F.O. v. Croatia (European Court of Human Rights)

Information Note on the Court’s case-law 250
April 2021

F.O. v. Croatia – 29555/13

Judgment 22.4.2021 [Section I]

Article 8
Article 8-1
Respect for private life

Inadequate response of domestic authorities to a high school teacher’s verbal abuse of a student: violation

Facts – The applicant, a student in a public high school at the relevant time, was subjected to several insults by his mathematics teacher (R.V.). The teacher called the applicant, inter alia, “a moron, an idiot, a fool, hillbilly”. The applicant underwent psychological treatment in relation to the events. His father complained to the school and several other relevant domestic bodies, including the Ministry of Education. The father’s complaints resulted, notably, in interviews between the school psychologist, R.V. and the applicant, and an assessment of the situation by the Education Agency. The applicant also lodged an unsuccessful criminal complaint with the police, alleging harassment by R.V.

The applicant complained unsuccessfully before the Constitutional Court about the harassment by the teacher at school, and the inadequate response of the relevant domestic authorities.

Law – Article 8: (a) Admissibility

The Court examined the applicability of Article 8 to the present case. Measures taken in the field of education might, in certain circumstances, affect the right to respect for private life, but not every act or measure which might be said to affect adversely the moral integrity of a person necessarily gave rise to such an interference (Costello-Roberts v. the United Kingdom). However, since Costello-Roberts, there had been an evolution of social attitudes and legal standards concerning the application of measures of discipline towards children, emphasising the need of protection of children from any form of violence and abuse. That was reflected in various international instruments and the Court’s case-law (e.g. A, B and C v. Latvia; V.K. v. Russia; Wetjen and Others v. Germany).

The insults to which the applicant had been subjected by R.V. had entailed his emotional disturbance, which had affected his psychological well-being, dignity and moral integrity. Moreover those insults had been uttered in the classroom in front of other students and had thus been capable of humiliating and belittling the applicant in the eyes of others. The insults in question had been particularly disrespectful towards the applicant and had been perpetrated by a teacher in a position of authority and control over him. In those circumstances, and taking into consideration that it was in the best interests of the applicant as a child, his classmates and the children in general to be effectively protected from any violence or abuse in educational settings, the treatment complained of fell to be examined under the right to respect for private life, within the meaning of Article 8.

Having found that Article 8 was applicable, and given the context of the case (namely the allegations of harassment in the school at the hands of a teacher, where any form of violence, however light, was considered unacceptable), the Court also found that there could be no room for application of the non-significant disadvantage criterion. It therefore rejected the Government’s objection in that regard.

(b) Merits

There was no doubt that the treatment entailing such consequences for the applicant, administered by a teacher in a public school while the applicant was under his control, had amounted to an interference under Article 8 (see, mutatis mutandis, V.K. v. Russia). It had to be determined whether such an interference was justified. In making that assessment, the Court had regard to the fact that the applicant had complained of not only the harassment by the teacher, but also of the failure of the relevant authorities to react to his allegations of harassment:

(i) The applicant’s allegations of harassment by the teacher

While R.V.’s first insults against the applicant had aimed at disciplining him and his classmates for allegedly being late for class, the two latter occasions could not be seen as anything but gratuitous verbal abuse against the applicant amounting to his humiliation, belittling and ridiculing. In any case, no justification for R.V.’s conduct could be provided. R.V., as a teacher, had been placed in a unique position of authority over the applicant, which had made his actions susceptible of having an important impact on the applicant’s dignity, well-being and psychological development.

The verbal abuse had not been at a very high scale of intensity and had not degenerated into further, more systemic, harassment. However, R.V., as a teacher, had been expected to understand that the effects of verbal provocation and abuse might deeply affect students, particularly those who were more sensitive. Moreover, as a teacher, he should have been aware that any form of violence, including verbal abuse, towards students, however mild, was not acceptable in an educational setting and that he had been required to interact with students with due respect for their dignity and moral integrity. Accordingly, having regard to a position of trust, authority and influence as well as the social responsibilities that teachers have, there was no room for tolerating any harassment by a teacher towards a student. Frequency, severity of harm and intent were not prerequisites for defining violence and abuse in an educational setting.

(ii) The domestic authorities’ response to the applicant’s allegations of harassment

The Court found that the domestic authorities, while enjoying a margin of appreciation, had to put in place appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to prohibit unequivocally any form of violence or abuse against children at all times and in all circumstances, and thus to ensure zero tolerance to any violence or abuse in educational institutions. That also related to the necessity of ensuring accountability through appropriate criminal, civil, administrative and professional avenues.

The Court did not consider in the circumstances of the present case that the recourse to the criminal avenue had been critical to fulfil the State’s obligations under Article 8, and therefore further examined the manner in which the applicant’s allegations had  been addressed within the available administrative and professional avenues.

Following the applicant’s initial complaint to the head teacher of harassment by R.V., no concrete measure had been taken by the school authorities until his father had sent letters also to various State authorities asking for the applicant to be protected from further harassment at school. In the meantime, the applicant had been subjected to two additional instances of verbal abuse by R.V.

The school authorities had organised a reconciliation process between the applicant and R.V. In that process, the only measure taken with regard to R.V. had involved a verbal reproach from the school psychologist. However, no formal decision or measure had been adopted with regard to R.V.’s conduct, nor had the relevant administrative professional procedures before the Ministry been set in motion. Such a reconciliation process had been manifestly ineffective. The domestic authorities had failed to recognise that what had been a stake had not merely been the settling of things between the applicant and R.V., but the necessity of confronting and addressing the problem posed by R.V.’s inacceptable conduct that had affected not only the applicant but some other students as well. The school had also failed to respond in any way to the applicant’s request to be removed to another class or to assign another math teacher to his class.

The Ministry had reacted only following a specific request by the applicant’s father. It had sent the case to the Education Agency for its pedagogical educational supervision. However, there was no indication that the Ministry’s education inspectorate had considered taking any other measures within its competence to address the specific complaints made by the applicant, such as questioning the applicant or adopting the relevant measures to protect students, providing specific training for the teacher and, if appropriate, instituting the relevant proceedings. In the context of its pedagogical supervision, the Agency had focused on the manner of R.V.’s delivery of mathematics lectures, without conducting an investigation into the impugned events. The conclusions reached by the Agency were open to doubt in view of the allegations that some students had not honestly answered the Agency’s questionnaire due to a fear of reprisal. Moreover, in its conclusions the Agency had suggested that the matter be resolved in a further discussion between the school authorities and the applicant’s father: the Court failed to see how that could be considered an adequate measure.

There was also no indication that the Agency or Ministry had followed up on further developments in the applicant’s case or his situation in school. In that connection, it was difficult to accept that a single letter from the head teacher alleging that the applicant’s father had stated that the matter had been settled could be considered sufficient. Indeed, there was no indication that the content of that letter had been authorised by the applicant’s father. It should have been obvious to the State education administration that the type of impugned behaviour, and its effects on the applicant, had required a more diligent investment of knowledge and resources to understand its consequences and implications of failing to provide appropriate and expected care to the applicant at school.

In sum, the State authorities had failed to respond with requisite diligence to the applicant’s allegations of harassment at school.

Conclusion: violation (4 votes to 3).

Article 41: EUR 7,500 in respect of non-pecuniary damage.

(See also Costello-Roberts v. the United Kingdom, 13134/87, 25 March 1993, Legal Summary; A, B and C v. Latvia, 30808/11, 31 March 2016; V.K. v. Russia, 68059/13, 7 March 2017, Legal Summary; Wetjen and Others v. Germany, 68125/14 and 72204/14, 22 March 2018, Legal Summary)

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