eyes on the U.S.

A German Mom Used To Mock U.S. School Security, Now She Wants More

Security gate at a high school in Michigan
Security gate at a high school in Michigan
Iris Alanyali

-Essay-

BERLIN - My five-year-old son Finn goes to an American kindergarten – a place just like Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Bethlehem in Pennsylvania is about as far from Philadelphia as Newtown is from New York – in their own way, both are typical U.S. East Coast towns. Finn’s school even looks like the one in Sandy Hook: a faceless flat-roofed building painted in shades of yellow, with a huge parking lot next to it and some bike stands out back that nobody uses.

As I write this, the Newton massacre is a day old and until it happened I used to make fun of Finn’s kindergarten all the time. I work in Berlin and commute back and forth to the States where my husband works. The children are with him.

My tales of marching off to kindergarten in Germany, aged four, just me and a couple of other children from the neighborhood – on our own – never fail to surprise my husband. To me, Finn’s school with its rigid rules seemed like some kind of Sesame Street military academy.

Now of course things look different.

Americans use the word kindergarten, written the German way, but otherwise it has very little in common with its German equivalent. Some American schools call it “Grade 0” because that’s exactly what it is: a place for five-year-olds (and it seems to me their parents too) to prepare for the days when they will attend “real school.”

Kindergartens are part of the elementary school the child will go on to, and they have lovely teachers, subjects like art and gym and music, lots of stars for tasks well done, and a “time out chair” for bad behavior. By the end of their year there, children should be at least familiar with reading, writing and arithmetic.

While I’ve learned to appreciate the approach to learning at my son’s kindergarten – learning the alphabet for Finn has been an exciting game, not a drill – I’ve had my difficulties with some of the other aspects.

We live five minutes away from the school. Monday through Friday at quarter to nine I walk my son to the school’s “pedestrian entrance” near the main entrance. The kids form two lines in an outdoors forecourt and at 8:55 a.m. the doors open and the two teachers come out, wave to parents standing around exchanging pleasantries and march their line inside. The doors lock behind them and until 11:40 a.m. nobody can get in.

At 11:40 a.m., the door opens again, and a teacher calls out the names of the children waiting inside in a line. After each name, the teacher waits for the person fetching the child to raise their hand, and only when that has happened does the teacher let the child run out.

If nobody waves – Mom, Dad, Grandma or Grandpa are late – then the child goes to the end of the line.

Twice, Finn and I got there late. This turned out to be at least as uncomfortable for me as it was for my son. The doors in the pedestrian area were closed, so we walked through the main entrance, which is reserved for school buses.

When we got inside, there were several lines of kids, and a couple of boys called over to Finn. They were glad to see him, and waved him over but he wouldn’t go: “That’s the schoolbus line,” he insisted.

So we had to proceed to the place where the lines for pedestrian arrivals were. Finn joined his classmates, and I stood there until the teacher had registered that he had joined the group and then I left. The second time we were late I made sure Finn got inside the school bus entrance door and left him up to his own devices to get to the pedestrian line. I have no idea of what happens if you’re late fetching your child, but I wouldn’t dare. This is how American kindergartens also train parents.

When, irritated, I told my husband how unwelcome I’d been made to feel when Finn and I walked in late – the school should make parents feel welcome, I felt – his only comment was how come they’d let me in the building at all: every adult who is not a staff member should technically be led to the front office to sign in and sign out.

I checked out the school rules, and he was right. Guests (and that includes parents) need a pass that can only be gotten in the front office. "The main entrance is monitored by security cameras. Please ring the bell to the left of the door and state your name and the reason for your visit."

Looking over your shoulder

I have never been in the school building other than that one incident. I don’t know what my son’s classroom looks like. My husband attended the only parents’ evening there has been so far, and otherwise the only means of communicating is a red folder Finn keeps in his school bag. The left side is marked “Leave at home” and the right “Bring back to school.”

The left side contains things like samples of Finn’s art work and spelling, and printed sheets that say things like: "Dear Parents! This week we’re learning the letter ‘H.’ You can help! Cut out the ‘H’ below and paste it on the picture of a word that begins with ‘H.’ A house, for example."

The right-hand side of the folder is for things to be signed, such as forms concerning vaccination certificates, or confirmations that we’ve taken note of the school rules, or encouraging us to contribute to a forthcoming bake sale, make a donation for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, or take part in any number of activities the income from which will go to the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), and will thus benefit the school.

Our neighbor urged me to become an active member of the PTO. "Nobody will admit it," she says, "but it’s true: if you’re a PTO member, your child gets better grades."

Meanwhile, I understand why she says that: the PTO is offers just about the only opportunity to look over the shoulders of American teachers.

The same people that find it intolerable for their President to interfere in health insurance, or call their right to arms, gas and fast food into question, turns their kids over at the school door as if it were the border to a country it doesn’t have a visa to enter.

The right to education, the right to make something of one’s life regardless of background – maybe that’s what gives American schools their special position. And maybe it’s because of that special position that the number of school-age children receiving homeschooling has grown 74% since 1999, according to a 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Education.

For many parents, homeschooling seems to be the only way to have any influence over their children’s education (although granted, many parents opt for this on religious grounds or security concerns).

On Friday, after I had fetched Finn at kindergarten – promptly – and he was happily ensconced playing in his room, I learned of the Connecticut massacre.

I take my hats off to the teachers at the Sandy Hook school who after the catastrophe led their kids out of the building with such quiet discipline. I understand now how that was possible.

I take my hat off to Kaitlin Roig, who barricaded herself and her first-graders in the school lavatory and wouldn’t even open the door to police because she thought it was a ruse by the killer – she insisted that an ID badge be slipped under the door first. I now understand where she got the confidence to do that.

Never again will I complain about the security procedures at Finn’s kindergarten. As far as I’m concerned, they can turn it into Fort Knox if they want to. And I also take my hat off to them for somehow managing despite the conditions to make the place seem to my son as cozy as Sesame Street.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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