Answer to a question from a reader

What can I do if my child tells me her teacher smacked her?

The short answer

You can take it up with the teacher and principal. If necessary, after that you can approach the school governing body.

The whole question

Following the social media attention on Sans Souci school and the teacher smacking a learner, it is clear that teachers are not allowed to hit learners and that there are specific laws against it.

1. Am I allowed to smack my child at home?

2. What can I do if my child tells me that her primary school teacher smacked her hands with a ruler for forgetting to do her homework?

The long answer

Thanks for your email about whether a parent is allowed to smack a child, and what you can do if a primary school teacher smacks a child’s hands with a ruler.

In December 2018, the Gauteng High Court ruled that a parent could not legally smack a child. The judge said that “The common law defence of reasonable chastisement is unconstitutional and no longer applies in our law.” Judge Raylene Keightly said she wasn’t aiming to put parents behind bars, but for parents to find other ways to discipline their children, and for the state to refer parents to appropriate intervention systems when necessary.

This is a very big change in South Africa but it is a very old idea: Ellen Key, whose book, ‘The Century of the Child’, was published in 1909, said, “Corporal punishment is as humiliating for him who gives it as for him who receives it; it is ineffective besides. Neither shame nor physical pain have any other effect than a hardening one.”

It’s worth knowing that corporal punishment as defined by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is "any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light."

Although corporal punishment at school has been banned since 1997, it is still very often used. CEO of the SA Council for Educators (Sace), Raj Brijraj, said last year that the most common complaint made against teachers is corporal punishment.

Teachers are well aware that it is illegal, but many seem to think it’s more effective than other forms of punishment, and that they have little alternative when faced with controlling overcrowded classrooms. They have also criticised the Education Department for not giving them training on alternate methods of discipline.

You can take up the smacking of your child’s hands by the teacher with the principal, and if necessary after that, the school governing body. A teacher may certainly face legal consequences for using corporal punishment against pupils. The district office of the Education Department will investigate complaints of corporal punishment against school staff and, depending on the outcome, will refer the case to the Labour Relations Directorate for further investigation and disciplinary hearings.

We should also keep in mind that many teachers have overcrowded classes and are working in extremely difficult circumstances with little support. If we want to prevent teachers from "snapping" these problems need to be fixed. Sometimes the widespread condemnations on social media can be counter-productive and unsympathetic to the pressures teachers face.

Answered on Feb. 13, 2019, 12:57 p.m.

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