Recent events at both Pla Pak Noi and Wang Yang elementary schools have pressed me to address the issue of school safety. For those who have been keeping up with this blog or have had the opportunity to experience first-hand the culture of rural schools in Northeastern Thailand, my title may be rather oxymoronic (you may remember the third-grade student carrying the smoking backpack last semester). For one, there seem to be very few policies on school safety, and an even greater lack of enforcement for any rules that do exist. Second, students play a huge role in the daily functioning of their schools, taking on major responsibilities like grounds maintenance, cooking, and cleaning. With these two points in mind, it is easy to see how accidents often happen in this environment.
As I mentioned, several recent events have pushed me to address the issue of safety. Last week a fifth-grade boy went to the hospital for stitches after cutting his toe on a large sheet of aluminum roofing. This material was being stored in the English classroom at Pla Pak Noi School for the construction of another school building. Immediately after the injured student was taken to the hospital by one of the teachers (in the bed of a pick-up truck), I asked Pi Med if the aluminum could be moved to the construction site so a similar accident would not happen again. Well, of course students were put to work on this request (I should have known, really) and for about ten minutes, kids ranging from nine to twelve years of age transported these very heavy and sharp sheets of metal down the stairs and up a steep incline to the construction site, glove-less and shoe-less. Luckily we averted any further injuries that day!
That was on Wednesday of last week. This Tuesday, a third-grade boy went to the hospital after badly cutting his forearm on similar aluminum material that was uncovered and sitting idle inside the new building. I didn’t hear about the accident until one of my students urgently asked for my Thai-English talking dictionary and pulled up the word “sanguinary” for me. I later asked Pi Tuk to show me the spot where the accident happened. There were some sort of support beams with the aluminum sheets vertically attached, about a a foot in length, sitting on the floor in the middle of the new building. According to Pi Tuk, this student was playing in forbidden territory. Over the past several months I witnessed teachers reprimand students many times for playing on or near the construction site. However, this rule is not always enforced and students are usually found running inside their future classrooms without so much as a second glance from the teachers.
Wang Yang Elementary School also has its fair share of public health concerns. On Monday one of my teaching assistants (yes, I have two new teaching assistants! But more on that in another post…) confiscated a knife with a five-inch blade from one of my first-graders. I was shocked to see it (though again, I know I shouldn’t have been) and clearly pantomimed that no knives are allowed in the classroom. Then today I had to evacuate my third grade class because the school was getting fumigated. The mosquitos have been out of control these past few weeks since the rains started and the Thai government funds the fumigation of all public schools. This is great, except I was given approximately a two minute notice before my room was completely engulfed in a thick, smelly white smoke. I later asked Kru Khem (a fellow teacher) why they do not fumigate when the school is empty to reduce health risks and he just laughed, explaining that the workers have a lot of schools to visit.
What strikes me as interesting with both the construction site and the fumigation is that these are both meant to bring improvements to the schools, but in the process can (and have) become harmful instead. Coming from a culture where safety policies and procedures saturate every work and school environment–not to mention brim with a perpetual fear of impending lawsuits–it is hard to understand the seemingly utter disregard for safety at my schools. One conclusion I have drawn from all of this is how much students are expected to fend for themselves in Thailand. Children are not catered to like many are in the States; they learn at a young age about real-life responsibilities both at school and home, like gardening, preparing meals, and groundskeeping maintenance. To me it seems like this culture of early-age responsibility also translates to higher expectations about safety issues like staying away from the forbidden construction site. Where my solution is to invest in a “danger zone” construction fence to block adventurous intruders, Thai teachers expect their students simply to heed their warnings. When they do not, they learn (sometimes painfully) from their disobedience.
I know this cultural difference of childhood expectations will continue to be a struggle for me to understand, and accept, during the rest of my time here. But maybe, just maybe, I could also convince someone here about the sound investment in a construction fence….