A security guard in one of the schools in Wakiso recalls the night a prefect slapped a fellow student until he bled.
PIC: Newly-elected Head Boy Fidel Wabinyanyi and Head Girl Sharot Nalumansi of St. Joseph's SS Naggalama take oath. (File photo)
Fred was once a prefect in one of the prominent schools in Masaka district. During his tenure, he admits he and his fellow prefects would make life difficult for students.
"As a prefect we had powers to give heavy punishments such as beating up fellow students. We could also subject them to working the whole day - slashing the compound, digging the flower gardens etc -while the rest studied in class.
"No teacher would say anything," he recalls.
In fact, they could even expel fellow students. "We had imams, chaplains and priests in the school who were in charge of religious affairs. They all had powers to write expulsion letters. The teachers never questioned them, all they did was to just stamp and you go home."
But sometimes, conflict of interest came in the way such authority.
"I recall a prefect once wrote an expulsion letter for a student and one of the student leader just signed not knowing that he was expelling his step-brother. After discovering what had happened, the prefect requested to resign from his position," says Fred.
A security guard in one of the schools in Wakiso recalls the night a prefect slapped a fellow student until he bled. The student had refused to go for evening preps.
It later emerged the prefect did not first try to establish why the student did not want to go to class.
The act unsettled the guard.
"I felt bad. I just imagined this is what my child is going through at his school. The prefect is in Senior Five yet the other child is in Senior One. When I tried to talk to some of the teachers, they just kept a deaf ear. I think this is not good, students should not punish fellow students because they are prefects."
This begs the question: How much power should school prefects wield?
Prefects play an essential role in the school setting. They provide student leadership, guidance and link students to the administration. Lwanga Sempijja, the district education officer Wakiso, says prefects act as role models to fellow students and it is essential that they maintain the highest standards of discipline.
He notes that all schools have to support the prefects and guide them on what to do and what they have to follow. They have a responsibility to the school, peers and the prefect team and they have to take into consideration your general behaviour and manner.
However in some schools, prefects are given a lot of powers over fellow students.
Besides the uniform, they are given powers that are almost at the level of a teacher. In many schools, prefects give punishment to fellow students and keep junior students in a slave-master relationship.
Junior students run errands for prefects, ‘work' for them like doing their laundry and cleaning their utensils, picking their meals, mopping their rooms plus laying their beds and polishing shoes, to mention but a few.
Prefects in different schools enjoy different privileges, have varying duties and wield powers ranging from figureheads to near-absolute.
Usually, the prefects decide what type of punishment to administer. They move from assigning manual labour to meting out corporal punishment by way of a cane.
While some schools have made it clear that the prefects do not administer punishment, especially corporal punishment, to fellow students, there are some other schools - both private and government - that make it certain to new students that the prefects are unquestionable and their word is law.
Indeed, it is not lost to new students in some well-established schools that punishment by prefects is sanctioned by the administration and that any questions can only be entertained after serving the punishment.
When the teacher is away, the prefect takes charge
In a survey around different private schools, many students New Vision interviewed claimed that they are punished by prefects. In public schools on the other hand, students noted that it was mostly the teachers who punished and the prefects gave light punishments.
A male student from one of the schools in Kayunga said the teachers are hardly in school and so it is the prefects who take up their roles.
"The prefects are the ones to supervise us during prep time. When a student causes trouble, he or she receives the stroke of the cane. Some trouble makers are forced to carry water on their heads, while others are taken out of class to mop the dormitory," he says.
Several times students report to the administration but they offer a deaf ear.
"There is nothing students can do because they fear to be expelled."
However, Br Deo Aliganyira, the head teacher of St Mary's College Kisubi (SMACK), says students with a bad disciplinary record are never given the opportunity to be elected as prefects to prevent the case of bully prefects.
"Even after the prefects are elected, they are oriented on what to do and above all there are rules they follow. And in all we do not want prefects to think that they can go away with bullying," says Aliganyira.
A former student of Merryland High School in Entebbe says their prefecture body was in charge of all school programs. But when it came to disciplining fellow students, physical punishments were out of the question.
Only short or long-term reform punishments were allowed, like: Cleaning the main hall alone, mopping the classroom verandah, scrubbing walls, digging, etc.
No prefect was allowed to flog other students. It's the teachers who had the authority to do so. But even for that, it had to be after the said student had refused to reform.
"The strokes [of the cane] were always no more than five and if one refused to be caned, they would be suspended from the school and/or asked to bring their parents," says the former student.
As soon as Peter had joined a school in Mukono for Senior One, the prefects moved from dormitory to dormitory ordering the naïve and innocent newbies to surrender their ‘edibles' to them. They had to part with foodstuffs like biscuits, milk, bread, hardcorn, roasted ground nuts, etc.
They would also have to do the prefects' laundry every weekend.
"We feared them. They were like small gods to us. Even when you had a problem you could never tell any of them for fear that they would punish you instead," recalls Peter.
It is apparent that some errant prefects go against the school regulations and punish students without the knowledge of the administration.
Education minister's view
Minister of state for higher education John Chrysostom Muyingo says prefects are students and not administrators. He maintains they are at school primarily for academics and so are not supposed to perform what the work of the administrators.
Muyingo explains it is unacceptable for students to use corporal punishments upon others.
"This creates enmity between the prefects and other students. If a prefect has mistreated others, how can he or she go to them for help in case they need it? The schools should ensure that the prefects psychologically understood their roles beforehand."
According to the minister, prefects have to perform simple duties that are within the school regulations.
"They are free to ask student to sweep to instill discipline, clean the compound and other simple activities. Any dehumanizing punishment including corporal punishment is unacceptable; every school administration should ensure that prefects do not abuse their powers."
Debora Kirabo, program coordinator for participatory school governance at Plan International, shares the minister's sentiments.
She says it is not right for prefects to give hard punishments like caning to fellow students because it creates hate and fear amongst the students.
"Students especially in lower classes will live in fear because all the time they think someone is going to punish them. This at times makes them lose confidence and in the end leads to poor performance at school."