x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Teacher goes on trial for manslaughter

A secondary school teacher who kicked one of his pupils to death for not doing his homework goes on trial in a Cairo criminal court.

Students attend an Arabic class at a primary school in Cairo.
Students attend an Arabic class at a primary school in Cairo.

CAIRO // A secondary school teacher who kicked one of his pupils to death for not doing his homework goes on trial in a Cairo criminal court today and faces up to seven years in prison if convicted. Haitham Nabil Abdel-Hamid, 23, a mathematics teacher at Saad Othman school in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, 200km north of Cairo, is charged with manslaughter for hitting Islam Badr, 11, last month, apparently in an attempt to "discipline" the boy. "I want those responsible for the killing of my child to be held accountable," said Amr Badr, the boy's father, who has called for the resignation of the minister of education and the prime minister. Mr Abdel-Hamid told investigators he was originally going to slap Islam on the hand with a ruler - along with 15 other pupils who had not done their homework - but when the boy refused to hold out his hand he took the pupil outside the classroom and began beating him. The forensic report indicated the cause of death was a kick to the abdomen that left the second and fifth left ribs broken, resulting in a drop in blood pressure that led to heart failure. Islam was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. Mr Abdel-Hamid said he was only trying to "discipline the boy, not to kill him". The death of Islam drew an avalanche of condemnation from children's rights groups and the public and has reopened the issue of physical punishment within public sector education. Though it was banned by ministerial decree in 1998, physical punishment remains common practice in state schools, where overcrowded classrooms, staffed by poorly paid teachers - many of whom earn as little as US$40 (Dh145) a month - have resulted in growing discipline problems. 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, transfer to another school, or dismissal. But regulations are applied laxly. In another incident last week, Khadiga Alaa Mohamed, 10, a pupil at a primary school in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, died "out of fear" after her mathematics teacher, 37-year-old Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, prepared to punish her and other pupils for not doing homework. After the teacher asked her to stand up and come to the front of the class she collapsed and died. "Khadiga died out of fear," said Khalil Fadel, a psychiatrist. "Most probably she was a very sensitive girl, and the news and photos of Islam [the dead pupil] had penetrated and stayed in her unconscious." No evidence of violence was found in the forensic report. The girl's mother refused to report the incident to the police, saying Mr Abdel-Fattah had not physically harmed her daughter. Nonetheless, the governor of Cairo, Abdel-Azim Wazir, ordered 5,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh3,300) in compensation be paid to the family and suspended the teacher from his duties while an investigation is conducted. Last year a primary school pupil lost the sight in one eye after being hit by a pencil a teacher had flung at him. The two recent deaths prompted Youssri al Gamal, the minister of education, to convene an emergency meeting and restate the absolute prohibition of physical punishment in schools. According to statistics published last year by Unicef, the UN's children's fund, 50 per cent of children in upper (or southern) Egypt and 70 per cent of children in urban areas reported corporal punishment in schools. Sexual violence was also reported as common and 50 per cent of students said they have been threatened with either low grades or expulsion. The abuse has led to fearfulness among Egypt's schoolchildren. "I hate school and I'm always scared that my teachers will punish and hit me if I do anything wrong," said Yasmine Abdo, 11. "I stay up till 11pm every night to finish my homework, otherwise I will be punished." Egypt is bound by its commitments to the Cairo Declaration - signed under the auspices of the United Nations in 2005 - which emphasises the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the "protection of children from corporal punishment and, explicitly, prohibiting corporal punishment in all settings including in the family, schools and other institutions". Analysts say the violence in schools is a reflection of the rising aggression in society in general. "The killing of Islam is tragic, but is not an exceptional case in our schools," wrote columnist Wael Abdel Fattah in the daily newspaper Al Akhbar. "Cruelty is practised daily in the schools, as the student can be subjugated into the ideal citizen and the teachers are the early symbols of authority." The romantic slogans of the past such as "Education is like air and water", which was used more than half a century ago by Taha Hussein, the late minister of education, and "Stand up for your teacher, as the teacher is almost a prophet", carry little weight in modern Egypt. nmagd@thenational.a