School will be back in session here in Saudi in just a few days and my fellow parents and I are knee-deep in uniforms, backpacks, school supplies, and of course, tuition fees. I’m always nervous at the beginning of a school year here. Despite paying exorbitant amounts of money for what is supposed to be quality education, we haven’t had the greatest experiences in the Saudi school system. My friends and I think it’s high time someone talked about those experiences, and it is our hope to draw the attention of those who have the power to change the way things are done here.
For many parents the start of a new school year brings a rush of mixed emotions. We feel pride as we watch our children take another step toward becoming successful young adults. We feel excited at the possibility of new friendships, important lessons, and academic achievement.
For many of us, there are also fears. We fear that our children may be bullied or left out, that they not make any friends, or that they may experience peer pressure. In some ways these negative experiences are necessary to teach our children valuable lessons, so we accept them and we are always there with a reassuring smile and a warm hug, teaching our children how to handle them. But what happens when the things you fear for your child are not only perpetrated by fellow students, but by teachers as well?
How do you answer your sweet child when you ask him where the bruises on him came from and he says from his teacher? What are the reassuring words you can say when your daughter writes in her diary that she hates herself and wants to die because her teacher called her names? What are your options after several complaints have been made to the teacher and the school administration, and the physical and verbal abuse continues?
In addition to problems such as outdated methods of instruction, the insistence upon rote learning, and the lack of qualified teachers holding the education system back in Saudi Arabia, abuse is still commonplace among even the most popular and well-known schools.
Abuse comes in many forms: physical, emotional, verbal, and more. Every form of abuse is detrimental to the victim and often leaves emotional and psychological scars long after bruises fade.
One Saudi father, Abu Muhammad, took the day off work to tour nearby government schools for his son who will be entering the first grade. His aim was to drop in unannounced, meet the teachers and administration, observe the students’ behavior, and make sure the facilities were up to his standards. As he approached the administration office, he heard strange noises which he recognized to be the sounds of a struggle. Much to his surprise, when he turned the corner to the principal’s office, he found the principal towering over three children who were huddled together on the floor, trying to protect themselves from the beating they were receiving from this vile man. The principal noticed the arrival of Abu Muhammad, straightened his thobe, replaced his shumagh and igal, and rushed the boys out of the office as though nothing had happened. Needless to say Abu Muhammad did not choose that school for his son.
An expatriate mother whose children go to a well known Islamic school reports that it is normal for the students to be hit with rulers, but she accepts this abuse because she wants them to benefit from the Islamic teachings of the school. Maybe someone can enlighten me on what part of Islam allows this sort of “teaching”.
When a Canadian mother noticed bruising on her son’s body, her husband took immediate action and visited the school. “My husband went to the school to complain. The school said they would investigate, but still had the teacher continue working with the children during the investigation. They gave my son a gift. The teacher later called us to apologize and also say the kids were fighting and he didn’t know what to do so he hit them. He was not taught how to deal with normal child behavior, and he’s been my son’s teacher for 3 years.” When she confided in friends about the abuse her son had received, she was told that since she’s living in the land of Islam, she should take the good with the bad and let the abuse go.
A Saudi mother whose children have all attended the same famous international school was shocked to find out that her grade 4 son had been struck on the head by a teacher for giggling during prayer time. This abuse made the boy afraid of attending prayers.
An American mother reports that her daughter has experienced migraines, stomach problems, and emotional disturbances due to the constant verbal abuse endured, despite repeated calls and complaints to administration, at the international school she attends.
A mother by the name of HH reports that her son has been the victim of abuse from both students and teachers. Pushed down the stairs, stabbed with a pencil, and hit so hard on the back of the head that the front of his head hit his desk. When she noticed that her son was not eating his lunch at school, although she took care to pack him his favorite foods, she asked why he wasn’t eating. Her son replied “I can’t sit down and eat. I always need to be on my guard.” When HH visited the school to inquire about possible bullying, the school administration advised her to tell her son not to go to the Saudi teachers because they won’t help him and that Saudi teachers could not effectively be disciplined for their abusive behavior.
A woman whose husband works in a hospital reports that a student had come in for treatment because a teacher pulled his ear so hard that it needed to be stitched back on.
As a teacher at a top 10 Saudi private school in Riyadh, I personally witnessed the principal of the school slap a 6th grade student across the face in the hallway just outside my classroom. At the age of seven my own child, who we brought to this country to be surrounded by people who we assumed would share our values, was called a dog by her Arabic teacher in this same school.
Many parents find these abuses unacceptable, but many still do not know that they are illegal. Especially for expat parents, communication can sometimes be a problem due to a language barrier. Even when complaints are successfully made, school administrations are quick to try to cover up the problems and make excuses for them, rather than to deal with them directly.
Many parents wish to make official complaints at the Ministry of Education, but phones are never answered and without access to reliable transportation, this can be difficult for many mothers to do. Administrators, when they do recognize the problem, often times do not have acceptable ways to deal with it. Either they don’t want to offend a teacher who has been working for them for years, they’re afraid of retribution from people with connections, or they’re simply at a loss for what to do. They may try to appease parents and children by gift-giving and excuse-making, but a long term and permanent solution is needed for this problem.
How much longer are we willing to let this continue? These are not isolated incidents; it is a widespread problem affecting even the most elite schools in the Kingdom.
I challenge any parent, any citizen of this country, any expat, any unannounced government official to walk down the halls of our schools during instruction time. Listen to the teachers yelling, hurling insults, and handing out threats. It is a well known problem that needs to be solved. We send our children to school with the hope that they will be shaped and molded into better human beings who will one day be valuable assets to this country and the world. Instead we end up with children who are experiencing stress levels that even we as adults couldn’t tolerate. Our children are being scarred for life. How can we expect them to love Islam, to love this country, and to respect their elders when the last things they are receiving at school are love and respect?
We as parents are doing our part. We are outspoken advocates for our children, we are involved and invested in our children’s education, and we take great care to make sure our children are afforded the best education available in this country, but more needs to be done by schools and the government.
School administrations need to have clearly outlined policies on abuse, mistreatment, and bullying for students and teachers, and they need to follow those policies and clearly document the steps taken for every incident. The Ministry of Education needs to be more available to parents, to answer the phone, to follow up with reports of abuse, and to make unannounced visits to schools to ensure that abuse is not happening. This is a problem that is long overdue for a solution.