Trouble for the Troubled: What are the lessons at Special School No. 18?
A 15-year old boy with good reason for not saying his name is talking about his experience at Yerevan’s Special School No. 18.
«God forbid what will happen if they catch you when you escape,» he says. «Muradyan was stripping us, pouring water on us and whipping us. If we decided to escape then we’d just as well have dug a grave for ourselves. Once I escaped at night but they caught me. The night man put a piece of parquet on my hands and stood on that parquet.
«A few boys once were caught when they were trying to escape. The night guards spat and pissed on those boys. I wish this school were blown up.»
School No. 18 is one of two special schools in Armenia for children who exhibit «socially dangerous behavior» as defined by the Ministry of Education and Science.
Children between the ages of 7 and 12 who have committed theft or other minor crimes are sent to the special school (with the consent of their parents) until they finish 8th form (at about age 14). Additionally, orphans and children caught begging or for vagrancy are sent to No. 18.
The school is located in the Nubarashen district of Yerevan, and currently has 95 pupils, most from extremely poor families.
Acting on information received of routine abuse and mistreatment, ArmeniaNow interviewed former and current students as well as school officials to obtain the following report.
The recollections of the 15 year old is not the only report of abuse at the school. ArmeniaNow has talked with six youth who were placed at No. 18 at different times during 1997-2003. They talk of beatings, of lockups, of having food withheld and of being forbidden to meet with parents.
For the past 23 years School No. 18 has been under the direction of Zhora Muradyan, who previously was an assistant at the State Prosecutor’s Office. ArmeniaNow spoke with director Muradyan. He denies all accusations of inappropriate conduct by the school staff.
Araik Safaryan is 16. His brother Stepan is 12. In 1999, police saw the Safaryan brothers dressed in dirty clothes and traveling alone in a Yerevan-Kharberd bus.
Police went to their home in Kharberd on the outskirts of Yerevan and told the boys’ mother, Hripsimeh, about a special school in Yerevan where her boys would receive a proper education and upbringing.
Hripsimeh, a single mother of five sons, gave her consent.
«The policemen praised the school and said that it was a strict school and children would be educated there very well and that I would have few problems. I couldn’t take care of all of my children so I agreed,» Hripsimeh says. It is a decision she now regrets.
Stepan, then 8 years old, was not attending school because his mother couldn’t afford to send him. He was happy for a chance to go to the school the police told about.
«It was one of the first lessons. I couldn’t write ‘N’ letter very well and the teacher hit me and my nose bled,» says Stepan. «I cleaned blood with my handkerchief. Muradyan told me to visit his office and when I came he gave me a slap. I told I would write a letter to my ma and tell her that you beat me here. He said if he knows that I did something like that then he will tear the letter and me.»
For two years Hripsimeh had no idea that her sons were living in a school where, her son say, they and other students were routinely mistreated. Only once in a letter to his younger brother, Stepan hinted that the boys were in an undesirable place.
«Andranik-jan, I wish you never meet bad people in your life,» the letter said.
The Kudashin brothers say their time at Special School 18 was not so happy.
Araik limps and his ankles are swollen. He says that he still suffers from wounds inflicted by Murad Muradyan, who is the director’s son, and vice-principal and physical education teacher.
«When we stood in line, he used to approach us and kick my ankles. My legs were terribly aching,» says Araik. «Once I told the doctor about it but he said that I’m lying and sent me back to class. I lost consciousness from pain, I didn’t remember anything. Then they called an ambulance.»
According to the Safaryans and others, pupils were punished for different reasons: when they couldn’t sleep and were talking lying in their beds, when they didn’t learn their lessons, when they tore books, smoked, collected fruits in gardens and for other reasons.
«I didn’t eat a meal with onions in it and gave it to a boy sitting next to me,» Araik says. «The cook told Muradyan about that and he threw the meal in my face. He did that three times.»
Once Araik ran away from the school after not being allowed to visit his mother. Hripsimeh sent him back to school where, Araik says, Zhora Muradyan stripped him, beat him with a belt and poured water over him.
Students at No. 18 were under strict orders not to tell parents anything about the school.
«I didn’t know what was taking place in school,» Hripsimeh says. «Children didn’t tell me anything. When Araik escaped I was very angry, until I saw Stepan’s blood soaked handkerchief.»
It was Stepan’s second blood soaked handkerchief. This time he says it came after staff woke the students in the middle of the night to discipline some boys for talking after lights out.
«They put us into line and began giving slaps. I fell aslept standing in the line and fell down on my face. In the morning my nose swelled but it didn’t bleed. The doctor took a look at the nose and said that it is broken but everything is fine and I can go to classes.
«It was the lessons of Armenian language and I didn’t learn my lessons well enough. Teacher Khachatryan gave me a slap and my nose bled. All my clothes were soaked with blood. I put a handkerchief on my nose but it didn’t help.»
Stepan kept the handkerchief until he finally met his mother, as silent evidence of things he was afraid to tell about.
After learning what had happened Hripsimeh took her sons from the school and handed in an application to the Ministry of Science and Education requesting to transfer her children to another school. Now Stepan studies in Kharberd and Araik works in a market.
The family claims that Murad Muradyan and one of the guards came to try to take the boys back.
«They were cursing and insulting,» says the boys’ grandmother, Maria. «They said ‘How can the children live in a house like this?’ (Seven Safaryans live in a small wagon). And I told them ‘How can I give my children to you; you made them invalid.»
Boys currently at the school say that everything is fine.
Fifteen year old Roman and 16 year old Vasiliy Kudashin spent six years in No. 18. In 1997, when they were age nine and 10, the brothers were caught stealing, and sent to the special school.
During their time at No.18, their father died and their mother went missing. Last January Vasiliy escaped from the school for the fourth time and was ordered to an orphanage in Vanadzor.
The brothers remember the Nurbarshen school as a place of constant beatings.
«There wasn’t such a day when someone wasn’t beaten. We were beaten everyday,» says Vasiliy.
In September 2002 the brothers learned from an acquaintance that their father had been dead for two years. The boys say that the director knew about their father’s death when it happened, but did not tell them.
Upset at finding out the news, and to escape routine punishment, one night the boys jumped out their third-floor bedroom window into a fir tree. When Roman hit the ground he injured his kidneys.
Once a pupil at the school tried to open the door of a storehouse, however he couldn’t open it because the key broke off in the lock. Vasiliy says that he found another part of the key and Zhora Muradyan saw it in his hand and decided that Vasiliy was the one who tried to open storehouse door.
«I told him that I didn’t do that but he said I broke the key and he was beating me all day long. That day wherever he saw me he beat me. He was beating me with hands and legs and kicking my legs.
«Later he found out who tried to open the storehouse. But he continued to beat me as he wanted me to tell the names of those who broke the key. I didn’t know who broke the key but even if I knew I wouldn’t tell him.»
The brothers say that Zhora Muradyan used a stick with a thin piece of rubber attached as a whip for the students.
When the brothers escaped to their home, they found other people living there. The police took them back to No. 18. This time, though, they were not beaten.
«I was hurt (from the fall from his window) and the cops told (Muradyan) that if he again beats us they would put the law on him. Muradyan was scared,» says Roman.
According to Kudashin brothers, the director used beatings to force children to snitch on each other.
«He liked very much to question children,» Vasiliy says. «He was beating until someone shouldered all the guilt.»
Roman describes the director with one word: «He is a sadist.»
Oddly, though, Roman has a positive attitude about one aspect of being at No. 18. He says that the fear of punishment forced him to become a good student. In Vanadzor he says he doesn’t learn, because no one will punish him if he doesn’t.
The director of the Vanadzor orphanage, Arshaluis Harutyunyan, says both Kudashin boys are well behaved and that they have created no problems in their time at the orphanage.
Zhora Muradyan, age 64, has been director of School No. 18 since 1980 and director of Hankavan’s «Hasmik» camp for children and teenagers (a Pioneer camp during Soviet times) since 1968.
Before independence, the number of students at No. 18 never exceeded 15.
«During Soviet times children were caught for playing cards and brought here,» says Zhora Muradyan. «They were brought here also for being involved in fighting and knifing. We never had children here who were real criminals and had already had an experience of life in the criminal world.»
The 95 pupils now at the school do not include any picked up for breaking the law. And last year, for the first time, girls (6) were placed in the school.
The school is surrounded by walls. Anyone entering must pass through a checkpoint.
In the back of the school are a fruit garden and fruit trees. Muradyan remembers that before he became director there was no time for apricots to ripen as children used to steal immature fruits. These days the orchard produces a bumper crop.
Silence reigns in the school. As the director says: «When you enter the building you see that everything is perfect starting from the cleanness and ending with the order.»
The building was reconstructed 18 years ago, yet the classroom walls remain spotless. Chairs are also clean and without any graffiti. The bathroom was reconstructed by the Armenian Evangelistic Church. Nongovernmental organizations can render humanitarian assistance, but Muradyan refuses any form of psychological, educational or social help.
When one lesson is finished, children form lines and go to the next.
«Hey, man, you have problems with lines? In other places as soon as the bell rings children begin squabbling. But here when ring bells each child stands in line and goes to another classroom. You think it is a bad tradition?» asks Zhora Muradyan rhetorically.
None of the staff confirms reports of beatings or abuse.
Deputy principal of the school for educational activity Haykanush Javakhyan, who, according to the Sarafyan brothers, was constantly beating them, says that no acts of violence are committed in the school.
«We always hear words of praise from parents,» he says. «They see big changes both in behavior of their children and in their educational level and in their discipline. There are no beatings at all. How can we beat these children?»
Murad Muradyan insists on the same.
«Of course, beatings are not administered here, they were administered in Ter Todik’s school (made famous in a popular Armenian writer’s biography). Children must simply be busy with something always. During the lessons they must be busy with lessons, during the games — with games and during the work — with work. Commanders of military units say that a soldier is a potential criminal if he is not busy with something. The same with children because if they are not busy with something then they start thinking about other things.»
The grandmother says the school made the boys «invalid»..
The school has a military-patriotic bias. Different hobby groups are functioning after classes such as home land protection, military art, cutting and sewing, shoemaking and painting.
Hrachya Manukyan, 21, is a graduate of the school and now is employed as a night guard there. He tells a slightly different story about discipline at the school.
«Yes, I agree I slap (the students),» he says. «But who were older than me slapped me, but they did it for my good. They did it because I was wrong. I felt that I was guilty and I deserved that slap. t is better to get a slap than in the future to sit behind the bars and be beaten with truncheons.»
Manukyan has no professional education, however, it doesn’t bother him.
«People can have diplomas but they must have diplomas in their hearts. We already have pedagogical education more or less. We have learned from our teachers.»
When staff members talk about advantages of the school nobody forgets to mention several times that everything has been done thanks to Muradyan, who, as Javakhyan describes him, «is a real man.»
Muradyan doesn’t consider beatings to be his main educational method.
«Can you keep children in school by beating them,» he asks. «If you beat children they won’t obey you and won’t comply with your orders.»
However, he doesn’t deny that from time to time he administers corporal punishment.
«I can’t educate children without punishing them,» he says. «If a child did something which made everybody angry and if I don’t give that child a slap then I won’t be able to educate others. It can happen once a year.»
He regards himself as a follower of strict educational methods. He says that one must be exacting and strict with children but at the same time attentive and helpful.
Muradyan says that he demands three things of new pupils: «You must learn well, model your friends’ behavior and demonstrate exemplary conduct. And the third, come and confess to whatever you did.»
And, according to Muradyan, if someone doesn’t confess then his friends tell him to do that or they go and tell the director themselves.
«One of the little children once dirtied the wall. You should have seen what other children did with him, they said: ‘Mr. Muradyan, he dirtied the wall and we could hardly get it clean.»
According to him, school administers punishments such as reprimand, serious reprimand, or children are not allowed to participate at different measures, for instance, they are not taken to theatre.
Pupils tell about different methods of punishment. If eating is considered to be a measure of reprimand, then Muradyan and the pupils talk about the same things because, according to them, the most popular punishment is depriving of food.
Vasiliy: «Once a few boys tore covering of chairs and 20 boys had been deprived of food for one week. There was a boy, Artur, he was so hungry that was eating walls. He was taking off pieces of plaster from the wall and eating them. My brother would bring bread for me and I ate only bread and drank only water. »
Roman: «Once a boy tore a book and I was deprived of dinner. Everybody ate four times a day but I was allowed to eat only two times. Sometimes it happened when for not learning lessons we were deprived of food during the whole day.»
Stepan: «When someone talked during the dinner with another boy sitting next to him then he was deprived of food. There was a special register in the school. They put a mark next to your name and forbade you to eat during the whole day. I was deprived of food very often. If I had something good, for instance, sport uniform or trousers, then I exchanged it for food. There were boys studying in eighth form, who would go and tell Muradyan that we exchanged clothes for food and they would come and beat us. Araik would often bring food for me. Once my friend was deprived of food, I chopped bread into the pocket of my jacket and took it to him. Night people came to check our pockets, I threw my jacket into the neighboring room. So they didn’t find bread and left. Then I gave bread to my friend and told him to eat quickly as they could return and check again. As soon as he finished eating they returned and saw crumbs of bread on the floor. They beat everybody in the room.»
Another alleged method of punishment is when everybody is punished for someone’s fault or when everybody punishes someone.
Muradyan denies such charges.
«Children, themselves, don’t punish someone. There is nothing like that here. If a child did something wrong they tell him to go and confess himself and if he doesn’t then they will tell who did that.»
«Ask the children», the director says.
However, boys say that voluntary nobody wants to snitch on anybody.
Roman: «If someone was snitching then we were finding reason to beat him and we told him to go and answer for whatever he did. And after that he never snitched. But we didn’t know always who was snitching.»
Stepan: «Children of the whole school were put in two lines and the delinquent child was ordered to walk through these two lines and we were ordered to beat him and spit on him while he was walking through the lines. And we were beating. If we didn’t beat him then we would be punished the same way.»
Araik: «Once we must have learned something by heart and I didn’t learn it. Muradyan came and asked who got a bad mark. I was one of those with a bad mark. He ordered everybody to stand in two lines and made me walk through those lines and boys were beating me. When I reached him he hit my belly and neck and deprived me of food for the whole day».
The boys say Muradyan had an «all for one and one for all» motto which forced everyone to punish the one who misbehaved.
Vasiliy: «At night, at 12:00 or 1:00 when someone was talking in the room they woke us up, put in a line and beat us. Sometimes it happened when they put a child, who was talking, in the middle of the room and the entire line, 80 children, were beating him. If we didn’t beat him then we would be beaten. Once they put us in line and all of us began hitting a boy. When it was Igor Pisarev’s turn to hit that boy he refused. They told him that if he didn’t hit him then he, himself, would be beaten more severely. He didn’t, and he was taken away and beaten severely for not following orders.
Roman: «When someone escaped they woke us up at one o’clock at night and asked who knows how he escaped and began beating us. There was a lad, Liova Hakobyan, he was a teacher of crafts and night guard as well. He used to open window, strip us and put us next to it. We were freezing. Then he was soaking wooden sticks in water and beating us.»
All the boys tell of an isolation ward. The 15-year old who is afraid to give his name says he spent an entire day in the ward, dreaming of seeing Muradyan being beaten in the ward.
Zhora Muradyan assures that over the years children have escaped from school only two times. However, children tell that there were many escapes and sometimes there were even cases of mass escapes by seven or eight children.
According to the former students, punishment for escape is the most severe. Those who consistently try to get away are sometimes urinated on by night guards. Still, attempts are often the boys say.
Some who are afraid to escape look for other ways to leave.
One boy, Levon, had an artificial eye. He took his eye out and put it in the wing of a door, so that it would be broken and he could go home. But the eye didn’t break, and Levon was beaten for his attempt.
One 15 year old says he faked appendicitis, hoping he’d be sent home. But he was operated on and sent back to the school.
Back at the school, he put dirt in the incision so that it became infected. He was sent back to the hospital for treatment, and escaped from the hospital.
The boys say that conditions weren’t as bad at Camp Hasmik, where other children mixed with the students. But some tried to run away from the camp, they say, and were severely punished for the effort.
Roman: «When someone was caught escaping from the camp he was tied to a tree near the river, then they soaked a whip in the water and began beating him.»
The boys told about one student, Hayk. He escaped but Muradyan, they say, went to Hrazdan by car and caught him there. Word among the students is that Muradyan tied him near the river, stripped him and beat him with a wet whip and then locked him in the trunk of his car for the bumpy drive back.
ArmeniaNow relayed the accusations to Zhora Muradyan.
«Ask the children,» he said, then produced a letter from a 14-year old student Robert Shahinyan.
«Dear ma, don’t’ visit me. I have everything I need here. They take care of me here and I know Mr. Muradyan will find a place for me as he is my father. Dear ma, I love you very much but I love Mr. Muradyan a little more than you.»
The former students who talked to ArmeniaNow say that, if while they were still students, anyone asked them about conditions, they would have said the school was great. Otherwise, they say, a list of punishments would be applied.
It is impossible to find a single pupil in school, who will point at any defects. Everybody repeats: «It is very good in school. Everything is good. There is nothing bad happening here.»
On a trip to Yerevan with the director of their orphanage, the Kudashin brothers met one of their classmates in a Yerevan market (during summer when the boy had been allowed to leave the school for some days).
The boy said he is trying every way possible to get out of No. 18. But, later at he school, the same boy told ArmeniaNow: «I have no problems, everything is very good »
The director assures that parents can meet with their children whenever they want. However, there are cases when he forbids meetings.
Boys say that Murad Muradyan, the director’s son, is known for strict discipline..
«A parent came to see her child. The child enters my office and says: ‘My ma came drunk, I don’t want other children to know about it.’ What should I do?»
But Hripsimeh Sarafyan says she was not drunk or otherwise objectionable when Muradyan refused to let her visit her boys.
«When I went there for the first time to see my children he said: ‘You won’t see your children until you demonstrate good character’,» she says. «I didn’t understand what he meant by ‘demonstrate good character.’
«So I had been going to school for one week and returning from there with tears in my eyes. He was forbidding me to see my children if only to make sure that they are in that school. I couldn’t take it any more and one day I made noise there asking what was the reason that they were forbidding me to see my children. He said that they don’t allow children to meet with their parents if parents are drinkers or drug-addicted. I said I will sit here until a doctor comes and examines me and if that doctor finds traces of alcohol or drugs in my blood then I will disown my children, but if he doesn’t find then you will answer for that. After I said that he softened.»
One boy’s mother says that she had been visiting the school every two weeks, but that Muradyan told her that she couldn’t come that frequently. So she started going once a month. One boy says he didn’t see his parents for three to five months.
Muradyan confesses that he forbids some children to go home as they can commit thefts on their way.
The Ministry of Education and Science is aware of disciplinary methods at Special School No. 18, from complaints made by a few parents. The ministry is aware, too, that it is illegal for a child to be refused the right to see his parents. Still, the ministry has not investigated charges of physical abuse or abuse of rights.
Chief specialist of the ministry Anahit Muradyan (no relation to the others) says that she heard about acts of violence but she has no «official» information on the matter. She says that first of all a definition must be given to violence.
«In accordance with previous legislation, slapping wasn’t regarded as an act of violence.»
The Government of Armenia has no guidelines for regulating discipline in its schools. Consequently, directors of schools administer their own methods for educating children. According to Anahit Muradyan, it is natural when different institutions administer different methods. She thinks that schools like the one in Nubarashen are necessary.
«There are numerous educational methods in the world,» she says. «Who said that only one method must be administered in all of Armenia?»
Anahit Muradyan considers it an effective method, for example, when students at No. 18 punish other students, so long as a child’s rights are not limited.
She says, too, that some directors exercise too much ownership of their students. In previous times, she says, the directors were considered guardians and not just educators of such children and would use personal methods of child rearing.
«Directors of schools have no right to replace parents,» she says. «Educational institutions help parents only to organize their children’s education and sometimes during that process it becomes necessary to offer care services. According to legislation, only parents have the right to decide anything for their children.»
Today there are 52 special educational institutions in Armenia where some 11,000 children live and study. Twenty six are for orphans and children deprived of parental care.
Over the past three years the Assembly and Transferring Center for children has sent eight children to Nubarashen. Two later committed crimes for which they were sent to prison. (The Center works with 3 to 18 year olds living in unsuitable conditions. After three to five months at the Center, the children are sent to different educational institutions.)
«The makeup of children who were sent to special schools has changed over past 10 years,» says psychologist of the Center Karen Harutyunyan. «In the ’90s there were specific antisocial groups of children who mainly committed thefts and they were sent to special disciplinary schools.»
But Harutyunyan says that in the past three years, street children are mainly those who are not out to commit crimes, but who are forced to be there because of social hardship. Meanwhile, however, staffs of special schools have not changed their methods to match the change in the kind of child who ends up in their care.
«If children who appeared in hard social conditions are subjected to violence then probably these methods are sadistic,» the psychologist says. «I’m sure that the entire staff of Nubarashen cannot have sadistic impulses. However if methods that were used before are still in use then the staff is so isolated from the outer world that they still continue to stick to the methods of work with ‘children-criminals’.»
Harutyunyan says he has visited School No. 18 over the past three years and that, even in private, no child has ever expressed oppression. At the same time, he has met boys who previously attended No. 18 and recall it as an emotionally difficult experience.
He says he has heard the explanations for why parents are refused visitation rights.
«If they kill a parent in the heart of a child then the rebellious feeling against the loss will arise in a child’s heart and it can be resulted in acts of hooliganism, sadness, despair and desire for escapes.
«At the same time I want to let everybody, especially human rights activists, know that it is impossible to help children to resolve all their emotional problems and overcome all difficulties connected with their behavior only by calling for protection of children’s rights. Also, these institutions need good specialists of psychology, who will help in resolving the children’s problems.»