Georgian teachers uneasy over school 'police'

History teacher Davit Bragvadze takes a class
Image caption History teacher Davit Bragvadze was reported for laughing and joking with pupils after class

Tackling violence in schools is a challenge in many countries. The Georgian government has taken a typically robust approach, putting uniformed officers in the classroom. It has had some success - but is also provoking unease.

Sunshine pours in through the high-arched windows of the immaculately restored 19th Century building on to the faces of laughing children as they stream into class.

It is hard to imagine that Georgian schools like this were once places of fear - bullying was rife and, according to the UN, more than 47% of children said they had been victims of physical violence, mainly from their fellow pupils.

In one month alone in 2007, four children died as a result of extremely violent bullying.

Many students had started taking knives to school to protect themselves.

But that was before the government stepped in.

One thousand uniformed officers, trained by police, are now stationed in all urban schools.

'Like wild animals'

Image caption Some 1,000 guards patrol Georgian schools

"If some schoolchildren disrupt classes, we talk to them," said Mukhran Guliashvili, one of the officers.

"We have had special training, including psychological training, so we know how to deal with children."

Three officers patrol each school. They cannot arrest the children, but their reports can lead to a child being expelled.

And, because the officers change school every couple of weeks, it is easier for them to remain neutral figures of authority.

Pupils say the scheme appears to have worked.

"Before they came here, it was a very bad situation because children were like wild animals," said one teenage girl.

"Now they are calm."

Another girl said: "The school wasn't safe. Of course the atmosphere is better now. There is more studying going on now than before."

Crackdown on laughter?

But history teacher Davit Bragvadze is less convinced.

As he jokes with pupils, it is clear he is the sort of inspirational teacher that brings his subject to life. But whenever the discussion gets too lively, officers come into his classroom to complain.

And one even reported Mr Bragvadze to the authorities for laughing and joking with his pupils after class.

Image caption Lali Kiknadze lost her job of 20 years

"I don't feel good," he said.

"It's not good for me, it's not good for the lesson, and it's not good for the educational process. It's bad for it."

For Lali Kiknadze, having officers in school has led to even worse consequences.

She has gone to court in an attempt to get her job back.

When an officer had wanted to report a colleague for forgetting the class registration book in the staff room, Ms Kiknadze objected.

The officer then reported her to the authorities, accusing her of not supporting the government's reforms.

After a 20-year career, she was fired.

Her lawyer, Tamar Gabisonia, who also runs a human rights organisation, said officers regularly overstep the mark by interfering with teachers' work.

"It seems to be like a police regime in the school. And that's why they think they have a lot of power and they excessively use their force."

Heavy hand

Ms Gabisonia believes stationing uniformed officers in school is all part of a wider problem in Georgia: that the government takes a heavy-handed approach when it feels public order is threatened.

Human rights organisations say this was shown in May, when to make way for independence day celebrations, police officers dispersed an anti-government protest being held in front of parliament.

They fired rubber bullets into a crowd and are accused of beating journalists and peaceful protesters.

The police are accused of overreacting by indiscriminately using violence, and this has undermined the government's credibility here.

Now EU and UN officials are calling for an investigation into whether the police used excessive force.

But the government says the demonstrators were not peaceful and it is true that hundreds were masked and armed with heavy sticks.

As police started approaching, some protestors smashed bottles to use as weapons, telling the BBC they were willing to fight.

May's rally, which towards the end threatened to get out of control, showed how hard it is for Georgian authorities to combat violence, while at the same time upholding civil liberties.

Popular scheme

Dimitri Shashkin, Georgia's education minister, has no doubts that by placing officers in schools, he is achieving both these aims.

He argues that the scheme supports teachers by allowing them to concentrate on teaching, leaving officers to worry about security.

"They don't have weapons, they have a special uniform," he said.

"And, as the polls show, 85% of the population support this reform, and 81% say that our schools are now safe. It has huge support among the people."

Meanwhile, back at the school students clearly appreciate how much safer school is, thanks to the officers.

But as they report directly to the government, the officers are also seen as more influential than teachers.

Human rights organisations say this is worrying proof that the state here is becoming too powerful.

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