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‘An extraordinarily talented young man’

Liam Madamba, 18, was a 13th-grader (senior, international baccalaureate) at the British School Manila (BSM). He was there because of his brains: The BSM gives six scholarships a year, and he had been a scholar there since 2013, as had two of his elder siblings before him. The scholars of the BSM are chosen unashamedly to bring up the school’s average intelligence level. In other words, being a scholar helps the school as well as the scholar. It is not a one-way street.

On Thursday, Feb. 5, Liam had just been congratulated by teachers and students alike for his academic performance: He was in line to get 7s (the highest grade) in all his subjects. He was apparently well-liked, well-adjusted, and, at the time, on top of his world. Please, reader, Google his picture, and you will see a boy with an open face, the sweetest smile.

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But on Feb. 6, the boy jumped from a six-story parking garage, and sustained mortal injuries. He died at the Makati Medical Center a few hours later. What could have caused him to throw his life away?

The only thing unusual that happened on Feb. 5 was a meeting he had with a Natalie Mann, together with another student. It seems that the two had chosen the same Theory of Knowledge subject matter, and had an identical paragraph (lifted from the Internet) in their essays.

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Plagiarism? Well, the submission was the first draft. It was not the final paper. And it could have been corrected by the proper use of quotation marks. The paragraph was one out of 10 that comprised his essay. Not a big deal, I would think. Why? It was not the final paper; the two admitted their mistake (choice, they call it at the BSM). And the rest of his essay was very good. Reader, I have been teaching for 41 years, and that incident was blown out of all proportion by Mrs. Mann.

I don’t know what she was trying to prove. Had there not been the second student present, we would not know what she did. First, quoting from the testimony of the second student, she (Mrs. Mann) was “angry and disappointed” in the choice made by the two students, that they had “almost jeopardized their diploma,” that they have “put the school’s reputation at risk.” For a first draft? And by the way, she was not even their teacher. Somebody named Will Tibbits was. She was, however, the Diploma Programme coordinator. Why did she go over Tibbits’ head?

What was the punishment she imposed, for this “plagiarism”? Liam and the other student were required to individually write an apology letter addressed to the head of senior school, a Mr. Mann (no relation to Natalie), to their classmates, and even to themselves. Not content with that, Mrs. Mann said she would e-mail all their teachers to go through all their previously submitted works “with a fine-toothed comb.” In other words, total humiliation. Moreover, they had to change topics and were required to appear on the next Monday to work on it within two hours. That apparently was next to impossible.

Did the punishment exceed the crime? Yes. For a first offense, you don’t strip a person of his dignity, subject him to humiliation, make threats about his future, crushing his spirit. Yes, by the standards of the BSM itself. I have a copy of its handbook. The section on Academic Honesty says that instances of malpractice in nonexam classes would be dealt with in the same way as other poor choices made by students. First offense calls for 15-minute detention; second offense, one-hour detention, all the way up to a fifth offense.

The death of Liam had sensational repercussions. Apparently his “partner” also had thoughts of committing suicide, but the thought of what Liam would say stopped her.

But here’s where the BSM kind of circled the wagons. For Liam’s memorial in the school, all speakers had to submit their speeches to the management. Mr. Mann also said, in a subsequent forum, that Mrs. Mann had the “phenomenal support” of the school and that “all suicides are the results of mental illness.” No sign of mental illness had been caught by teachers, or students, which also is provided for in the handbook. So, if mental illness was the cause, it was a direct result of the meeting with Mrs. Mann.

I am told that 30 percent of her students withdrew from her tutorship, and it would have been a greater percentage if pressure had not been exerted. That there is an atmosphere of fear is evidenced by the fact that “concerned parents” didn’t have the guts to sign their names on a letter to the BSM Board of Governors asking for an independent review of the matter.

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On Feb. 12, the Board of Governors decided to form such a review committee. But on Feb. 25, its chair, Simon Bewlay, wrote all parents that the board had accepted the offer of the Council of Trustees (COT) headed by the deputy head of mission at the British Embassy to take charge of selecting the members of the panel and to set the scope of the review. So they’re back to square one.

Will the concept of British justice be upheld? Or is it going to be perfidy?

The British teacher Jane Fisher, who interviewed Liam for the scholarship, had this to say: “He was an extraordinarily talented young man with a gift for thinking and writing that I haven’t seen before.” Pity that her successor, Mrs. Mann, could not see his potential. The difference between teachers.

Liam, the Philippines cannot afford to lose people like you. Here’s hoping Brother Armin will take a hand.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Center for Mental Health hotline at 0917-899-USAP (8727); (02) 7-989-USAP; or 1553 (landline to landline, toll-free).

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TAGS: abusive teachers, British School Manila, intimidation, Jane Fisher, Liam Madamba, Natalie Mann, Simon Bewlay, suicide, unjust punishment
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