What Punishment, if Any, Awaits Those Guilty of Abusing Kids at Nubarashen Special Needs School #11?
Narineh Hovhannisyan, Director of the Department of Public Education at the Ministry of Education and Science, and Nurijan Manukyan, Director of the Division of Special Education, respond to questions posed by Hetq. Has the committee tasked with conducting spot inspections at Armenia’s special education schools been created? N. Manukyan – The by-laws, agenda and procedural issues have all been prepared and now UNICEF wishes to retrain all those involved so that they won’t enter our institutions unprepared and make unwarranted demands on the school staff. We want our schools to welcome the presence of the inspectors and not to view them as enemies just waiting to uncover some “dirt”. Rather, we want them to be seen as a group of individuals whose job it is to note shortcomings and to resolve them jointly, in a spirit of cooperation. We hope that this process will be completed during the summer months and that the committee will begin its work come the start of the school year in September. Our course, it would be naïve to think that these people are angels from on high and that they will rescue the system all at once. However, there can be no doubts that they will greatly assist the system because people within the system have grown accustomed to seeing the situation. They may wish to change it but they can no longer spot what needs to be changed. Who has been included in this committee? What are their professional backgrounds? Are psychologists and teachers included as well? There are people from all organizations engaged in educational programs and those who conduct educational programs in the public school system. At the very start, fifteen international NGO’s were formed. In addition, groups are being created that visit the schools. There can be 3-4 individuals to a group – a psychologist and a teacher are mandatory. All, however, must be retrained and must have experience and skills in working with children. We found that the moment of most concern for us was the one on one interview with the children because there are kids who are mentally handicapped at various levels and conversations with them must be conducted in a very professional manner. Here, the participation of a psychologist is very essential; the dialogue must be very nuanced. We must provide the proper psychological-pedagogical direction. We had proposed that a given school’s psychologist or ones presented by us be present at these discussion sessions. They responded that they would present their own candidates. In the end we agreed that they would present their candidates but that they are qualified professionals who would not blurt out something inappropriate to these children that would create problems later on. How long will these inspections go on for? There is no set deadline. The end result we seek is positive reform. It is a process that assumes a certain continuity, development and long-term prospects. One day, if the committee decides that its work is done, that everything is fine in the schools, that the system has been cured and that their presence is no longer needed, they may no longer make regular visits. Who is financing the work of the committee? No one. These are NGO’s with their own financing from donor organizations. We are not providing any financing. Now UNICEF wants to finance their retraining and preparatory activities. If the committee uncovers violations what steps will it take? What powers does the committee enjoy? The committee will prepare a report for the minister. The committee also has the right to publish their findings in the press. N. Hovhannisyan – The minister has also allowed the committee to participate in ministerial oversight inspections. Until these recent incidents came to light, have such ministerial inspections uncovered any violations in the country’s schools for special needs children? Hasn’t any child come forth and said that he or she has been physically abused? N. Manukyan – That’s a bit difficult to say; it’s a dark forest. When the TV program first aired regarding abuse of pupils at a special needs school, we formed a committee under the direction of Mrs. Hovhannisyan. About ten of us paid the school a visit. We sat the kids down and talked to all of them. They didn’t say anything of the sort to us. There was a girl named Anoush and another one who spoke to us about a thousand different things; but not about abuse. We heard nothing of the kind. However, it’s been proven that such abuse happened on more than one occasion. N. Manukyan – One incident took place in 1995, another in 1998. It happened at different times but was never brought to light. There are people who live quite immoral lives and then die with no one ever the wiser about their true behavior. There are others who engage in immoral acts just the one time and are caught. We never had any such knowledge. N. Hovhannisyan – Of course, the school principal should have known what was going on under his nose. The fact that the principal didn’t know is punishable; end of story. According to the pupils, some of the teachers were aware of what was going on at the school. Will these individuals be punished? N. Manukyan – Anyone who participated in these acts, or who knew but chose to remain silent, will be punished accordingly. It is up to the school principal to decide the correct punishment. The principal of the school in question has been dismissed. It will be the job of his replacement to examine the issue carefully, read the verdict of the court and decide whether the verdict actually finds this or that person guilty of participating in these acts and whether they should be disciplined. What is the jurisdiction of the Education Ministry in all this? N. Manukyan – The ministry does not have the right to enact penalties or incentives when it comes to state non-commercial institutions. All it can do is make proposals or issues directives to the principal. Since the new principal has come on board, he will be issued a directive that those found guilty be punished. From our perspective, the most serious of sanctions has been carried out – the principal was dismissed on the basis on the non-confidence clause. Friends of the former principal work at the school. Weren’t any of them in the loop as to what was taking place? N. Manukyan – All this took place in a semi-rural community setting in which there are a handful of institutions; the school being one. It is only natural that educated individuals must be employed at the school. It is also natural that employees of that family are there. I discussed this problem once at the ministry. I personally queried the principal about the talk going round that there were many of his family working at the school. He answered, ‘If I have hired anyone illegally, they all have an education and are working.’ The law does not specify such restrictions on hiring. In Armenia’s villagers there are educated families where all the children have a higher education. All of them work at this school. Should we now arrest that principal and take him to court? What has the Nubarashen school example taught you? N. Manukyan – There’s the conception of the appendix. We all have one but only certain people come down with appendicitis. Just because such incidents happened at the one school, it doesn’t mean that such occurrences are widespread throughout the entire system. What is needed is to cultivate the right moral and educational environment, to work with principals in such a way so that at the first sign of such tendencies they are rooted out. N. Hovhannisyan – Today, in Armenia, there are 24 such special needs boarding schools in operation. Our policy is to phase these out as well. There number has been reduced from 52 to the current 24. Much work has been carried out and most of the children have returned home. In extreme cases, children classified as socio-economically vulnerable, are transferred to state schools from the care center. But I am hopeful that one day these care centers will also be phased out. The process leading back to the home and to mom is already underway. Parallel with our long-term policy to phase-out the special needs schools, is to improve them as well. I hope that one day we will reduce their number from the current twenty-four down to five or six. There have been children with no special needs enrolled at the Nubarashen School. Who is responsible for such occurrences? N. Hovhannisyan – It is the fault of all of us. Back in the 1990’s, when the kids needed warmth, light and something to eat, we filled up such schools. It was a question of survival for many. Later on, when things got better, we started to decrease their numbers. All these infractions stem from this situation. N. Manukyan – In 2008 we set up a medical/psychological learning evaluation center. Today, we have been able to reach a point where children with no mental impairments are to be found studying alongside those who are mentally challenged. This is the case at Nubarashen Special Needs School #11 as well. All have been properly evaluated.