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Voters to decide fate of unruly school pupils

Suspension is seen as an alternative to expelling problem pupils

(swissinfo.ch)

Voters in Zurich have gone to the polls to decide whether disruptive children can in future be suspended from school.

Under existing cantonal legislation, education authorities in Zurich are only permitted to expel - but not suspend - unruly students.

Though education policy is set at a national level, it is up to each individual canton to stipulate how it is interpreted. Decisions on how to deal with disruption in the classroom are taken at a local level.

Teachers and educational psychologists argue that suspension - the temporary removal of pupils from the classroom - would be a less drastic and more flexible way of punishing students who disrupt classes.

Jürg Forster, a school psychologist based in Zurich, says he would welcome a change in the law.

"Suspensions are normally not known to anyone else and not noted in any documents when the student leaves school," Forster said in an interview with swissinfo.

"But with an expulsion, you leave school without the right papers and then it is difficult to find a job or a training place, which is of course much more drastic."

But Forster warns that a suspension should only be handed out in exceptional circumstances, and only if the student is given the necessary support outside the classroom.

"If a suspension is decided upon, it should be organised [in such a way] that help is given to both the child and his or her parents, so that the child does not just sit around and do nothing."

Educational reform

If the people of Zurich agree to a change in the law - just one element of a wider educational reform package being put to voters on November 24 - teachers will be able to suspend disruptive students for a maximum period of one month.

Martin Wendelspiess, a senior education official in canton Zurich, says an amendment to the law would increase the number of options available to local authorities dealing with cases of problem students.

"Until now, we have just had the all-or-nothing solution," Wendelspiess told the Zurich-based "Tages-Anzeiger" newspaper.

But Forster suggests many school governing bodies already tacitly flout cantonal law by suspending pupils who are not deemed to be suitable candidates for permanent expulsion.

"Even if it is not legal, suspensions have been carried out for a long time," says Forster.

"It is a fact that sometimes you just have to take a child away from a class when he or she is very disruptive and when other parents say they will not send their children to school anymore if this behaviour goes on," he adds.

Federal ruling

The vote in Zurich comes after the Swiss federal court upheld legislation in canton Bern governing the suspension of school pupils.

Children of school age who are educated in canton Bern can be suspended from school for a maximum period of 12 weeks each year.

A group of around 20 parents had appealed against the suspension of their children from schools in the canton, arguing that this violated the rights of their offspring to receive an education.

Lawyers representing the parents had also claimed that the forced removal of their children from class was in direct contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But in a landmark decision, federal court judges rejected the parents' appeal, ruling in favour of Bern's education authorities.

Lesley Miller, a Geneva-based children's rights expert at the United Nations, says the UN convention makes no explicit reference to the issue of school suspensions.

"There is no article that states that authorities are not permitted to suspend children from school," Miller told swissinfo.

One of the general principles of the convention, argues Miller, is that state institutions must ensure the best interests of the child as a "primary consideration in every action they take".

"If it is determined that it [suspension] is in the best interests of the child who's been suspended - and that it is not a violation of the child's rights - then the convention is being applied."

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

Education policy in Switzerland is set at a national level, but is implemented by individual cantons.
Under existing cantonal legislation, disruptive children in Zurich cannot be suspended from school.
The issue of whether to allow school suspensions in canton Zurich is part of a wider educational reform package to be put to the vote on November 24.
The proposal would allow educational authorities to suspend pupils for a maximum period of one month.

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