Thursday, June 14, 2007

Rethinking Expulsion

It is not only a question of whether the punishment fits the crime, it is more a question of how much logic was behind the punishment, if any. Tirta found time between his doctoral research (in psychology, if you need to know) to guest blog in the Café about whether expelling the four students who were accused of beating up a fellow student at Pangudi Luhur High School would do any good.
Disclaimer: Like Tirta, who graduated from Pangudi Luhur in 1998, three of the Café Salemba hosts also went to (and graduated from, we'd like to think) the same high school. - Manager

Rethinking Expulsion
by Tirta

It seems that school bullying is one of the classic problems in this country, one that is yet to be effectively dealt with. The most recent case took place about a month ago. Blasius Adi Saputra (18) was reported to be bullied by his seniors at Pangudi Luhur High School, Jakarta (The Jakarta Post, 22 May 2007).

Following the victim's father report to the police, and the frequent coverage by the media, the school authorities reacted promptly. Four seniors who were vindicated to be the bullies were directly expelled. At first sight, the expulsion looked right and appropriate.

If bullying is a valid character proxy, then the four seniors must be troublemakers who deserved to be expelled. More importantly, the expulsion was intended to be a lesson for other students. It was a strict warning to those bullies-to-be to behave accordingly, or else they would also have to leave the institution. It is so simple and straightforward a reasoning.

However, as it is often the case, education issues are neither simple nor straightforward. A critical reflection questions the logic behind the decision to expel the four seniors.

Expulsion is the most serious decision a school can exert upon its students. It is the most extreme punishment, one with long lasting impacts toward the social and psychological lives of the expellees. Expulsion is and should be exceptional, and therefore must be tightly framed by either of the two logic of punishment: retribution and consequentialism.

Retributive expulsion is backward-looking. The assessment is based on past deeds of the students, whereby two necessary principles are to be met. First, the school have tried – to the best of its ability – to educate and re-educate these students. Second, the students have been given adequate opportunity to correct their behavior. Only then the school is warranted to wave its hands and hope that some other institution would be a better place for the expellees.

As an outsider, it is not possible to speculate about either the track record of the four expelled students or how much effort have been put by the school. All one can do in this case is to apply a counter-thinking exercise, as it would be naive to downplay the role of the media and the public at large when the school made the decision in such a short time.

Let us try to hypothetically imagine what would have happened to these four seniors had this case not been brought up to the public. Would they have ended up the same, receiving expulsion letters? Or would they have received a different kind of penalty? Did they – given all they have done during their time in the school – thoroughly deserve to be expelled?

Some of us may start wondering if expulsion was the best retributive punishment to take. But regardless of its retributional justification, let us now consider the more problematic side of the expulsion: the consequential logic.

The consequential function of expulsion is purported to be bullying deterrence. This idea is so intuitive that many seem to have accepted it a priori. But a valid justification of such an extreme and exceptional punishment – one that is socially and psychologically affecting the lives of the expelled individuals in the long-run – must rest on empirical evidence, not fallible intuition.

What we need are hard data that speak of the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of expulsion in reducing the number of bullying. These data should come from controlled studies in our schools, studies that we currently are lacking.

In other words, we do not know whether expulsion effectively prevents future bullying from taking place. The causal effect is yet to be objectively demonstrated. And when hard data are yet to be available, it is wise not to further experiment by signing more expulsion letters.

One may nevertheless argue that expulsion does prevent bullying, at least temporarily. A kind of shock therapy effect, perhaps. But even if it does, it does so for the wrong reason. A school – unlike a prison, for instance – has its own special role as a formal institution. That role is to educate students with reason and understanding, not reward and punishment. Students should not refrain from bullying because they are afraid of expulsion, but because they rightly comprehend that bullying is an unacceptable behavior.

Surely this is not an easy task, but it is a task of which we should hold our schools up to. After all, we must not forget the reason why we send our children to school in the first place. We want them to be better citizens because they are thoughtful of societal values, not because they are afraid of going to prison.

What has been often overlooked is the fact that bullying is a very complex problem. It is not about a few bad personalities who simply do not deserve to sit in our schools. Bullying is a complex psychosocial problem, one that requires extensive analysis of both individual and situational factors, with all stakeholders – students, parents, teachers, and alumni – heavily involved.

In any case, particularly in the context of bullying, we may want to rethink expulsion and treat it with the utmost care.


  1. we're talking about a bunch of high school kids here. can't really expect them to use high logic nor morale standard. furthermore, this is a male-only-laki-sadonyo-lanang-kabeh school with an expected teenage-angst machoism tendency. surely bullying juniors are considered common culture.

    if PL acknowldege themselves to carry this code of conduct, then new students who enrolled better know what to expect. this is not a new issue, similar thing happened in 1993 when they kidnapped and stripped some juniors at PIM (Ape, ring a bell? i believe you were the student president back then).

    i personally think that the expulsion is more because PL doesn't want to share the same image with IPDN as violent-endorsing institution. it wasn't really necessary to expell some 'bad seeds', but it had to be done and as Mandra said, 'nasib lu aje lagi apek'. then again, Mandra is not PL graduate, so it's hard for him to imagine 'dikeme' for a whole junior year...

  2. I think you were referring to the incidence in 1992. It was not at PIM, but somewhere else around Pondok Indah. It was not stripping, but I hate to say, worse than that.

    I even think that let's close the school for 2-3 years.

  3. Pucet... ada ketua OSIS... :-(