Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Ministry mum on policy that authorises teachers to film student indiscipline

Government is too large, too formal and too bureaucratic an institution to operate by word of mouth. That is precisely why processes through which the administration of the Molefi Senior Secondary School has authorised teachers to film incidents of student indiscipline necessarily have to be codified.

We deduce the latter from the contents of a press statement that was released by the Botswana Sector of Educator’s Union (BOSETU) Secretary General, Tobokani Rari, last month after a video clip of a female student in great physical discomfort consumed a whole news cycle. Dressed in school uniform, she is writhing on the ground in what looks like excruciating pain and desperately asking for her mother. The number is unclear but two or three teachers are following her around, one filming the spectacle with a camera phone. A lone male voice, which is bereft of any note of urgency, is heard to casually, sarcastically deadpan that the student must have enjoyed whatever it is she had taken. The deadpanning complements the general lack of urgency that the teachers bring to what, with each passing second, looks every inch like a life-and-death medical emergency. BOSETU’s statement suggests the male teacher, who stays off-frame the entire time but whose voice is heard in the video clip, is the one who filmed the incident.

The video would go viral and most people were horrified by the callousness of the teachers. At least at press time, there had been no disciplinary outcome and according to Oarabile Phefo, who is the Ministry of Basic Education’s Chief Public Relations Officer, the incident is being investigated.   

“The Ministry of Basic Education is aware of the issue/video circulating on social media about a learner who seems to be in pain. A full investigation has been instituted to get details of what happened and the outcome will guide management on the way forward,” he said in a written statement.

Mindful of standard investigatory protocols, we didn’t seek information that this process will yield but hoped we could at least get the Ministry to explain the apparent policy through which the administration of the Molefi Senior Secondary School authorises teachers to film incidents of student indiscipline. As a matter of policy and practice, bureaucracies operate within a policy framework and schools are part of a bureaucratic system that is managed from the MoBE headquarters in Gaborone. In this particular instance, a policy is important because it would give guidance with regard to how this filming should be done.

“At this stage we cannot comment further on the issue lest the credibility of the investigations is compromised,” Phefo stated in general response to request for additional information beyond confirmation of the incident.

Not commenting further means that the Ministry couldn’t confirm whether such policy exists and there is real possibility that it may not exist at all.  Sources at at least six schools (four junior secondary and two senior secondary schools) say that they are unaware of the policy. While individual schools may afford to be adhocratic in their handling of certain issues, filming students within school premises is particularly sensitive and necessarily has to occur within a policy framework. According to the BOSETU statement, the video “was meant to be used as evidence because most of the time when students misbehave, teachers battle to prove what they deal with. We are told they drank a chemical from the lab.” We had sought to find out from the Ministry how the video would have proved that the student had drank ethanol – which was the misconduct in question.

If it turns out that the Ministry doesn’t have any policy to record, film and record students, decision-makers at the school may find themselves in water way hotter than that the male teacher who shot the video is in right now. Photographs, films and other recordings of individuals constitute personal information and protected by privacy law in the same way as any other personal information. School policies are supposed to comply with the law and any filming of students outside these legal parameters exposes both the Ministry and the officials involved to grave legal risk. If any school requires teachers to film student misconduct, it should first develop and publicise a policy for the collection, use and disclosure of photographs, films and other recordings of students.

Such policy would indicate what sort of equipment is to be used and which parties would provide such equipment. In the particular case of Molefi, are teachers required to use their own camera phones? A yes answer would mean that teachers can use their own property but if so, why couldn’t they use their own cars to rush a student in distress to the nearest health facility? The policy should be clear on how and when the filming should be done and if need be, published. As important is parental consent because the issue involves minors who are still under the care and control of their parents and guardians. This is context in which we sought to find out whether the school’s Parents Teachers Association, which represents parents, is aware of and approves the policy in question.

Most importantly, the policy should be clear about the chain of custody and what role responsibilities should be exercised to ensure that the recorded materials are safe and secure. This particular aspect would have ensured that no video of a minor in distress ends up on Facebook.

The Molefi incident is tragic all the way around because, as Rari’s statement shows, even BOSETU has taken an unhelpful attitude.

“Our eyes must be on the ball and we should not derail from the main issue here which is unruly behavior of our kids in schools. This must be on record, I feel Child Rights Network movements are becoming overzealous about the issue. They are missing the main issues of students’ indiscipline. Our schools are rotten!” said Rari, alluding to a decision by the Botswana Child Rights Network to report the incident to the police.

The logical fallacies in this statement are clear as day. BOSETU wants to divert attention from the teacher’s misconduct by focussing solely on that of the student. The fact of the matter is that these cases can be addressed simultaneously but separately. Contrary to the impression the Union is keen to make, the video doesn’t show any misconduct – it shows a student who needs urgent medical attention. For now, that she may have drank ethanol remains an unproven allegation. That she was in great pain and needed urgent medical attention is plain to see. BOSETU chose to fixate on an unproven allegation and ignore clear evidence everybody can literally see. The teachers were required to attend to a medical emergency and address the student’s own misconduct afterwards and a good parallel is to be found in law enforcement. In application of the no-fault principle, police officers rush injured armed robbers to the hospital – the same robbers who tried to kill those officers – and lay charges later.

BOSETU wants to divert attention away from the teachers’ unruly behaviour to the more general issue of “unruly behavior of our kids in schools.” The veritable serves-you-right remark by the male teacher, the meanness in his tone of voice as he makes that remark, his general nonchalance and the fact that a video that he shot ended up on Facebook reveals a thought process that was never oriented towards responding appropriately to a life-and-death medical emergency.

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