Beaten and burnt at the hands of Tirana’s public school system

Opinion Society

This story originally appeared on www.exit.al

 

We want to tell the sad story of a young boy who lives in Tirana. A.H. has just turned four years old, but in the last two months he has been beaten and burnt at the hands of two municipality kindergartens.

On the 29th of August 2018, A.H. attended Kindergarten Nr. 1 and returned home after class acting in an unusual manner. When his mother tried to get him to remove his shirt to take a shower, he refused—becoming emotional and scared. It was then discovered that, not for the first time, A.H. had a large red and purple bruise on his arm and he refused point blank to tell his mother where it had come from.

The boy was immediately taken to the police station where he underwent basic questioning, but he still refused to talk. The next morning, A. H. was taken to the station again and this time interviewed in the presence of the police, the parents, and three psychologists.

At first, A. H. was too terrified to reveal who had inflicted these injuries on him, but eventually he stated that he had been beaten with a rod by the director of the kindergarten, Nashi Shehapi, on more than one occasion. Furthermore, Nashi had told the boy to say it happened at home and had scared him to the point he would flinch every time someone reached out towards him with their hand. A. H. also stated that children were regularly put in the “mouse hole” when they misbehaved—the “mouse hole” being a dark cupboard under the stairs in the kindergarten.

During the questioning, A. H. was asked what he thought of his care teacher and he replied that he loved her and she was a wonderful lady. When asked about director Shehapi, A. H. became visibly agitated and scared, and replied “Nashi is a horrible lady, same of a witch and she should go to prison”, as he pointed at the door of the police station, indicating the “prison” where the director should be sent.

The bruise left on this little boys’ arm measured 3-4 inches long and 2-3 inches wide and according to the legal doctor, it was impossible that this sort of mark was caused by another child as the amount of force used to inflict it could have only come from an adult. The parents of A. H. proceeded to press charges against the Director of the kindergarten and they immediately removed A. H. from Kindergarten Nr. 1 and enrolled him in another kindergarten in Tirana.

Unfortunately, despite the psychologists report, A.H.’s statement, photographs, the legal doctor’s certificate, and pressure from the parents, no action has been taken against Nashi Shehapi. The case was referred from the judiciary police to the prosecution office one and a half months ago, but as of yet the case has not moved on.

Head of the Center for Children Development and Education (CCDE), Enkelejda Isaku confirmed that they are aware of the situation, but that neither Shehapi, nor any other members of staff had been called in for questioning regarding the case. Furthermore, when the father of A. H. tried to meet with the prosecutor, Eriselda Bala, on two occasions, he was told she was “unavailable”, and when he left his number to be contacted, no call was forthcoming.

Here we have a case where there is substantial evidence against the director of a kindergarten that suggests she is guilty of inflicting physical abuse on children. Yet, instead of being suspended from work pending further investigation, or even called in for questioning, she remains in her position with impunity. Furthermore, the case has been sitting the prosecution for almost two months and the prosecutor, Ms. Bala, appears to have avoided the father on two occasions, as well as not called him when asked to.

Is this a case of “ignore it and it will go away”? If this is the intention of those involved, I can assure you that this will not go away. If this woman is indeed guilty of, or even suspected of abusing A.H. and other children in Kindergarten Nr.1, why are other children being put at risk by her retaining her role until the justice system takes its course? It should ne noted that Mrs Shehapi is also the head of the Socialist Party organization in Kodra e Priftit and is a vociferous and very vocal supporter of the Socialist Party. Could it be that political connections and votes are more valuable than the wellbeing of our city’s children?

But the story does not end here. Unfortunately, it gets much, much worse.

After the incident at Kindergarten Nr.1, A.H. was transferred to another public kindergarten. All seemed to be going well until on the 8th of October 2018, his father received a phone call to state that his son was burnt and was in hospital. A. H. had been in the classroom before being able to wander unsupervised into the area where a member of staff was preparing beans soup. He walked into the path of a member of staff who was carrying a vat of the hot liquid and it was spilt directly onto him and down his torso. The liquid was at such a high temperature that A.H. suffered second degree burns to his chest, and will more than likely be scarred for life.

In terms of the incident at Kindergarten Nr. 20, all staff that were present when the incident took place, expressed their grief and regret at what had happened. It was clear to the parents of A.H that this was an accident, an accident that could have been avoided if there were more staff available to properly supervise the children. This was a sentiment that was echoed by the teachers. as well—with 20-25 young children to take care of and just one teacher, it is nearly impossible to have your eyes on each of them at all times.

Both of these traumatic events happened to the same child within two months. Whilst some may say that this child is just unlucky, I have to ask, what else is happening to children that are enrolled in municipality run kindergartens and schools in Tirana? Or is it because the system is broken and serious matters pertaining to the wellbeing of children are not attributed with the seriousness that they deserve?

We also need to address the fact that there seems to be a lack of experience or willingness in handling such cases by people mandated to do so by the law. For example, the psychologists that questioned A.H. took two hours to arrive and then questioned him to the point of exhaustion; Municipality’s Center for Children Development and Education (CCDE) does nothing when word reaches them that children are being abused under their watch; and prosecutors fail to act in a critical manner on cases that require immediate attention.

When questioned on the subject by A. H.’s father, Enkelejda Isaku, the Head of the CCDE, admitted that kindergartens are overcrowded and that they have had to register children despite the lack of capacity. Upon realising that she had admitted the shortcomings of the system, she became defensive and argued that all kindergartens are the same and that it does not fall under her jurisdiction. Blaming overcrowding on the pressures of the community she then added that the number of children in a kindergarten is up to the Director of each school, as per the order of the Ministry of Education.

Another problem is that the Ministry of Education does not seem to have laid down any guidelines regarding the ratio of children/caregivers in preschool educational institutions, resulting in a situation where there is no point that a teacher can say “stop, no, this isn’t ok” without fear of retribution.

In most developed countries, under the guidance of the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, the following ratios are applied:

Infants up to 15 months old  – 3 to 4 children per teacher;

Toddlers (2-4 years old)  – 4 to 6 children per teacher;

4–5 years old – 8 to 10 children per teacher;

Over 5 years old – up to 12 children per teacher.

But these problems are not just happening in the kindergartens that A.H. attended. One of the authors of this article spoke to a member of staff from Kindergarten Nr. 56 who said she had to turn down 50 families in the last year because the nursery was over capacity. Other reports have been made stating that parents are pressured into picking up children at noon because of a lack of beds, and other parents were made to pay money to have their children sleep in the limited number of beds at their disposal. Unfortunately, these parents are bullied into silence because they know that if they speak out, they will lose their place in the schooling system, and most cannot afford a private education.

The whole thing becomes even more rotten when we consider the abundance of nepotistic and overtly bureaucratic laws that require the directors to be handpicked by the Municipality and teachers to be appointed by the Ministry of Education. This results in arrogance and defensive behaviour from the heads of departments such as only accepting a meeting with a parent to enjoy dismissing them, as did Mrs. Zhaneta Beqiri. Or they will be more than willing to accept praise, but when it comes to raising concerns or issues, they are suddenly too busy to return a call.

Furthermore, if you search the web for these public workers, you will find no evidence of their profile on the webpage, www.femijetetiranes.al (the official page of the CCDE) even though it is obligatory by law to have the names, official email addresses and telephone numbers accessible to the public. Again, this suggests that these people are only there to hold office, and not to be accountable to parents, the press, the public or anyone else.

So what about the thousands of children in Tirana’s public school system? We have a situation where Directors who are suspected of abusing children are allowed to retain their position without investigation, suspension, or action being taken, and we also have a situation where a boy is burned because of negligence caused by serious overcrowding in kindergartens. Furthermore, we have a Head of the Office of the Directorship of Education and Development really couldn’t care less and only has an interest in passing the blame onto other departments and even the parents and “community” itself.

The system is failing and whilst money may be short, the fact is that a young boy has been traumatised and grievously injured and the alleged perpetrator of abuse against him and other children in Kindergarten Nr. 1, has not been investigated further by the Prosecutor, or the Head of the Directorate for Education and Development. We have a situation where kindergartens are at double their capacity with between 19-25 children per single teacher, where children get second degree burns and the parents are denied answers, but rather told it is their fault for subscribing to a school that is already full. To then be passed around from useless department to useless department, to be told that it is not X departments problem or responsibility, and to be refused justice because of potential political connections of the accused, is not acceptable.

Does a child have to die before something is done?

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