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Teacher in Germany convicted for disciplining students

The school year is off to a bad start for a music teacher in western Germany: he has been convicted of deprivation of personal liberty over controversial detention practices.

No student likes detention. But one sixth-grader in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia actually called the police when the teacher wouldn’t let him leave the classroom. The case went to a municipal court and, on Wednesday, a two-pronged verdict was handed down. The music teacher, 50, was cleared of assault charges, but found guilty of deprivation of personal liberty.

While detention isn’t common in Germany, teachers are seen as representatives of the state, with the right to discipline children. Educators should be able to state their reasons for punishment, though.

“Whether students accept a punishment very much depends on how plausibly you can explain it,” Ilka Hoffmann, former teacher and head of the school department in the German teachers’ union GEW, told DW.

“The teacher has to be very aware of what he’s doing and what he wants to achieve. Students will respect his authority only if they perceive his actions as clear and fair.”

The state ministry of schools and education of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the court case took place, states on its websites that teachers are allowed to make disruptive students leave the room, take students’ cell phones away – and also keep them in detention to complete class work.

The guidelines do stress that parents have to be informed about this measure in advance and that the punishment has to be proportionate to the individual student’s misbehavior.

In the case heard on Wednesday, a student at a school outside of Düsseldorf had claimed that the teacher kept the children in the classroom with a writing task as punishment. When the 13-year-old wanted to leave, the teacher allegedly thrust his arm into the student’s stomach, leaving the boy in pain.

On the stand, the boy amended his story, court spokesman Kay Uwe Krüger told DW.

“He said that his teacher had wanted to return his assignment to him with a sweeping gesture and accidentally bumped against his stomach, which then hurt a little for a short time,” Krüger recounted.

Collective punishment is a no-go

On the school day in question in April 2015, the teacher said he had the students copy a text as punishment for failing to quiet down. At the end of class, he put his chair in front of the door and told the students to line up with their papers, which they had to submit before being allowed to leave. The boy in question didn’t want to wait his turn and tried to move to the front of the line, according to the music teacher.

“I brushed him aside, telling him he had to get in line just like the others,” the teacher told regional news website “Der Westen.”

A teacher’s dream: rapt students who are paying attention. It doesn’t always work this way.

While he was let off the hook concerning the assault allegations, the court did find him guilty of deprivation of personal liberty because he had applied collective punishment to the entire class and wouldn’t let anyone leave, Krüger explained:

“The judge said it wasn’t permissible to have kept everyone in class longer.”

Heated discussion on social media

The case had gathered attention on social media when it was first heard in court at the beginning of August. One user said it was “unbelievable what teachers have to deal with nowadays.”

Teachers ‘should establish boundaries’

The court has ordered the defendant to attend a pedagogical course on how to deal with undisciplined students correctly. He was also hit with a fine of 1,000 euros ($1,128) – but he won’t actually have to pay that money if there are no more complaints filed against him in the coming year.

While collective punishment is frowned upon, developmental psychology professor Arnold Lohaus says there’s nothing wrong with punishing children in general.

“Mild punishment can actually be positive because it puts children back on the right track,” Lohaus, who teaches at the University of Bielefeld, told DW. “It’s important that children experience boundaries and the school, just as well as parents, should establish these boundaries.”

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