The School Ombudsman Fights for Students’ Rights

The School Ombudsman Fights
for Students’ Rights 

The project “School Ombudsman,”
which ADC “Memorial” initiated in 2009 with the support of the Gagarin
Fund, is being implemented in several elementary schools in the St.
Petersburg area.

School #462, according to the
formal criteria, is part of the St. Petersburg system of schools.
The town of Aleksandrovskaia, in which this school is located, is on
the edge of the city.  This three-story school building is practically
the tallest one in the district.  In this recently renovated building,
with its newly-equipped classrooms, it feels comfortable and homey.
The teachers know every student well, and it is obvious that the students
are happy here.  The atmosphere in this school differs greatly
from the norm.  The phrases that you might hear typically in other
schools would sound strange on the lips of this school’s teachers:
“They sat down quickly, got up quickly, and the teacher left the room.”
The classes are not large:  in the eighth grade, for instance,
there are only eight students.

In addition to these differences,
this school has one more remarkable trait:  students of many different
ethnic groups study together in school #462-Russians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis,
Roma, Moldovans, and many others.  For this reason, the issue of
“tolerance” is treated very seriously in this school.

In January 2009, this and four
other schools in the city with a multi-ethnic student body began to
take part in an experimental project:  a role playing game, in
which students take turns playing the role of a Human Rights Ombudsman.
The students take a class, in which they learn about the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in
a form that is accessible to them, they discuss the rights of all Russian
citizens and how these rights should be observed.  Then, the knowledge
the children gain through this class is put into practice.  Every
student must, at least for one day, play the role of an ombudsman:
he or she must take note of how, in his or her class, human rights and
children’s rights are observed.  That day’s ombudsman then
must consider all of the complaints filed by anyone who has been involved
in some kind of conflict or by those who consider themselves to have
been insulted in some way, and the ombudsman must then make a related
recommendation.  These recommendations are not so much to be directed
towards the particular conflict at hand, but more towards preventing
any similar problems from happening in the future.  That is, the
recommendations are to be of a more general nature.

Out of the eighth grade of
school #462 it first fell to Samira to be ombudsman.  This seemed
symbolic:  Samira has a reputation for always defending anyone
who, in her opinion, has been offended.  As she says, she knows
discrimination well, inasmuch as she is both an Azerbaijani and “emo”
(“emo” is a youth subculture, the members of which love to talk
about tragic misfortunes, emotional suffering, and frequently discuss
suicide).  However, Samira does not really look emo:  she
is far too lively and full of life to fit in well with that subculture.
Because the school is so small, it was decided that a student would
act as the ombudsman not for a day, but for an entire week.  I
met with Samira upon the conclusion of her week as ombudsman.
As it turns out, Samira took it upon herself to check up on human rights
violations not just in her class, but in the entire school.  She
paid particular attention to the teachers’ behavior.

“In one week there were five
serious violations!” Samira told me as we were talking, “Moreover,
two times these violations were committed by teachers.  The head
teacher himself admitted to it.  And the second time an anonymous
note was sent to me.  A teacher grabbed a young student by the
neck.  That is a truly serious violation!”

Samira does not give the names
of those who were involved in the conflict:  she says it is important
that her work is not seen as tattling or informing on others.
“I will solve it myself,” she explains.  It is true, though,
that Samira repeatedly forgets about the arrangements agreed upon by
her classmates:  name no names and do not attempt to solve any
conflicts-instead, just observe, describe, and give recommendations.
For instance, today after school she arranged for a meeting between
two girls:  she plans to help them sort out a dispute that has
arisen between them.

In general, the issue of “informing”
on others is key for the students.  How can one monitor for the
proper observation of rights, write a report on any violation of rights
in school, but at the same time not “tattle?”  Khadzher, a
classmate of Samira’s, is pessimistic about the project.  The
week when she is to be ombudsman is coming up, but she has no desire
to tell on her classmates.  And Khadzher sees any kind of complaint
lodged about anyone as tattling.  When any student chooses to involve
an adult in any situation, she sees it in a negative light.  After
a conversation about what exactly “tattling” or “informing”
is and what is not, a solution was found:  Khadzher will work exclusively
with anonymous complaints.  Perhaps that is an even better idea:
if the ombudsman does not know whose complaints he or she is considering,
then he or she will be able to give a completely unbiased assessment
of the situation.

In short, human rights for
the masses.  However, sometimes there are curiosities.  For
example, a student ombudsman from the seventh grade observed what he
considered to be a violation of the rights of street cleaners.
During class a teacher said, “Who will you be when you grow up?
You’ll never turn into real people!  You will be street cleaners!”
The young ombudsman pronounced this statement discriminatory:
the teacher, he said, does not consider street cleaners to be people.

Every school has its own specificities.
In Vsevolozhsk School No 2, the ombudsman of the day in class 6-b must
look over a whole score of complaints.  The schoolchildren pay
particular attention to the teacher’s actions.  After reading
the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the sixth graders came to
the conclusion that their teachers almost constantly violate their rights.
After calling a meeting, the children decided that, possessing such
knowledge about human rights, they would now help transmit this knowledge
to their teachers.  “The teachers simply do not know about children’s
rights, but we will teach them,” the children explained, “If we
just read off a list of the rights, it might not be understood, so we
will gather the teachers together and show them the ‘Declaration of
Human Rights’ in skit form.”

For the time being, this program
has been introduced in only five schools.  But if the results are
positive, then this role playing game will be introduced into new classes
and new schools, so that respect for human rights might become a norm
in society.

Maksim Ivanov

For reference:

An “ombudsman” (from the
Swedish ombudsmen, or “representative”) is a public official
who is entrusted with monitoring the observance of legal rights and
interests of citizens with respect to the activities of the executive
branch of government or other public officials.  The official name
for this position in various countries differs.  In Russia, it
is the “human rights commissioner.”  The first appointment
as a “parliamentary ombudsman” occurred in the Swedish riksdag (parliament)
in 1809, in accordance with the constitution that was passed in that
same year.  For many years the idea of the creation of such a position
was not adopted in any legal systems other than the Swedish system.
However, as time passed, the position of the ombudsman according to
the Swedish model was introduced in other northern European countries:
in 1919 (after receiving independence from Russia) in Finland, in 1952
in Norway, and a year later in Denmark.

The first non-European state
to introduce the institute of the ombudsman was New Zealand in 1962.
Today in 100 different countries all around the world ombudsmen safeguard
the rights and freedoms of man.  Since February 13, 2004, the human
rights commissioner in Russia has been Vladimir Petrovich Lukin.

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