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Prisoners to pupils: Child ex-detainees struggle to rejoin school
Bara Qasem, 16, required surgery after Israeli soldiers broke his arm during arrest. After approximately four months in Israeli prisons, he was unable to reintegrate back into his school. (Photo: Qasem family)
Ramallah, January 26, 2016—Previously incarcerated Palestinian children begin the punishing process of reintegrating back into their schools after their release from Israel’s non-rehabilitative military detention system, often by repeating a grade.
Not offered a grade-appropriate education by Israeli Prison Service (IPS) or formal supports by Palestinian schools upon return, child ex-detainees must run to catch up. As if this weren’t hard enough, they must often do so while shouldering the invisible psychological consequences of traumatic military arrests and interrogations.
“I felt desperate and hopeless about having to repeat the 11th grade,” said Tariq, whose name has been changed at his request. According to his sworn testimony, collected by Defense for Children International - Palestine, Tariq was 15 at the time of his arrest on November 16, 2015.
Tariq spent 11 months at Ofer prison, an IPS-administered detention facility in the West Bank. This included a pre-trial period during which an interrogator physically assaulted him, including hitting Tariq's genitals multiple times, according to his sworn testimony. In fact, Tariq was beaten so intensely that he suffered a temporary hearing loss in one ear.
In prison, Tariq said the education was “trivial,” with lessons only covering addition, subtraction and simple Arabic.
Despite these setbacks, Tariq was determined to rejoin his academic peer group when he was released from prison. His school, however, determined he needed to repeat 11th grade.
Since the meager educational program IPS provides Palestinian child prisoners neither follows nor meets the scope of the Palestinian curriculum, days in prison are counted as absences.
Although imprisoned children are given an extended absence allowance, if they miss over 30 percent of the school year, Palestinian Ministry of Education regulations require that they repeat the grade.
Tariq’s family petitioned the Directorate of Education without any success. “My classmates were already in the 12th grade,” said the teenager. “I approached the Directorate of Education, and I showed them the official documents proving that I was in prison, but they told me I should repeat 11th grade.”
With his family’s encouragement, Tariq decided to stay in school. He told DCIP that he would like to see Palestinian laws change to accommodate the unique situation of child ex-detainess, who have no control over the quality of the education they receive under detention.
“I believe ex-detainees should be treated differently and given the chance to return to school easily, without any obstacles,” said Tariq. “I never received any help from the school. And there were no programs or any alternatives,” Tariq told DCIP.
Principal Khaled Zboun of Al-Khader Boys Secondary School in Bethlehem has seen many child ex-detainees flounder or even fail when they return to school. “I remember an 11th grader was arrested and when he returned to school,” Zboun said, “he failed mathematics in the 12th grade because he missed important information and could not focus at all.
Zboun admitted that there are no formal programs to help children reintegrate and teachers are often too busy to work beyond their job requirements. He said there should be mechanisms to incentivize teachers and principals and reward those who are already doing this work, unrecognized.
Beyond academic supports, Zboun pointed out that child ex-detainees often need counseling. In his experience, students return from prison with altered personalities and concerns.
“There should be an evaluation committee to assess the situation of such students and help them inside the school psychologically and academically, “Zboun said.
Bara Qasem was an average student in 10th grade at Abu Dees Boys’ School in East Jerusalem before his arrest in September 2015. Israeli forces broke his arm while arresting him and then subjected him to violent, coercive interrogations while he was hospitalized.
“He was interrogated a number of times before the operation,” said Bara’s mother, Faten. “They hit him on his broken arm to get those confessions.”
Faten said that Bara returned from four months of imprisonment a changed boy, confining himself to his room and refusing to socialize with others.
At first, the school said he would need to repeat the year, Faten told DCIP. “Bara said he would drop out if the administration insisted.” Eventually, the school allowed Bara to rejoin his class, but his grades slipped. He confided to his mother that he could not grasp the material.
Losing hope, Bara dropped out of school and enrolled in a vocational program. He is currently studying air conditioning and refrigeration.
“The detention experience was very painful to him,” Faten said. “He became lost and confused after his release.”
IPS is responsible for preparing all children detained in its facilities for reintegration upon release, under international law standards. The United Nations mandates that a child deprived of their liberty “shall be integrated with the educational system of the country so that after their release they may continue their education without difficulty.”
While IPS applies a rehabilitative framework in facilities like Ofek for Israeli child prisoners, including a broad range of academic and enrichment offerings, IPS uses a punitive, bare-bones approach for Palestinian child prisoners.
DCIP research found that education in Megiddo, which houses a large juvenile section for Palestinian child prisoners, is non-compulsory and limited to Arabic and Math only. In some IPS facilities, Palestinian children can also study Hebrew.
This narrow education falls miles short of matching the Palestinian curriculum, especially in the upper grades, and creates a schooling interruption for detained children.
Given that three-quarters of the approximately 500-700 Palestinian children who annually undergo Israeli military arrest are subjected to physical violence, a high number likely suffer from post-traumatic symptoms under detention. However, IPS facilities for Palestinian children, unlike those for Israeli children, offer no therapeutic services.
“By almost any measure, the Israeli prison system is failing to meet its obligations to Palestinian minors, though it has clearly demonstrated an understanding of this obligation in its treatment of Israeli minors,” said Ayed Abu Eqtaish, Accountability Program director at DCIP. “An inability to reintegrate into school upon release extends the term of punishment for a child far beyond their release date.”