The Hexagon Pool in the Yehudiya Nature Reserve..
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Some half a million high school students, grades 7 through 12, went on strike Wednesday in response to the cancellation of all class field trips by the Association of Secondary School Teachers.
The students declared the strike on Tuesday after last week’s announcement by the Association that it would cancel all class trips and activities outside school premises beginning January 11 to pressure the Education Ministry to meet their demand that they not be liable for any criminal charges connected to student safety and well being on school excursions.
On Wednesday, the Association’s actions received harsh criticism from political figures and student organizations, as well as parents and students.
MK Amram Mitzna, chairman of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee called on the Association to end its strike immediately and take responsibility for students on school field trips.
The Knesset committee convened Wednesday for an emergency discussion regarding the recent escalations surrounding the issue of legal responsibility on school field trips.
“The principal issue is that of legal responsibility. Each person with a position in the public system is responsible for the security and safety of children. You can create safety nets with regards to civil lawsuits, but you cannot create a preliminary safety net regarding criminal lawsuits,” Mitzna said.
“Nobody is immune from criminal prosecution,” he added. “I am willing now, as chairman of the Education Committee, to convene a small team along with the legal adviser, to find the tools to protect teachers, but only provided you end the strike immediately.”
Ran Erez, chairman of the Association said teachers lack the necessary training to accompany students on overnight school trips.
“We were not trained to be responsible for the safety of students or to be trip chaperons.
We are not willing to do this work without a safety net,” he said. “You cannot play yo-yo with the teachers.
Teachers are not obligated to go on [overnight] school trips, it is not in our job agreement.”
Teachers cannot look after students all hours of the day, he added.
“When the trip ends without casualties the teachers should congratulate themselves and recite the Gomel blessing [the prayer said after surviving a life-threatening situation]. We are not asking for sweeping criminal immunity, but we can set a different bar for teachers and implement filters before we reach court,” Erez said.
Despite the teachers’ staunch position, the Office of the Deputy Attorney-General released a legal opinion on Tuesday stating that it could not grant them immunity from criminal charges.
“The request by the Association of Secondary Teachers for immunity from prosecution with regards to negligence on school trips was examined by us and we did not find that we could grant blanket immunity from prosecution in these events.
Granting immunity as stated is not acceptable and we believe that there is no justification,” the letter stated.
The deputy attorney general called on the Education Ministry to find alternative solutions to ensure the safety of students on school trips in order to minimize the teachers’ liability for criminal prosecution, rather than eliminate their responsibility.
Michal Cohen, director- general of the Education Ministry, wrote an open letter to school principals and educators on Wednesday stating that the ministry invests “great resources” in ensuring the safety and well being of students and teachers alike on class trips, including training and preparing educators for the excursions.
As such, she said, “the ministry established procedures to ensure the frameworks for trips and accompanies them through control and supervision.”
According to ministry data over the years, she said, criminal prosecution against teachers has occurred in isolated incidents.
“Experience shows us that complying with ministry guidelines prevents disasters and abnormal incidents during school trips,” she said.
The ministry, Cohen added, is continuing to hold negotiations with the Association and with the Student Council in an effort to resolve the issue.