Lale Youth International School is under investigation as a front for an international tax and visa racket operating out of Turkey, Minivan News understands, after weeks of investigation and dozens of interviews with concerned staff, parents and government agencies.
Today police requested that Maldives immigration hold the passport of Principal Serkan Akar, after he attempted to flee the country this morning. Minivan News understands the investigation relates to matters concerning child abuse at the school, and potentially fraudulent qualifications.
The school is also currently being investigated by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), following complaints from parents. A team from the commission has already interviewed staff and management, and is reportedly in the process of reviewing two conference-tables worth of documents.
Minivan News understands the investigation is now examining visa issues relating to the school, and possible human trafficking.
President of HRCM Ahmed Saleem said the Lale case was “very strange” and a “high priority” for the commission.
“A lot of government institutions have investigated the school: the Labour Ministry, police… the strange thing is that no action has been taken,” he said. HRCM’s investigation is ongoing but is expected to be resolved next week.
Serkan Akar said he did not wish to comment on the status of his passport and promptly hung up when the subject of Lale was raised.
Deputy Principal Suleyman Atayev said Akar was trying to escort two children to an Information Communications Technology (ICT) Olympiad when police stopped him at the airport
“He had a return ticket for May 20,” Atayev said, adding that he was confident any allegations against the Principal would be proven false.
“Serkan has been told he cannot leave for seven days while the investigation is in progress. His passport is being held by police,” he said.
A teacher familiar with the matter said if Akar was escorting children to an ICT Olympiad, “then why didn’t he tell anyone, and why did he pack up his apartment?”
Atayev was also critical of HRCM’s investigation: “They are refusing to tell us the nature of the complaints they are investigating. They are supposed be about human rights but they are not respecting ours.”
“We are grateful you are seeking the truth,” he added.
I. Biz Atoll
The former government-managed Fareediyya School was converted to an international school and renamed Lale Youth International School in 2008, under an agreement made with the former government, and was officially opened by President Mohamed Nasheed in May 2009.
The agreement to run the school was made between the Education Ministry and a local Maldivan company called Biz Atoll Pvt Ltd, which operates out of an unmarked fifth floor residence in a large, nondescript apartment block on Buruzu Magu. The Biz Atoll paperwork is signed by a Turkish individual called ‘Cengiz Canta’.
Education Minister Dr Musthafa Luthfy told Minivan News last week that the Ministry was thinking about the school’s future “very carefully”, and had amended its agreement with Biz Atoll to include a requirement for a new principal “within three months”, together with minimum qualifications. The Ministry also included “termination clauses”, he said, adding that while it preferred to minimise disruption to the school and students, it was prepared to go through a six month process of re-tendering if necessary.
Regarding the allegations of child abuse, he noted that it was very difficult to prove first hand “because when the supervisory team is there these things don’t occur.”
“We are still receiving complaints. Parents are not very happy with the school and we are not happy about what has happened – we look first to the welfare of the children,” Dr Luthfy said.
Biz Atoll declined to comment on this story “due to an ongoing investigation.”
Atayev said that Biz Atoll was “continuing to advise us.”
II. A ‘cardboard school’
Lale’s school fees are somewhat arbitrary. Most students pay a monthly tuition fee of US$150. Others pay a combination of other fees including a ‘registration fee’ of US$240, an ‘admission fee’ of US$50, and in some cases an ‘annual enrolment fee’ of up to US$300-465. Yet other students receive discounts on these amounts ranging between 5-50 percent.
The school, which was provided to Biz Atoll free by the government, reportedly receives 50 percent of its funding from a group of Turkish businessmen who pour charity funds into schools in several developing countries, including Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia and Cambodia.
Asked who these individuals funding the school were, Lufthy said “I don’t think anyone is sure.”
Atayev confirmed the school was funded by Turkish businessmen through a Turkish organisation called Tuskon, ‘The Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists’, and its subsidiary.
But despite the apparent presence of an income, Lale teachers report being denied clocks and light bulbs for their classrooms because of budgetary constraints, while the school’s science labs have no water or electricity and the chemistry lab no gas connection, preventing students from completing coursework necessary for their IGCSE exams in 2011.
In addition, the school has no librarian after he was dismissed last year and not been replaced.
“It’s like they are intentionally trying to keep the school small,” a teacher remarked to Minivan News.
“Last December they gave the same exam to a student four times. Afterwards the teacher was advised to give the student more marks, and he passed. Multiple teachers have said they have failed half their classes, but still their students still move up.”
Another staff member told Minivan News that one of the greatest sources of angst among staff was “the situation with money.”
“It is commonly accepted among the foreign staff that Turkish teachers are getting higher wages, and that much of the money being brought into the school is not being directed in the appropriate manner. Indian and local teachers are at a huge disadvantage, with many of them receiving very low wages, and even gaining contracts minus basic privileges that other foreign staff get, such as rent allowances,” he said.
Atayev told Minivan News that a local teacher earned Rf10,000, while a Turkish teacher earned “maybe Rf10,200” out of which they paid their own accommodation.
“We don’t have accommodation at the school,” he explained. “A teacher who because of his position and responsibility might get 10,400-10,500 still has to pay US$800-900 rent from his salary.”
When a foreign staff member queried the salary situation, a Turkish staff member reportedly replied: ‘I don’t know, we get paid differently to you.’
Yet another staff member reported sighting “bundles” of Rf 500 notes being given to Turkish staff.
Meanwhile, a parent told Minivan News that he had spoken to one of the Turkish businessmen involved with the school, who had boasted that if his business donated money to the school, under Turkish taxation law he did not have to pay taxes on it.
A teacher told Minivan News that “Turkish teachers escort Turkish businessmen around the school on a weekly basis, and regularly make trips to Turkey. We certainly couldn’t afford to go to Turkey on our salaries, and this is a school that can’t afford clocks or light bulbs.”
“A lot of money is going somewhere,” another suggested. Atayev, on the other hand, claimed that no Turkish teacher worked at the school for the money, but rather “for the benefit of humankind.”
“Even Bangladeshi staff are given an airfare home once a year,” he claimed.
Parents who become inquisitive are reportedly offered scholarships, often by Serkan himself. A parent who had become concerned about the situation told Minivan News that Serkan offered her daughter a scholarship to Turkey even though only her son attended the school.
III. Lacking qualifications
A common complaint among both Maldivian and expatriate staff at the school is that many of the Turkish teachers are unable to speak English sufficiently to communicate, let alone teach.
Instead, students are reportedly taught five sessions of Turkish a week (compared with two in Islam). Several teachers have even offered English lessons to the Turkish teachers, and expressed surprise at the apparent lack of interest.
“The level of the Turkish staff’s English is a real concern, with many foreign teachers unable to even have an open conversation with some of the Turkish staff,” a Lale teacher told Minivan News. “They have been offered English lessons by two staff members, to which they have been lacklustre contributors.”
One Turkish teacher explained that it was “not important for [another Turkish teacher] to be fluent”, and that he would only use English “when he has to”.
Atayev said it was unnecessary for those teachers teaching Turkish to speak English, “but the chemistry and maths teachers are fluent.”
Many staff complained in particular about the Physical Education teacher, whose “demeanour both around students and staff has been the subject of discussions for some weeks now,'” according to one teacher.
The principal Serkan Akar was criticised for lacking both professionalism and any apparent qualifications in education or management. A source told Minivan News that when pressured over his qualifications, Akar had produced certification “still warm from the printer.”
“The Turkish teachers treat the school like their playground – their kids are here for 24 hours, and they even do their laundry and cooking on the grounds,” a teacher commented.
After HRCM demanded documentation from the school, including codes of conduct and school disciplinary procedures, foreign teachers were locked out of the school’s printing and photocopy room.
Minivan News understands that two large conference tables at HRCM are now straining under the weight of Lale School documents. A copy of Lale school’s disciplinary procedures, sighted by Minivan News, contains a category called ‘unsafe behaviour’ under which is included “throwing snowballs”.
Gambling is also prohibited “because it disrupts the learning environment”, as is “pulling the fire alarm”, despite the fact that Lale does not possess one.
IV. Visa discrepancies
Initial recruitment of teachers was performed by Biz Atoll. An early job advertisement sought nearly 138 staff, including eight mathematics teachers, eight biology teachers, six Russian teachers, five PE teachers and six chemistry teachers for Rf 10,000 apiece. Specific qualifications sought included “at least three years of experience” and “Should have good communication skill”(sic).
Despite the high numbers of teachers sought, the school currently has over 200 students, around 60 of whom are in the preschool headed by Serkan’s wife, Saliha Akar.
Sources in the Labour and Immigration Ministries have confirmed that the school’s work permit quota for foreign staff stands at 97, however the school only employs 26 expatriates (Atayev noted that 18 of these were foreign teachers).
However figures from the Immigration Department show that Biz Atoll has brought 30 workers into the country on Lale’s behalf, and there have been scattered but unconfirmed reports of Lale’s work permit cards turning up in several construction sites around the Maldives. One immigration official, appearing confused, commented to Minivan News that Biz Atoll “might be a manpower agency.”
In one instance last year a work permit was reportedly issued to an Australian teacher called ‘Christopher John Wright’. Immigration records purportedly show that Wright entered the country, however no one of that name has ever worked at the school.
Moreover, staff members familiar with matter have revealed that ‘phantom teachers’ not working at the school are being paid salaries, “and there are other instances in which teachers who have departed are still being paid.”
The school counsellor, who also works as a chemistry teacher and has ‘English teacher’ on his work permit, “can’t speak English and doesn’t even know what psychology is”, according to another teacher.
“Meanwhile, the music teacher has a degree in psychology, and while there is no business teacher, a teacher with a degree in business and tourism is teaching Japanese.”
During an investigation of the school last year, the Department of Labour Relations in the Human Resources Ministry told Minivan News that some employees at Lale were working “in positions that were different to those specified on their visa.”
Further complaints regarding the qualifications of teachers from private parties prompted the Labour Ministry to write a letter to HRCM and the Education Ministry, to review teachers’ qualifications and academic accreditation.
Moments before leaving the office to be interviewed by HRCM regarding the case, Deputy Education Minister Dr Abdulla Nazeer confirmed that checking the qualifications of foreign teachers was the responsibility of an accreditation board that answered to the Ministry, and was charged with ensuring authenticity and comparison of credentials to their Maldivian equivalents.
“There will be substantial changes to the board from July, and in the future all teachers will be registered,” Dr Nazeer said, adding that several schools, “and not just Lale”, would be subject to “an ongoing monitoring program.”
“The ministry will not sit back to see a school mismanaged by private parties, without intervening,” he promised.
He said he had met a man who he understood was the school’s new principal, “and according to certificates submitted to the Ministry he has a masters degree and eight years experience at management level.”
V. Past abuse of students
Minivan News reported on January 14 that parents had made allegations that Serkan Akar and then-Deputy Principal Guvanchmyrat Hezretov were using physical force to discipline children.
“[The violence] has only been towards the boys, but they have done it in front of the girls as well,” a parent told Minivan News at the time. “A pupil was held by the neck and put up against the wall. Many pupils went home and told their parents they were so scared they nearly wet themselves.”
The parent of a 13 year-old boy told Minivan News that her son “would come home and tell me about the beatings. He told me it depended on how angry the principal was – sometimes a leather belt was used.”
Students were reportedly threatened that if they told their parents they would receive worse punishments.
Minivan News understands that Hezretov later fled to Sri Lanka after police obtained a warrant for his arrest. A supervision team sent by the Education Ministry to the school meanwhile interviewed parents and students about abuse at the school, and collected sufficient evidence to merit forwarding the case to police.
However, the case subsequently lapsed due to lack of evidence. Atayev emphasised that “there has never been corporal punishment at the school and there never will be,” and said he was not sure why the school was under attack.
“There were reports that some students were abused, but there was not much evidence,” said Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam from the Maldives Police Service, adding that since this incident, police had only received further complaints from one parent and child. “If child abuse [is occurring] there should be more than one,” he suggested. The investigation was unfinished, he emphasised.
Minivan News was sent a list of allegations in April by a distraught parent, who claimed that while the beatings had stopped following the intervention of the Education Ministry, “students who were abused then are now being abused verbally.”
“The principal uses filth and vulgar words when addressing [the students] and for any mischief done by any student, these students are blamed and given suspensions.”
A teacher at Lale told Minivan News that incidents of corporal punishment were believed to have disappeared following the departure of Hezretov.
“It’s important to note that the school has had a huge turnover of staff from 2009 to 2010, and from accounts of staff that were here last year, the environment of the school is much more positive and supportive on a number of levels,” he said.
“Several past teachers, including the previous vice-principal, are spoken about very openly as being over-aggressive and harsh disciplinarians. They have left the school, but unfortunately misrepresentations in the past have contributed to the current staff being dragged through the mud.”
A core group of teachers, he said, remained “extremely dedicated, hard working and flexible, and are working overtime to make the school successful.”
Other teachers noted that the mismanagement had forged a “strong rapport” between teachers and their students.
“They are clearly not running a school,” one teacher said of the school’s senior management.
“But they made the mistake of bringing in good teachers to try and make them look good to the outside world.”