The academic year is getting underway in Armenia amid efforts by administrators and non-governmental activists to overhaul the way the state’s 24 special-needs schools operate. The reform initiative comes in the aftermath of a sexual abuse scandal at one of the schools in Yerevan.
Authorities have established a monitoring group that aims to prevent a recurrence of what happened at School # 11, a state-funded boarding school for physically and mentally handicapped children in Yerevan’s Nubarashen District. Last May, a literature teacher at the school, Levon Avagian, received a two-year sentence following a sexual abuse conviction. An appeals court in early August added another year to the 59-year-old Avagian’s prison term. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The scandal prompted a reshuffle of the school’s leadership. The new acting director, Lilit Berberian, a speech therapist and Russian language teacher who has worked at the school for 22 years, says she is focusing on the future. “This whole story has terrified everyone, but things are different now. The atmosphere has changed completely,” Berberian said. “I have arranged so that no male nurse or teacher has a night shift now. They are all women. I am doing my best to prevent any chances of such incidents.”
Berberian conceded that many parents were reluctant to send their children back to School # 11 in the wake of the abuse scandal. In the end, 77 students enrolled – four more than last year.
The scandal broke a longstanding taboo in Armenia against public discussions of child abuse, and focused attention on conditions for the approximately 3,000 mentally and physically challenged children in state-funded schools. Dating back to the Soviet-era, such special-needs institutions had been considered largely exempt public scrutiny and oversight.
To reduce the chances of abuse in the future, an independent group comprising 56 representatives of non-governmental and international organizations will begin monitoring special-needs schools in October. UNICEF is training monitors in communication with special-needs children, while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will provide special-needs education specialists.
Members of the monitoring group -- including civil activist Mariam Sukhudian, who first brought to light the reports of child abuse at School #11 – will make unannounced visits to the schools, and submit their findings to the Ministry of Education. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archives].
The Ministry of Education liaison with the monitoring group says she welcomes its input. “The ministry does not have the human and financial resources to do such detailed … monitoring,” commented Anahit Muradian, a leading specialist in the ministry’s Department of Comprehensive Education.
The Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation – Armenia (OSIAF-Armenia) is sponsoring the monitoring group, said Maria Aghajanian, the foundation’s civil society program coordinator. “Children’s rights, especially in closed institutions such as the special schools or orphanages, are one of our main priorities,” said Aghajanian. “The recent incident at the Nubarashen school made other schools pay attention to this issue. The problem exists, and we think that children’s rights in such institutions are not protected.”
OSIAF-Armenia earlier helped secure legal assistance for the families of abuse victims. It also played a key role in mounting a criminal defense for Sukhudian, the wrongly accused rights activist. [Editor’s note: OSIAF-Armenia is part of the Soros Foundations Network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Institute, which is also part of the Soros network].
Representatives of the monitoring group say reform efforts face an uphill struggle. Artak Kirakosian, head of the monitoring group and board chairperson of the Civil Society Institute, is pessimistic about how quickly School #11 can shed its past; there are teachers still working at the school who were well aware of the abuse against students and did nothing to stop it, he alleges. “We have shared our concerns with the [education] minister [Armen Ashotian],” Kirakosian said. “Perhaps it’s too early [to tell] yet, and this new principal will still take some measures.”
Citing an Armenian Helsinki Committee report, child psychologist Greta Simonian of the Huys (Hope) non-governmental organization, which works with juvenile social welfare issues, commented that past instances of abuse at special-needs schools tended to occur more frequently and be “more brutal” than at other state-run schools.
In addition to keeping an eye out for abuse, the monitoring group will strive to end other bad practices, including the misclassification of students. Reportedly since the Soviet era, socially vulnerable children with no developmental difficulties have been enrolled in schools for mentally and physically challenged children in order to qualify for free food and lodging. In 2008, for example, the Ministry of Education removed 37 students from School #11 who were found to not have developmental difficulties. The ministry’s Muradian concedes that the practice has long existed, but asserts that it “is now under strict control.” Children without developmental difficulties can “by no means” be sent to a special-needs school, she said. Sukhudian, who raised the issue of misclassified children at School #11 in 2008, said that the monitoring group will pay particular attention to whether the Education Ministry official’s assessment is accurate.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.