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Boarding School Scandal in Sweden

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The following is a guest post by Elin Hofverberg, a Swedish law specialist working at the Law Library of Congress. Elin was featured in an In Custodia Legis interview on October 19, 2011.

What happened?

A debate about the existence, operation, and legal aspects of private boarding schools is currently raging in Sweden. Such schools remain controversial twenty years after the institution of significant reform and deregulation of the education system in the country, where 90% of Swedish children aged 6 to 16 attend public schools. Back in 1981, Swedish author Jan Guillou wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, Ondskan (which translates into “The Evil”), detailing his experiences at a now closed boarding school in the 1950s. The novel, and the subsequent movie based on it that was released in Sweden in 2003, made Swedish boarding schools infamous for having an institutionalized culture of bullying.

The debate currently centers on Sweden’s oldest continuously run boarding school, Lundsberg Skola, which has been described as the “Eton of Sweden”. It was recently reignited on September 28, 2013, when the Swedish School Inspectorate (Skolinspektionen) ordered that the school be immediately shut down following an incident where four students were assaulted with a flat-iron as part of an initiation rite at one of the dormitories. Two of the boys (ages 14 and 15) were taken to the hospital following the assault. The incident was reported to the police but not immediately, and the students remained on campus for several days.  The nine boys responsible for the act have not been criminally charged with assault as authorities considered that they lacked the intent to hurt the victims, but were instead charged on grounds of insult and abuse.

The Lundsbergs school, 1919.

The days that followed the shutdown of the Lundsberg Skola boarding school sparked a heated debate with proponents from both sides. Current students and their bewildered parents came out fighting for their school to stay open, while child advocacy groups and members of the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) pushed for the permanent closure of the school or alternatively for a take-over by the State.

Against this backdrop the Administrative Court of Appeals in Stockholm has now been asked to determine the boundaries of the government’s involvement in inspections at the trust-led school, and specifically whether the School Inspectorate can shut down a boarding school when bullying and initiation rites occur outside of normal school hours at the dormitories housing the students (The decision to hear the case is available at  the Skolinspektionen website). The Administrative District Court previously ruled that the School Inspectorate could not do so. It held that, in its current form, the Swedish School Act does not provide the legislative basis that is required by the Swedish Constitution for intervention against individuals. Essentially, it considered that the School Inspectorate has power over the school, but not over what the children do outside of class, whether at home or at the boarding dormitories.

What made the case scandalous?  

To understand the context in which the Lundsberg’s case occurred, it is important to review the historical background concerning the deregulation of private schools that took place in Sweden in the 1990s. Today as many as 10% of the nine year compulsory school students (ages 7-16) and 25% of upper secondary school/high school equivalent (ages 16-19) attend private schools.  Attendance among both groups is up from less than five percent during the 1990s. Despite the increase, many Swedes question whether or not Sweden should promote private schools, especially as one of the larger private secondary (high school) education providers, JB Education, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

Although there are a number of private schools, Sweden is a country with very few boarding schools. Aside from the Lundsberg School, only Grennaskolan and Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket have received standing as national boarding schools (“Riksinternat”), which are regulated by the School Act and section 5 of the associated Regulation.  The relevant provisions require that, in order for a school to be recognized as a national boarding school, it must accept children of Swedish expats, for which it receives extra state funds.

Lundsberg and Sigtunaskolan are the only two schools providing boarding facilities for children aged 13-16. These boarding schools hold a special status as they both receive government subsidies and are allowed to charge students a fee. Attendance at these boarding schools is viewed as elitist and out-of-date by some, and often as a mere network for “upper class” children. The special status of Lundsberg, the alma mater of Prince Carl Philip, has long been identified as an issue by many politicians, and the flat-iron incident has sparked a review of the current system. According to some commentators, the outcome of the review might affect the 2014 elections. Members of Folkpartiet (The Liberal People’s Party) want the school to close permanently and for the concept of National Boarding Schools to be abolished, instead only allowing private schools.

Lundsberg is no stranger to criticism from the School Inspectorate. As recently as April 2013, the School Inspectorate criticized the school for bullying but ultimately found that the preventive measures the school had taken were sufficient for Lundsberg to avoid a fine and the School Inspectorate to close its case. Former students have also criticized the school and accused it of not only ineffective in preventing bullying, but actually promoting it as a form of peer-to-peer education. In 2012 the Barn och Elevombudet (Children and Student Officer) sought damages from the school for its inability to prevent the bullying of one student. Although Lundsberg has never been shut down, the School Inspectorate has previously closed the Gothenburg School on an immediate basis due to problems with continuous violence during class and severe lack of knowledge of the Swedish national curricula among the school’s teachers and management.

Lundberg’s Legal Battle: What’s next? 

The Lundsberg Trust was quick to act following the shutdown, asking for an injunction to reverse the decision to close the school.  The injunction was granted by the Administrative District Court and upheld by the Administrative Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, the battle over whether the School Inspectorate can close the school continues. As noted above, the Administrative District Court found that the school inspectorate lacked jurisdiction over the boarding halls but had jurisdiction over school activities. Thus, all activities during “school hours” fell under this jurisdiction whereas anything out of hours was off limits. The boundaries of responsibility were not set in stone as the court stated that a school excursion outside regular school hours would fall within the Inspectorate’s scope. An activity on a Saturday night, however, would not. The court based its decision on the Swedish Constitution (Regeringsformen) according to which all government power over individuals needs to have a basis in law. As there was no law granting the School Inspectorate control over out of school activities they could not intervene. On October 21 the School Inspectorate lodged an appeal against the decision, stating that since the assault was so closely linked to the school, as it happened at the boarding school, and because the school had a culture of acceptance towards this kind of behavior, it should be determined to have happened in connection with the education of the children.

Meanwhile the boarding school continues to stir up emotions. Was the shutdown an abuse of power by the government or was it inevitable and a way for the School Inspectorate to take the lead in addressing the issues? Critics who are wary of a too powerful state argue that the action taken was disproportionate, especially when compared to how public schools are treated. On the other side of the debate, child rights activists and others feel that the values of Lundsberg need to be buried for good and that there needs to be a zero tolerance approach to violence at schools.

The Administrative Court of Appeals’ decision, if it overturns the lower court’s decision, could be the end of operations for the Lundsberg School. On the other hand, if the decision is upheld, it could be the end to the School Inspectorate’s inspections of the boarding part of the school. The Lundberg Trust must file its statements by November 5. Even if it does not, the Administrative Appeals court may decide on the matter. After that, the decision may be appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court, which can decide whether to hear the case or not. If the Swedish School Inspectorate wins, the next question will be, was the shutdown proportional? Meanwhile the Trust is still operating under a November 28 deadline to address bullying in connection with its school. This deadline cannot be appealed.

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