Thai schools use dance class, prayer to curb violence

Bankok, Thailand - Heads bowed and legs tucked behind them, a class of 10th-graders sits in silence on a wooden floor. On a platform at the front of the room, two Buddhist monks intone prayers before leading a 10-minute talk on ethics.

At the end, several students shuffle forward on their knees to offer bowls of food.

The weekly Buddhist ethics class is part of a pilot project that uses everything from meditation to dancing and singing to curb troubling levels of violence in Thai schools. Involving parents, teachers, school administrators, and religious figures, the effort aims to instill tolerance and discipline in students, as well as instructors.

For students, the project helps them blow off steam and temper their emotions. A few of the children in the program were caught brawling earlier this year. That's all history now, says one of the boys. "These activities help us. We know each other better. Otherwise, if we see a face we don't like, it can end in a fight."

One of seven schools chosen for the Thai project, Khemaprirattaram is a century-old secondary school in a Bangkok suburb that blends into the rice-growing hinterland. Its student body of 3,070 is a mix of local families and transfers from other districts, and has its fair share of troubled students, says principal Japruek Srilert.

He says the project's emphasis on social activities not only discourages violence in the playground but also motivates failing students. Two years ago, 100 students a year dropped out of school. Since the project was launched last September, the only students who left were transfers, he says.

Teachers are learning about positive forms of discipline, too, and how to respond to bad behavior.

"Some teachers misunderstand how to deal with violence, and they inflict violence on students. This increases the problem," says Mr. Srilert.

Indeed, the project is as much aimed at teachers as it is troubled students. While Thailand banned corporal punishment in schools in 2000, one of around 90 countries worldwide to do so, some teachers flout the ban. Researchers say that male teachers can exploit their authority over students. A 2005 UN report based on Thai government data found that on average a teacher sexually abuses a student at least once a week in Thailand.

Sombat Tapanya, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Chiang Mai University who created the program, says that when the government took away the stick from teachers, they didn't replace it with another means for dealing with disruptive students.

He encourages positive discipline methods that reward good behavior, not just punitive measures against bad students. Outreach to parents is also needed to discourage corporal punishment at home, so that students get a consistent message that violence isn't the way to solve problems, he says.

The Ministry of Education, which supports the antiviolence pilot project, wants to roll it out across Thailand next April. Mr. Sombat says he has already been invited by other principals to train their staff.

But old-fashioned ideas of tutelage die hard in Thai society. A traditional saying here holds that "If you love your ox, tie him down. If you love your child, hit him."

Paitoon Jaitiangtham, a teacher in charge of discipline at Khemaprirattaram, admits that some teachers still slap children on their bare legs when they misbehave.

The government's ban on corporal punishment lacks teeth because it wasn't an act of parliament, says Sinart King, a child rights adviser at Plan Thailand, a child-oriented charity.

It also states that under some circumstances, teachers can use a stick to hit a child, if they deem necessary.

As part of its global campaign, Plan Thailand is also campaigning to tighten the nation's ban on corporal punishment.

The pattern is equally troubling worldwide, says Nadya Kassam, head of global advocacy for Plan International. The group is organizing a three-year campaign called "Learn Without Fear" against violence in schools.

In a recent report, it estimates that millions of children annually suffer injuries, depression, and mental health problems as a result of these abuses. "No country is immune from violence in schools," she says.