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Violence and Discrimination Against Students

Many children around the world experienced violence and discrimination as a regular part of their school experience. In some cases, school officials participated in acts of intolerance, ostracization, and violence directed at particular youth because of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, social group, or other status. In others, authorities failed to intervene to protect students from harassment and attacks by their classmates.

In many parts of the world, minority children did not have access to an education on equal terms with their peers from majority families. In some cases, minority children were placed in separate, inferior schools, or restricted to vocational curricula; in other instances, they were denied access to schools altogether.

In one case brought in July, a Jerusalem city counselor submitted a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court on behalf of 117 school children who were refused enrollment in Jerusalem public schools, in violation of Israeli law. The petitioner alleged that up to 2,000 children had been turned away in 1999 and thousands more had never applied because they did not know they had a right to public education.

Human Rights Watch also received reports of discrimination against Greek children in Turkey, Turkish children in Greece, Roma children in Bulgaria, Albanian children in Macedonia, Rohingya children in Malaysia, Bidun children in Kuwait, the children of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere.

Girls in many countries endured sexual harassment and abuse in educational settings at the hands of teachers and other students. In South Africa, for example, a 1998 study by CIETafrica, an NGO researching sexual violence, found that one in every three Johannesburg girls experienced sexual violence at school; two thirds of those subjected to sexual violence did not report the abuse to anyone. Human Rights Watch interviews in March and April confirmed that sexual abuse and harassment of girls by teachers and other students is widespread.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students in the United States and elsewhere were frequently targeted for harassment by their peers. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were nearly three times as likely as their peers to have been involved in at least one physical fight in school, three times as likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon at school, and nearly four times as likely to skip school because they felt unsafe, according to the 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Most alarmingly, the survey found that those who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were more than twice as likely to consider suicide and more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers.

Efforts to provide a safe, supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students in the United States were hampered by discriminatory legislation in several states. For example, a South Carolina statute provided that health education in public school "may not include a discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases." Similarly, a measure on the November ballot in Oregon would provide that "the instruction of behaviors relating to homosexuality and bisexuality shall not be presented in a public school in a manner which encourages, promotes, or sanctions such behaviors."

In addition to these challenges, many students also faced hostile school administrations. In two particularly prolonged disputes, school districts in Utah and California attempted to deny students the right to form clubs known as gay-straight alliances, in violation of the federal Equal Access Act. California's Orange Unified School District settled a lawsuit with El Modena High School students in September 2000, permitting their group to meet on school grounds and use the school's public address system to announce club meetings. The same month, Utah's Salt Lake City School Board voted to permit student noncurricular clubs to meet on school grounds, reversing a 1995 decision that had abolished all noncurricular clubs in an effort to bar East High School's gay-straight alliance.

Several states had legislation or programs in place to address harassment and violence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin explicitly prohibited harassment and discrimination against teachers or students on the basis of sexual orientation. Massachusetts and Vermont, the only states to include questions relating to sexual orientation on statewide youth risk behavior surveys, had state programs to provide support to gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth. Challenges remained in implementing these programs and statutory protections and in preventing their erosion; in Vermont, for example, a backlash against "civil union" legislation enacted in April, which provided same-sex couples with recognition and benefits similar to those of marriage, threatened funding for the state's youth program.

In a welcome development, Kenyan Education Minister Kalonzo Musyoka announced in June that the government would ban corporal punishment in schools. This positive step followed a 1999 Human Rights Watch report that found that teachers routinely ignored nominal restraints on corporal punishment, caning children for minor offenses such as tardiness, talking in class, wearing torn or dirty uniforms, being unable to answer a question, or failing to achieve target marks set on exams. Students subjected to corporal punishment suffered physical injuries, psychological scars, and, in extreme cases, death.

In Thailand, the Ministry of Education announced in September that corporal punishment would be banned in schools beginning on November 1. South Africa's Constitutional Court upheld a prohibition on corporal punishment in August. In Tanzania, in contrast, the Ministry of Education rejected efforts to abolish corporal punishment in the country's schools.

Relevant Human Rights Watch


Burundi: Emptying the Hills: Regroupment Camps in Burundi, 7/00

Japan: Owed Justice: Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan, 9/00

Kuwait: Promises Betrayed: Denial of Rights of Bidun, Women, and Freedom of Expression, 10/00

Malaysia/Burma: Living in Limbo: Burmese Rohingyas in Malaysia, 8/00

Tanzania: Seeking Protection: Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania's Refugee Camps, 9/00

Turkey: Human Rights and the European Union Accession Partnership, 9/00

United States: Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers, 6/00

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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