroushi said. "The environment should maximise visibility for students, and for teachers to manage students. There should be more monitoring from teachers and there should be more rules to minimise bullying and to stop bullying."

Lujain was beaten by a group of younger boys after a quarrel in the school playground on April 19. She is in a medically induced coma at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, where her condition yesterday was unchanged. Doctors have reduced her sedative dose and she underwent a further CT scan.

Her brother, Mahran Hussein, said he had seen marks and bruises on his sister since the beginning of the academic year.

"We would always ask her where they came from, but she wouldn't respond," he said. "It didn't cross our mind that she was being bullied at school. We'd ask the teachers, but they'd tell us that she just tripped or fell."

The truth surfaced only after Lujain was admitted to hospital, Mahran said. "One of her friends told us that these boys had always been picking on her, and that the supervisors would just stand there and laugh," he said.

"Can you imagine? Instead of stepping in to stop it, they would laugh like it was nothing."

The school has referred requests for comment to Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), which said officials had visited Lujain in hospital.

"Doctors reassured the Adec officials that Lujain's condition is stable," the council said. "Adec is currently investigating the case until confirmed reports are issued by both the police and the hospital."

Adec did not respond to requests for comment about discipline or safety programmes.

Another teacher at a private school in Abu Dhabi said she sees fights among students "every day", with little response from administrators.

"We have supervisors that, if kids are fighting, nothing's really done about it," she said. "People kind of turn a blind eye."

Vijaya Chandra, principal of Abu Dhabi Indian School, says Lujain's injuries could have been prevented. "Somebody should have taken guard during this entire incident and should have acted proactively to take all the measures that could have disciplined the children," Mr Chandra said.

Not all schools have violent playgrounds.

Mohammed R, 20, a pupil at an all-boys school in the capital, said fights were common until the school began suspending students.

"This year, nothing has happened," he said. "Last year, maybe over 20 fights."

Judy, 14, a pupil in Abu Dhabi, said she had never seen a fight in her 10 years at the Rosary School.

"The teachers don't let us do that," she said.

vnereim@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Manal Ismail