The small regional newspaper Ezerzeme in Latvia's Kraslava region last week printed a story detailing revelations made by former employees at the Aleksandrova Special School, a boarding school for students with disabilities in the village of Konstantinova near the border with Belarus. They allege that students there were routinely humiliated, exploited for labor and that one student, according to reports, said in a videotaped interview that she had been sexually abused.
The allegations have sparked a Prosecutor General's Office investigation of the school's principal and have drawn outrage from the Latvian chapter of the worldwide children's rights group Save the Children.
"This is a mad house," Save the Children Latvia president Inguna Ebela said of the school.
School principal Kazimirs Kutjuns offered to resign on health grounds late last week soon after the allegations surfaced that he abused students and misappropriated school funds, including allegedly stealing food that was to be used for student lunches, and sold the school unpasteurized milk from his farm at inflated prices. The education and social committee of Kraslava region has not yet decided whether to accept Kutjuns' faxed resignation letter.
Kutjuns held the school in fear, according to reports, warning teachers and students not to mention what happened at the school to anyone.
Children were allegedly ordered to stand in their underwear in school corridors and the basement. One former student said on a videotape now reportedly in the hands of the Prosecutor's Office that Kutjuns tried to rape her.
Former school janitor Marija Nartisa turned over her diary to prosecutors. In it she describes children working "like slaves" to help construct Kutjans' house and doing other jobs for him. "They carried cement, chopped wood, swept the barn and made hay in the summer," Nartisa wrote, according to the news agency LETA.
Children were normally "dressed like paupers," she wrote, but were dressed up when education officials visited.
Children were "incarcerated" in a dark, unheated pantry and fed "scraps of food," she wrote.
She also detailed misappropriations at the school, saying that washing machines donated by a Swedish Christian organization had disappeared.
Teacher Ivans Afanasjevs told LETA that construction workers who were employed to do work at the school were in reality helping to build Kutjans' garage and basement.
Afanasjevs said when students tried to tell others what was happening to them, Kutjuns would simply say they were "out of their heads."
"Believe me, the girl he tried to rape is not out of her head," said Afanasjevs, who was fired when he approached Kutjuns about the incident.
Save the Children, which has been criticized by newspapers in the region in the past, alleges that the school's head teacher Olegs Lisjonoks, who remains at the school, is also guilty of abuse.
After being informed of situation at the school by Save the Children, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Frei-berga sent letters to the Prosecutor General's Office and Interior Minister Mareks Seglins requesting an immediate report on the investigation's progress.
Meanwhile, education inspectors are preparing to conduct their own investigation.
Save the Children's Ebela hopes the investigation moves beyond the regional level, "otherwise it will be useless," she told The Baltic Times.
Prosecutor General's Office spokeswoman Dzin-tra Subrovska said Kraslava District Chief Prosecutor Malda Kristovka will conduct a probe into the allegations.
Subrovska said that no previous complaints about the school were filed at the Latgale District Court.
Subrovska could not say when the investigation might be concluded.
Meanwhile, the Kraslava Department of Education appointed Vilhemine Saute as the school's new acting director.
Two psychologists from Daugavpils are currently at the school to provide counseling.
People in Latvian have become increasingly concerned about child abuse, particularly since the infamous pedophile scandal that began last year and ended with unfounded allegations that reached to the upper echelons of government.
One in four people polled by the firm SKDS believe child abuse in Latvia is a common occurrence.
About 75 percent of people polled in the Latvian countryside believe abuse of children is increasing.