Reluctance to recognise abuse

In other cases, children’s statements about what one would nowadays call abuse were recognised as being true, but the school authorities would not recognise the abuse as a problem that required action. This was the case of a female teacher from Southern Denmark in 1906. The political polarisation between the Conservative government and the rural population resulted in local organisation and activities, also in school matters, if the local population were dissatisfied with, for example, too many heavy-handed teaching methods.The beginning of the twentieth century therefore saw far more local mobilisation of parents against an unpopular teacher than had previously been the case.24

According to the boy’s father, the unmarried schoolteacher, Mss Karen Jorgensen (1862-?), mistreated an eight-year-old boy.The father admitted that the boy was not a very talented pupil, but, according to the father, this did not justify that he was often punished harshly both with a cane and a ruler. Although it was the father who wrote the complaint, it is the child’s stories that are expressed in his letter, which too includes information of how less able children were hit on the head, especially around the ears, until they screamed loudly. One also hears of the boy’s irritation at having to learn hymns by heart and at the pupils being told to eat their food outside regardless of the weather. The father recognised the boy’s stories as being true, thereby establishing a problem that required action by the school board. He also made efforts to ensure the majority of the other fathers supported his complaint.

The teacher and the school authorities, however, refused to recognise the children’s statements as being a problem. It may well be that their statements were correct, but they did not constitute a problem according to the authorities who tried to trivialise the deeds of the teacher. The teacher admitted that she had used a cane on a few occasions and slapped the children, including the boy in question, on the cheek, but she denied having used a ruler. In addition to the father who had complained to her on several occasions, she did not believe that she had received more than seven complaints during the period in which she had been teaching at the school. She did not regard this as a high number of complaints. She had also stopped requiring pupils to learn hymns by heart. The chair of the school board impressed upon her that she was not permitted to use methods of punishment, such as slapping, which was against regulations. Apart from this, he did not believe that the complaints could be substantiated besides what Miss Jorgensen had admitted, i.e. the statements of the children were not true and did not constitute a problem. No further action was therefore required in the case. The higher authorities supported him in this, thereby suppressing the children’s voices.25

The voice of an angry mother

As parents were able to speak on behalf of their children, this gave the children an indirect voice, although it required that their emotional experiences of abuse were seen as being a problem. This was the case in Copenhagen in 1906, which also reflects the way in which public schools managed their responsibilities as educators and the parents’ options for involvement.26 It all started with a teacher reporting the mother of one of his pupils had hit him during a discussion about the teacher’s punishment of her son. The case ended with the mother being sentenced to 60 days in prison both for having hit the teacher and for having attempted to gain access to her other son’s classroom. Her conviction was upheld by the Danish Supreme Court, but the King suspended her sentence. The case developed to a matter of the authorities’ perception of the mother’s credibility and thereby also about whether her statements were true, i.e. whether abuse had taken place that constituted a problem that required action.Was her voice - and indirectly her son’s - credible, and did it require being heard or should she be silenced?

The police investigated the situation in the home of the mother. The police report noted that the husband was periodically unemployed and had a tendency to intemperance. It did not in itself relate to the teacher’s physical abuse of her son, but it contributed to define the family. The husband also had to explain whether it was him or his wife who was the head of the family. It was also emphasised that the wife was of German extraction and spoke Danish with a pronounced German accent so she could be difficult to understand.This should be seen in the context of the aversion to anything German in the aftermath of Denmark’s defeat to Prussia in 1864.The school also believed that both mother and son were by nature abnormal, hot-tempered and hysterical due to mental illness in the family. It necessitated the school to educate the family’s children by using physical power. The teacher had beaten the boy because he believed that the boy had hidden a friend’s detention slip.

This was the voice of the authorities and not least their assessment of the value of the mother’s voice. The mother was, however, given a chance to have her say, and her words were documented in police records, although in the interpretation of the police officer. She explained that she was not against punishment as such, but she did not want her children to be abused. She had therefore several times asked the school’s headmaster and teachers to go easy on her boys. In this specific case, her 11-year-old son had bruised lines on both arms and legs. She stated that this had to be interpreted as abuse. As the boy’s trousers had also ripped, she entered in the classroom.The mother also told the police that she would not stand for the patronising treatment to which teachers and authorities subjected her. She wanted the right to be involved in her own sons’ education and did not want to be treated like a foolish child. One hears her voice in court records:‘I am not a schoolgirl,’ as she told the teacher.27 Her personality and voice is heard clearly in the records. She had complained multiple times about the school’s treatment of her boys and had also previously interrupted the teacher’s class as she believed her children’s statements to be true. In her opinion, abuse had taken place and the school had an obligation to respond.

The mother was not alone in her complaints, having her say with the school authorities. A study of the relationship between parents in Copenhagen and the school shows that parents in the more affluent sections of the working class, or the petty bourgeoisie, did not let themselves be bullied in the same way as parents from the lower sections of society did. The more affluent had their say in the form of written complaints and threats of legal proceedings and of transferring the child to a private school.That is why their voices are found in the archives of the Copenhagen School Board. In the same way, their voices are also heard as minutes were taken when a parent - most frequently the mother - turned up at the school and aired her opinions, especially about the school’s management of punishment and discipline. It was a widespread practice by parents in Copenhagen for many years, being documented in the archives and thereby giving children and especially their parents a voice.28

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