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Ilmajoki pupil racially abused by school staff

Concern over severe symptoms developed by the boy led his parents to secretly record their son's day at school

Nainen pitää kädessään puhelinta.
The recording exposing the racist abuse was also shared with Yle. Image: Mirva Ekman / Yle

A school in Finland is embroiled in a racism scandal after parents recorded primary school staff racially abusing their autistic son.

A five-hour secret recording, also shared with Yle, suggests that at least two employees at Herrala School in Ilmajoki, South Ostrobothnia, engaged in inappropriate and discriminatory conduct towards the young student.

The recording, taken after the boy's mother became worried about her son's changed behaviour, exposed verbal abuse focused on his race and developmental disorder. The abuse included staff telling the boy to 'take the elephant with' him and 'wishing mum and dad a good trip to the camel farm.'

According to the student's parents, neither the school nor the municipality have taken sufficient action, and communication regarding the matter has been consistently lacking.

The parents have submitted both a complaint to the Regional State Administrative Agency (Avi) and a request for an investigation to the police. They complained about the actions of the school's staff as well as a child protection report made by the school in spring 2021 when the boy was absent on sick leave due to the situation.

Official 'really sorry'

Ilmajoki Education Director Janne Hakala said that schools can contact child protection services if they have serious concerns or if children are absent for long periods.

"I am really upset with the whole course of events, what has been said and what can be verified from the tape, and really sorry that this has happened. It is not to be played down nor overlooked," Hakala said.

One of the two staff members present in the recording was hired only on a short-term employment contract and is no longer employed by the municipality of Ilmajoki, according to Hakala.

Hakala did not comment on the other employee.

School administration still in the hot seat

The Ilmajoki parent, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, has said that a resolution is still pending.

"We are not the only parents who are worried about the situation. We’ve also been thinking with other parents about safeguarding our children's school days; do we have to take turns visiting the school to supervise our own children?" the mother said.

The schoolboy's parents have requested the municipality of Ilmajoki to transfer their child to a different school, but the regional authority is yet to agree.

The family also said that they have moving to another school district, but for an autistic boy, big changes can be too much to handle.

The Education Director said that the municipality has addressed the shortcomings and tried to open up a dialogue by organising a parents' evening on 7 July.

"I feel that we have really good people working here, we have good students and excellent families with whom we have had good cooperation. I believe in our staff too," he said, adding that "this public affair has, of course, left its mark. But this means that reciprocal and adequate communication with parents will be ensured on both sides."

The boy's mother said that the matter was not adequately addressed at the parents' evening.

According to Hakala, the school will continue to communicate with the family despite the ongoing problems

"Of course, the most important thing is that the student's interest is protected. Both the parents and we, the education providers, can evaluate this together. I would like to think that there is never a crisis so deep that it is impossible to move forward," the Education Director said.

How can parents deal with situations of abuse?

There are several ways for students' parents to step in if they feel their child has suffered unfair treatment by school staff.

"The priority should be to discuss the matter with the teacher or other staff concerned, and if it does not lead to a desired outcome, the next step is to discuss it with the principal. If no progress can be made with the principal, the principal has a supervisor in the municipal administration or in the administration of the private school, which would be the next party," said Education Adviser of the National Board of Education, Satu Honkala.

"If the matter is not resolved through a discussion with the school or municipality, the parents can then complain to the regional government agency, which is the authority supervising the educational activity," Honkala explained, adding that parents can also appeal against decisions made over their complaint.

Tanja Pietiläinen, a lawyer at the Legal Security Unit of the Regional Administration of Western and Inner Finland, said that formal complaints about the behavior of educators or other problems related to communication between the home and school, can be submitted to Avi.

The average processing time for complaints is currently eight months.

"Once a complaint and report is received, Avi will then assess whether the defendant has broken the law. A decision or an answer will be given to the complainant and, of course, the municipality will also be notified," Pietiläinen said.

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