Classroom spills into courtroom

  • 2002-04-04
  • Timothy Jacobs

The Kuldiga prosecutor's office has pressed "group hooliganism" charges against two high school students for allegedly harassing a teacher during a lesson.

The district court in Kuldiga is scheduled to hear the case against the two boys on June 7. If convicted, they could face up to seven years in prison and fines of up to 3,000 lats ($4,762) each.

According to Kuldiga High School 2 Principal Astra Gutmane, the two boys harassed the school's chemistry teacher by throwing paper balls at her, spitting on her and calling her derogatory names.

After consulting with Gutmane, the teacher approached the police about investigating the incident.

"We couldn't take normal actions against the two boys because they ran out of the classroom before I got there to speak to them," said Gutmane. "We went to the police because we, as teachers, have no way of defending ourselves in situations like these. The two boys humiliated their teacher, and they need to know that they can't get away with behavior like that."

Gutmane said that another reason that they went to the police with their problem was because under Latvian law, a child cannot be expelled from school. A school can ask a student to transfer elsewhere but is the student's choice whether or not to do so.

City officials, including the prosecutor in charge of the case, have discussed the boys' past transgressions with the media, which has angered the children's parents.

Kuldiga district prosecutor Aivars Zvirgskis said that one of the two boys had a court case pending on theft charges.

Although no theft charges have been brought against the other boy accused in the harassment case, police juvenile affairs inspectorate chief Inara Eke said that he too had been caught stealing, and that one of the boys showed up at school heavily drunk one day.

According to Inete Ielete, director of the National Center for the Rights of Children, these officials' willingness to condemn the two boys in the press go against two very basic legal codes - that people are innocent until proven guilty and that children, in particular, must be protected from public scrutiny.

"Private information, such as the details of these children's behavior, shouldn't have been made public," said Ienete. "Everyone involved with this case should be really careful with what they say and how they act."

Zvirgskis believes that this is the first such case of a teacher bringing criminal charges against students over classroom behavior. He did not rule out that this would be an isolated incident, though. "Hopefully, this case will make students think twice about how they treat their teachers and the other adults around them."

Gutmane believes that the case will "cause students all over Latvia to think twice and to respect the fact that their teachers are people too."

As for the punishment that the boys receive, it could be as little as community service or as much as seven years in prison. Ielete believes that the prosecutor's office is being heavy-handed and trying to send out a message.

"The severity of the charges that are brought against a child is up to how the prosecutor or police officers who lead the investigation decide to classify the case," said Ielete. "It's always possible to classify a case in different ways."

Ielete believes that the case could have widespread repercussions throughout Latvia by setting a precedent for other teachers to solve their classroom problems in the courtroom.

"If the case goes to trial, there will be very serious attention paid to it," said Ielete. "The court will have to be very careful in how they determine the children's futures."

According to Gutmane one of the boy's fathers called her this week, angry that she had spoken to the press about his child. Since getting the phone call, she has been reluctant to speak publicly about the case, as have the boys' parents, who were unavailable for comment.