Hands in the Dark:

13 June 2024

Sexual abuse of blind students in Jordan

Muna Abu Hamour

Khaled heard his phone ring and rushed to answer it. It was his teacher, Fouad, asking him to meet to help with some jobs at the school. Khaled, a young blind boy, met the teacher the next day. It was not a normal school day, but one which changed Khaled’s life forever, as he suffered sexual assault at the hands of the teacher, when they were alone together in one of the rooms in the school.

Khaled Asaad (not his real name) is a student at the at the Abdullah ibn Umm-Maktum School for the Blind. He explains that his teacher, Fouad (not his real name), who is also blind, initially treated him with respect and got on well with him, without displaying any odd behaviour.

Khaled says that the teacher had given him a present before the incident: “One time he brought me an earphone… I was young at the time, and didn’t understand anything.” Khaled still remembers vividly the details of what happened.

He received no rehabilitation therapy or psychological support since the incident. And he was too frightened to tell his parents about what had happened to him. “I was afraid they would say ‘You caused it.’”

Khaled was not Fouad’s only victim. He says that another boy from among his friends was also preyed on: “He looked for others to target too, but it didn’t happen.”

In a small café in an institution for the blind, I met one of Khaled’s friends, Samer Abdullah (not his real name). He is a blind student who previously studied at Abdullah ibn Umm-Maktum school, and is still close to his old colleagues there.

Samer explains that Fouad, who was also his teacher, seemed to have a warm personality. He tried to get close to the students and befriend them, but would sometimes use expressions with sexual connotations with earshot of students.

Samer says that Fouad showed a particular interest in older students. He recalls asking him one day, when they were talking together: “Why don’t you teach younger students?” The teacher replied: “It’s not a group that interests me.”

After conducting a number of interviews to find out what goes on behind the walls of this school, which the media portrays as faultless, my research led me to Samar Ibrahim (not her real name). She previously taught in a school for the blind and is active in this field of education.

Samar welcomed me warmly to her house in Amman, and when I asked her about her experience with blind students, she opened up as if she had been waiting for years to tell someone about what they are going through. Samar explains that blind students suffer various forms of neglect, and the worst thing is they are not accepted by society. This means they resort to schools for the blind, which may not be safe. She says that a student at a school for the blind in the capital was a victim of sexual assault by his teacher more than twenty years ago.

No cameras

I visited the school and had a look round. It is a huge four-storey building on a nine-acre site. As well as classrooms and a dormitory floor, the school has rooms for different activities, including a day room, a sensory rehabilitation room, a resource room, a library, a room for printing books in Braille, and others.

I noticed that there were no CCTV cameras inside one of the teaching rooms, which was far away from the classrooms. And in the course of my investigation, I learned that there had been an attempted sexual assault on a cleaning lady in that same room.

There were cameras in some parts of the school – though I do not know if they were working or not – but there were none in the music room, which was where a student was sexually assaulted by a teacher some years ago. The court verdict was that the teacher had lured the fourteen-year-old “on the pretext of training him to play the drums, but with the intention to sexually assault him. He abused his position and the authority he derived from working at the school for the blind, and the fact that the victim was one of his students, and blind like him.” The teacher was able to take the student by surprise, as he could not see what the accused was doing, according to the details of the case. The court sentenced the perpetrator to hard labour for life, in effect ten and a half years.

Amal Saeed (not her real name), a worker in the school, says that only a few areas of the school are covered by CCTV cameras – the area where employees are fingerprinted, the bus stop outside, and some of the corridors.

A report published by the National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) in 2019, revealed that surveillance cameras inside the school had not been working for more than a month, following a monitoring visit conducted the same month that the assault took place in the music room.

Continuing abuse

Amal says that another teacher used to grasp female students by the upper body during school activities, claiming he was just trying to check who they were.

The head of the Directorate of Programmes for Students with Disabilities in the Ministry of Education, Dr Muhammad Al-Rahmaneh, says that the ministry has a system for reporting abuse of students with disabilities in public schools, through the Safeguarding Section of the Education Department – Directorate of Educational Guidance.

According to Al-Rahmaneh, no complaints of physical violation suffered by students at the government school for the blind have been made through this system, which he described as safe.

But one well-informed human rights source, who was not authorized to speak, revealed that there had been several instances of physical attacks on students at the Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum School for the Blind, which is the only government school for the blind.

According to this source, a blind teacher tried to sexually assault a student in the classroom during a lesson, hugging him from behind, after telling him to write on the class board.

The same source also said that many students – of both sexes – had been subjected to harassment by having parts of their bodies touched, but they had not been able to identify the perpetrator, because they could not see him.

More than twenty people, including survivors of abuse, were interviewed as part of this investigation, carried out in cooperation with ARIJ, with the aim of revealing the truth about what blind students have to go through in school.

It was no easy task, because the parents and teachers I met were afraid that, as a consequence, the school might be shut down, and they would have to approach regular schools. Many blind people I met during this investigation expressed concerns that these regular schools accept neither blind students nor teachers, and do not see the integration of blind and sighted people as a basic human right.

The National Center for Human Rights (NCHR), indicated that the psychological condition of students at the school is poor, because they are not accepted by society. The report drew attention to “weak integration into education, social isolation suffered by students, and their sense of alienation when they go to government schools, because of marginalization and ridicule.”

“I just took my daughter and ran”

Sanaa Ali (not her real name) is a student who took basic grades classes at the Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum school. Her mother spoke about Sanaa’s experience at that school, encouraged by the fact that her daughter had already transferred to another school some years ago.

I met Sanaa at her family home, where she bravely sat and talked about how she had been harassed by her teacher, when she was in third grade. This teacher used to touch different parts of the girl’s body in a way that her mother says had no educational justification.

Sanaa’s mother says that fear for her daughter’s safety prompted her to transfer her from the school for the blind: “I just took my daughter and ran… I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving my daughter in this school.”

Dependence on others

Sanaa also suffered multiple accidents, along with a number of her fellow students, including falls, as a result of their being unable to move around the school easily.

Asmaa Issa says that her son, who studies at the same school, has received no training in how to become mobile on his own, even though the school administration refuses to allow students the use of a white cane on its premises.

Amal (not her real name), who works at the school, confirms that there has been less attention given to the department that helps students to develop self-reliance and the necessary skills to be mobile themselves and not rely on male or female teachers for help.

Until recently, Maram Muhammad (not her real name) was a student at Abdullah ibn Umm- Maktum School. She says that it is normal practice to rely on the help of others to move around the school, and that even many of the blind teachers are unable to do so without help, even though they have spent many years in the building.

“Private lessons” – a cloak for harassment

Physical harassment of students has happened even at home, in the guise of “support lessons.”

Sanaa’s mother says that she discovered her daughter was being harassed at home by her blind teacher, who was from the Abdullah ibn Umm-Maktum school.

The same thing happened to Khaled. He said that his teacher, Fouad, had tried to harass him while giving him a private lesson at his family home, but that his attempt to do so had failed.

The National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) report into the academy, published in 2019, concluded that the complaints procedure against teachers who had committed physical violence, including touching a student, was inadequate. It also found the same in relation to complaints over verbal abuse.

Sanaa recalls that one day while she was at the school she had to hide in a cupboard in the classroom as she was so scared of being punished by one of the teachers, who had threatened to beat anyone who failed to do their homework.

Nor was physical harassment limited to students. Mothers too said that they had been subjected to harassment, by having sensitive parts of their bodies “grabbed” by a number of the teachers when they visited the school.

Control and exploitation

Psychologist Dr Ali Alghazo explains that the harasser uses various mechanisms to achieve the goal of controlling his victim, such as using obscene expressions or language with a sexual connotation as a test.

According to Alghazo, if the victim says nothing, the harasser takes this as a sign to move on to the next stage, physically touching areas such as the face, hair, and sensitive parts of the body. In this way he can gauge the victim’s fear and carries on until he had achieved complete control.

The harasser might resort to giving presents so as to create familiarity between himself and the victim, who then hopes of receiving another, more valuable gift the next time, Alghazo explains.

The harasser might sometimes take advantage of a talent or particular liking the victim might have and, if he manages to do this, feels confident enough to go further.

The Abdullah ibn Umm-Maktum School came under the Ministry of Education in 2001, after previously being part of the Ministry of Social Development. The school has 278 male and female students, and 151 male and female teachers.

The National Center for Human Rights (NCHR), report states that the number of teachers is more than the school workload demands, so that some have no lessons to teach. The result is that “they have time on their hands, which produces a non-academic atmosphere.”

There are, nevertheless, students in sixth and secondary grades at the school who cannot read or write, according to the NCHR report.

Fear of stigma

Maram says that she learned a lot at Abdullah ibn Umm-Maktum School. But many students at the school become introverted and are unable to carry out their daily needs independently.

Khaled, a victim of the teacher Fouad, says that no one had ever made him aware of the proper boundaries in relationships, and of what parts of his body others were allowed to touch.

“My hope is that when they try to employ a teacher in the school, they will be able to carry out proper checks to trust him,” Khaled says.

As for Samer, he says: “No one helps the student understand. They do not tell him, ‘Don’t let anyone take your trousers off.’” He goes on to say that there are many good teachers in the school, but that a student must always keep a safe distance between himself and his teacher.

Samer explains that a student who has been a victim of harassment might not report what he has been through out of fear of the stigma, or of being blamed for what had happened. Samer maintains that one student who had been a victim of harassment at the school did indeed suffer from stigmatisation and bullying by both students and teachers as a consequence. “The psychological harm can be worse than the assault itself… and society has no mercy,” says Samer bitterly.