Published at The Jakarta Globe, October 10, 2011
I read a sad story on the Internet a few months ago: A 16-year-old student in East Java gave birth at school. It was not the unusual labor and birthplace that concerned me (well it was, a little), but rather the fact that the new mother was expelled from school.
The headmaster of SMK II Madiun, a vocational high school where 99 percent of the students are female, said the girl had to be expelled for breaking rules signed during registration forbidding students from marrying and getting pregnant.
The girl, identified as R by newspapers, was known to be a good student. She was described as a smart, active young woman who participated in extracurricular activities and sports.
Like other female students, she wore a hijab and loose clothing in class — nothing that could be called “naughty.” R seemed to be another normal student, until she delivered a premature baby at the school clinic, which led to her expulsion. Given the regulations the girl agreed to, the punishment might have seemed appropriate. But was it?
When asked if every rule offender deserves to be punished, my answer is usually yes. But should the punishment be alienating and traumatic? I believe that the idea of sanctioning is to correct people’s behavior — so we should unfailingly seek a better, more humane and, if possible, compassionate way to do that. After all, everyone makes mistakes and deserves a second chance.
Almost two decades ago, Robert Waxler, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, came up with the idea that prisoners could be rehabilitated through reading. His program, Changing Lives Through Literature, has enjoyed widespread success in the United States since 1991. The reading course has become an alternative to jail time in many states.
In Texas, where the imprisonment and death penalty rates are the highest in the world, 597 prisoners completed the course from 1997 to 2008. Of those, only 36 prisoners, or 6 percent, went back to jail after failing their probation, but they committed less serious crimes. Most of these prisoners, however, now see the world from a different perspective, and some even want to get a college education.
The reading course is taught with the belief that human conduct starts with the mind. Crime and criminal behavior stems from many causes, including ignorance and narrow-mindedness. By having the convicts read books, CLTL tries to broaden prisoners’ views of life, enhance their minds and create wiser, critical-thinking people.
Education essentially aims to enlighten students, and CLTL has shown that broadening pupils’ minds is achievable. Schools, of course, should facilitate “enlightenment.”
In class we learn, read, make friends, and raise hopes for a better future. If those are not the things that change lives, nothing is. At this point, we may question the decision of the school to expel its student for immoral but harmless conduct.
Expelling the girl from school will not solve any problems. It seems more like an effort to save face by those who want to stay untainted: the school, the headmaster, teachers, and other students.
The punishment has nothing to do with rehabilitation. I’m sure that giving birth unexpectedly at 16 was physically and psychologically painful. The girl may also be shunned and held in contempt by her neighbors.
Going against society’s values is wrong, as is failing to give a person a chance to fix a mistake. Programs such as CLTL have been giving prisoners a chance. The 16-year-old girl is certainly not a “criminal,” and should have the opportunity to move on from her mistake. To do that, she needs to have hope, which is why she should stay in school.
I dream of the girl’s friends and teachers visiting her home to see if she is OK, of her partner staying beside her, of the community supporting and helping to raise the new child and of the girl being allowed to go to school again. I’m not alone.
Sadly, we live in a country where some people think that fornicating is a worse offense than assaulting an innocent person, and where people like to hide behind hypocrisy. While becoming a parent before marriage might be one of the worst things that can befall a girl, ironically (and unjustly), the same is not the case for boys.