Poland takes a hard line on bad behaviour in schools

Poland's Ministry of Education has announced its intention to introduce a US type 'zero tolerance' approach to fight violent and anti-social behavior in Polish schools. In recent weeks, Polish media extensively reported on several shocking cases in which school children were bullied, humiliated and driven to suicide by their peers.

Following a series of incidents of school related violence, most notably the suicidal death of a teenager molested by her peers in class, the Ministry of Education has intensified its efforts to cut down on crime and anti-social behavior in Polish schools.

The Ministry came up with a proposal of introducing single sex education to Polish middle schools. Now, another plan is being put forward for consideration - the policy of 'zero tolerance' to crime and violence on school premises. The Minister of Education, Roman Giertych, intends to toughen the line on offenders who might be required to do community work or even be sent to heightened security centers.

For Miroslaw Mikolajczyk, who has been a teacher at different levels for nearly twenty years now, the problem of out of control students is one that needs urgent intervention.

"I've been observing it in schools at different levels that violence, lack of respect, not only to teachers, but to other students as well, has been regarded as normal and acceptable. 'Students rights' were put above the idea of mutual respect among students and towards the teachers. Any attempts to stop the aggressive or anti-social behavior were countered by the students saying that 'we have rights' and 'you are not allowed to...', so it was really difficult to impose any discipline on students."

According to the new policy, students will be penalized more strictly than before, even if they commit a minor offence. For a punishment, they might have to sweep dead leaves from the schoolyard, or clean the school toilet. Curse words, indecent clothes and behavior as well as mobile phones are to be forbidden in class. Professor Aleksander Nalaskowski, an educationalist of the Mikolaj Kopernik University in Torun, although generally in favor of stricter discipline at schools, has some reservations to the program.

"I don't know the details of the program, it has not been released yet. I have to look at it, but from the leaks in the press, I have some reservations to punishing with work. It's one thing when a student who wrote graffiti on the wall has to repaint the wall, or damaged something and has to repair it, but it's something else to punish with work for vulgarisms. I would rather have such a student learn to recite Shakespeare's sonnets by heart to make sure he knows how to use language properly."

Fierce criticism of the program comes from the government's opposition. Extreme left wing politician Marek Borowski had not seen the project yet but was quick to label the government's idea as oppressive.

"This is only the repression and penalty. From time to time it's necessary, of course, but it cannot be a full, complete program. We should give to young people the perspective."

Miroslaw Mikolaczyk, a teacher with nearly twenty years of experience, disagrees with this line of thinking.

"As I see this, the zero tolerance program seems to be going in a good direction. It is trying to give the school back the pedagogical tools that the school has been deprived of. I believe that it is not the role of the teacher to act as a security guard or a policeman in school. This respect has to be embedded in the system itself and this is what I think the latest ministry's program is trying to achieve."

For Professor Nalaskowski, the 'zero tolerance' approach is neither shocking nor revolutionary.

"It's just about putting the already existing norms and regulations into practice. It's a reminder that there are rules that should be obeyed, but are not, especially when it comes to truancy, failing to do homework, vulgarisms and vandalism. That's how law works in society. If we stopped to obey traffic regulations, we would all be killed sooner or later. It's obvious. Fierce opposition to the zero tolerance approach, at the same time having no alternative to offe, is in my view a sign of unprofessionality of the dispute that is going on."

The policy of zero tolerance to school violence was first implemented in the United States in the 1990s. According to the data published by the US Department of Education, the number of crimes and violent incidents dropped by over 1/3 as a result of the program.

The latest polls conducted in Poland indicate that up to 80% of respondents thought that the law should penalize even 15-year old offenders who might end up in detention centers on a par with adults.