THE Northern Ireland ceasefire may have curbed battles on the streets, but it has resulted in an increase in violence in schools, a union leader claimed this week.
Tom McKee, head of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers in Belfast, said that, before paramilitary groups renewed their commitment to the peace process in 1997, they had provided an unofficial and brutal "service" to schools that involved punishing youngsters who were engaged in antisocial behaviour. In the worst case this involved beatings and knee-cappings.
Now that the groups have opted out of this role, attacks on fellow pupils and staff have rocketed, Mr McKee said.
Official figures show that in 19951996 there were just over 3,000 suspensions and 62 expulsions from Northern Ireland's schools. By last year, these figures had leapt to 6,295 and 83 respectively.
Mr McKee said: "When the paramilitary groups were active they provided a sort of unspoken support for discipline in schools that included punishment beatings and knee-cappings for the worst sorts of antisocial behaviour.
"If a youngster was badly misbehaving at school, classmates or the parents of other pupils ould often report it to the paramilitary groups rather than the police.
"Not only would this stop a young person from misbehaving again, it also acted as a deterrent to others.
"This is not happening now and as a result we have seen a dramatic increase in violence against teachers and other pupils.
"We are obviously not calling for a repeal of the ceasefire, but would like to see more steps taken to tackle antisocial behaviour that threatens both staff and pupils."
Ray Calvin, general secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, also described an increase in bad behaviour in Northern Ireland's schools.
Although he knew of no direct evidence that this was connected to the ceasefire, he said it was a plausible explanation. He said: "When we used to hear reports of knee-capping and punishment beatings it was often blamed on 'antisocial behaviour'. But it is difficult to know whether this activity extended to youngsters misbehaving at school."
A spokesman for Northern Ireland's Department of Education said that there was no firm evidence of a decline in discipline in the province's schools.
He said figures showing an increase in suspensions and expulsions over the past four years may reflect the fact that schools and education boards were now complying with requirements to record such incidents.