The ECHR ruling of April 22, 2021 in the case "F.O. v. Croatia" (application No. 29555/13).
In 2013, the applicant was assisted in the preparation of the application. Subsequently, the application was communicated to Croatia.
In the case, an application was successfully considered about the improper reaction of the Croatian authorities to the fact that a teacher verbally insulted a student. The case involved a violation of the requirements of article 8 of the Convention.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
The applicant, who was a high school student during the period related to the circumstances of the case, was subjected to several insults from his mathematics teacher (R.V.). The teacher called the applicant, inter alia, "a jerk, an idiot, a fool, a redneck". In connection with these events, the applicant had to undergo psychological treatment. The applicant's father filed complaints with the school and several public authorities, including the Croatian Ministry of Education. The complaints of the applicant's father led, first of all, to conversations between the school psychologist, R.V. both the applicant and the assessment of the situation by the Education Agency. The applicant also unsuccessfully filed an application with the police to initiate criminal proceedings in connection with the attacks by R.V.
The applicant unsuccessfully appealed to the Constitutional Court of Croatia against the attacks by a teacher at school and the inappropriate reaction of the Croatian authorities to this circumstance.
Regarding compliance with article 8 of the Convention.
(a) The admissibility of the complaint. The European Court considered the applicability of article 8 of the Convention to this complaint. Measures taken in the field of education may, under certain circumstances, affect the right to respect for private life, but not every action or measure that can be said to have negatively affected a person's psychological integrity necessarily means such interference with convention law (see the case Costello-Roberts v. United Kingdom v. United Kingdom) (See: Judgment of the European Court of Justice in the case "Costello-Roberts v. United Kingdom" (Costello-Roberts v. United Kingdom) of March 25, 1993, complaint No. 13134/87.)). However, since the Ruling in this case, social relations and legal standards regarding the application of disciplinary measures to children have changed, and the need to protect children from all forms of violence and abuse has come to the fore. This approach is reflected in numerous international documents and in the case-law of the European Court (see, for example, the cases "A, B and C v. Latvia" (A, B and C v. Latvia) (See: The Judgment of the European Court in the case "A, B and C v. Latvia" (A, B and C v. Latvia) of March 31, 2016, complaint No. 30808/11.), "V.K. v. Russia" (See: Judgment of the European Court in the case "V.K. v. Russia" (V.K. v. Russia) of March 7, 2017., complaint No. 68059/13 // Bulletin of the European Court of Human Rights. 2017. No. 7.), "Wetjen and Others v. Germany" (See: Judgment of the European Court of Justice in the case "Wetjen and Others v. Germany" (Wetjen and Others v. Germany) of March 22, 2018, complaints NN 68125/14, 72204/14.)).
The insults by R.V. led to emotional stress in the applicant, which affected his psychological state, dignity and psychological integrity. Moreover, these insults were uttered in class in front of the rest of the students and, thus, were capable of humiliating and belittling the applicant's dignity in the eyes of other people. The statements in question were particularly disrespectful to the applicant and were voiced by the teacher when he had power and control over the applicant. In such circumstances, and taking into account that it is in the best interests of the applicant as a child, in the interests of classmates and children in general, to ensure effective protection from any violence or abuse in the emotional sphere, the appeal in the present case should be considered in the light of the right to respect for private life within the meaning of article 8 of the Convention.
Having established that Article 8 of the Convention is applicable to this case, and taking into account the context of the case (namely, reports of an aggressive attitude on the part of a teacher, when any kind of violence, no matter how mild it takes, is considered unacceptable), the European Court also found that there was no place in the case for the application of the criterion of insignificant advantage. Consequently, the European Court rejected the Croatian authorities' objection in this regard.
(b) The substance of the complaint. There was no doubt that the treatment that entailed such consequences for the applicant, committed by a teacher in a public school in a situation where the applicant was under his control, was an interference with his rights guaranteed by article 8 of the Convention (see, mutatis mutandis, the above-mentioned case "V.K. v. the Russian Federation" (V.K. v.. Russia)). It was necessary to establish whether this interference was justified. In making such an assessment, the Court took into account the fact that the applicant complained not only about the abusive attitude of the teacher, but also about the inability of the Croatian authorities to respond to the applicant's relevant complaints.
(i) The applicant's allegations of abusive treatment by the teacher. Although the first insulting statements of R.V. against the applicant were aimed at improving discipline for him and his classmates, since they were late for class, the next two times testified exclusively to unjustified verbal insults against the applicant, which led to his humiliation, diminution of his dignity and ridicule. In any case, there is no justification in the present case for R.V.'s behavior as a teacher of R.V. he was in a special position, having power over the applicant, which suggested that his actions had a special impact on the dignity, well-being and psychological development of the applicant.
Verbal insults did not have a high degree of intensity and did not escalate into further systematic humiliation. However, R.V., as a teacher, was expected to understand that the consequences of verbal provocations and insults can deeply affect students, especially those who are more sensitive. Moreover, as a teacher, he had to realize that any kind of violence, even verbal abuse, towards students, no matter how insignificant it was, was not acceptable in the educational environment and that the teacher was obliged to interact with students with due respect for their dignity and psychological integrity. Consequently, taking into account the position of trust, authority and influence, as well as the social responsibility that teachers have, there were no grounds to tolerate any form of abusive attitude of the teacher to the student. The frequency of use, the severity of harm and intent were not mandatory prerequisites for determining violence and abuse of position in the educational environment.
(ii) The reaction of the Croatian authorities to the applicant's complaints of abusive behavior. The European Court found that the Croatian authorities, although they had wide discretion, should have taken appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to unconditionally prohibit any form of violence or abuse against children at any time and under any circumstances and, accordingly, guarantee the absence of any tolerance for any violence or abuse of rights in educational institutions. This also applied to the need to bring to justice through criminal, civil, administrative and professional measures.
The Court did not consider in the circumstances of the present case that the use of criminal law measures was critical for the Croatian authorities to comply with their obligations under Article 8 of the Convention, and therefore further explored ways to resolve the applicant's complaints by the Croatian authorities using available administrative and professional measures.
After the applicant's first complaint to the head teacher about the insults from R.V., the school administration did not take any concrete measures until the applicant's father sent letters to various State authorities demanding to protect the applicant from further insults at school. In the meantime, two more incidents involving verbal abuse of the applicant by the teacher R.V. occurred.
The school administration organized a process of conciliation negotiations between the applicant and R.V. During this procedure, the only measure of influence on R.V. was an oral rebuke from the school psychologist. No official decisions or measures were taken regarding R.V.'s conduct, and the Ministry of Education did not initiate any relevant administrative procedures regarding the assessment of R.V.'s professional aptitude. Such a reconciliation procedure was clearly ineffective. The Croatian authorities did not recognize that the essence of the problem was not only the settlement of the relationship between the applicant and R.V., but the need to recognize and address the problem created by R.V.'s unacceptable behavior, which affected not only the applicant, but also other students. The school administration also did not respond in any way to the applicant's request to transfer him to another class or appoint another teacher to his class.
The Ministry of Education responded only to a special request from the applicant's father. It referred the case to the Education Agency for Pedagogical Educational Supervision. However, there is no indication in the case that the inspection by the Ministry of Education involved taking any measures within its competence to resolve the applicant's special complaints, such as talking to the applicant or taking appropriate measures to protect students by organizing special lessons with the teacher or, if appropriate, initiating appropriate proceedings. In the context of pedagogical control, the Education Agency focused on the way in which R.V. taught mathematics in the classroom without investigating the events complained by the applicant. The conclusions of the Education Agency were questionable given reports that some students did not answer honestly to its questionnaire, fearing negative consequences from the school administration. Moreover, in its conclusions, the Education Agency suggested that the problem should be resolved during a discussion between the school administration and the applicant's father. The Court does not see how these actions could have been an appropriate measure to resolve the applicant's complaint.
There is also no evidence that the Ministry of Education or the Education Agency monitored the development of the applicant's case or his situation at the school. In this regard, it is difficult to accept that a single letter from a senior teacher, in which it was claimed that the applicant's father had informed about the settlement of the dispute, could be considered a sufficient reaction. Indeed, there is no evidence that the applicant's father would have confirmed the contents of the letter. It should have been obvious to the Croatian educational authorities that the type of behavior complained of and its impact on the applicant required a more thorough application of knowledge and resources to understand the consequences of the incident and the significance of not providing the applicant with the appropriate and expected support at school.
Consequently, the Croatian authorities did not respond with due attention to the applicant's complaint about the abusive attitude towards him at school.
The case involved a violation of the requirements of article 8 of the Convention (adopted by four votes in favor, with three against).
In the application of article 41 of the Convention. The European Court awarded the applicant 7,500 euros in compensation for moral damage.