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Take Back The Schools

Take Back The Schools

Reams and reams have been written in praise of schools. The paeans are plenty and the exaltation extraordinary. A large majority of us owe most of what we know to the schools that taught us and the teachers who took us by the hand and led us on. Years may go by but the thought of the familiar corridors and the classrooms is sure to take us on a nostalgia trip. Schools were the home away home. Parents were confident their children were in a safe space. For the working parents, the anxiety about the children’s well-being only began once they were back from school.

Cut to the present and schools have fallen from grace with a loud thud. The chilling and brutal murder of seven-year-old Pradyuman Thakur at the hands of school bus conductor within the premises of Ryan International School in the futuristic cyber city of Gurugram is the latest example of the lowest of the lows to which schools have fallen. Pradyuman had gone to the toilet right after his father dropped him and his sister off at the school gates. In the toilet, he walked into the bus conductor, Ashok Kumar, who tried to assault him sexually. Taking advantage of the morning rush and the fact they were the only ones in the toilet, Kumar attempted to harm the child. When his attempts failed, Kumar brought out a knife from his bus tool kit and slit Pradyuman’s throat before walking out nonchalantly. A CCTV camera filmed little Pradyuman crawling out of the toilet soaked in blood.

A postmortem report would later establish that the child died within two minutes of his throat being slit. He couldn’t cry for help as his wind pipe had been gashed. It was the killer bus conductor who carried Pradyuman to a teacher’s car used to rush the child to hospital.

The irregularities are many in this case and most of them stem from the negligence of the school authorities. The conductor, an adult male, should not have gone to the same toilet as the students, much less a young child. The school lacks separate toilets for students and employees. There should have been a female housekeeping staff in the toilet to attend to the children. How is it that Kumar was allowed to carry a lethal weapon into the school premises? Obviously, there were no security checks for the staff.

Further, a Special Investigation Team probe report states that the boundary wall of the school was broken, posing not just a security risk but also enabling students to play truant; the CCTV cameras installed were faulty and did not cover the entire expanse of the school; the fire extinguishers were past their date of usage – another safety risk; most shockingly, there was a liquor shop virtually next door to the school, giving both staff and students easy access to alcohol. The liquor shop was eventually set to fire by angry parents who were protesting the callousness of school authorities.

Another Ryan school, Ryan International School, Vasant Kunj, was put under the spotlight last year when six-year-old Divyansh Kakrora was found unconscious and afloat in the school water tank on January 30, 2016. After much bickering between staff about who is to rescue the child from the tank, an 11th-standard student had to take on the arduous task. The hospital declared the child as brought dead.

It’s been a year and a half, but there are still no answers as to what went down that day in the school. All that remains is a set of perplexing questions. Why did the teacher leave the child unattended? How is it that the child’s movements were not recorded on any of the CCTV cameras? How did he map his way to the water tank? Why were the pump room and the water tank areas left open? Why was another student allowed to risk his life in order to rescue Divyansh? The questions, like in the case of Pradyuman’s death, all point toward the laxity of school authorities.

These are two incidents reported from the 135-educational institutions strong Ryan International Group. Elsewhere in the country, there has been no dearth in the number of cases indicating schools are turning into living hell for its students. In the fortified city of Hyderabad, an eleven-year-old girl student was dragged to the boys’ lavatory as punishment for not wearing the school uniform. In Bengaluru, the silicon valley of India, a four-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted at a private school by a member of the school’s support staff. In the national capital Delhi, a five-year-old girl belonging to Tagore Public School was allegedly raped by the school peon, a 40-year-old who was reportedly in an inebriated state. A sixth-standard student of a school in Chembur was sexually assaulted in the school toilet by a senior.

According to National Crime Records Bureau reports, a total 89,423 cases of crime against children were reported in 2014. The number increased to 94,172 in 2015 and 1,05,785 in 2016. Uttar Pradesh reported the maximum number of crimes against children in 2016. In Delhi alone three children are harmed every day. Between 2014 and 2016, the number of crimes against children under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSOA) has gone up from 8,904 to 35,980 – a four-fold increase in just two years.

A global survey titled “Small Voices, Big Dreams” conducted by international development group Child Fund Alliance this past year also threw up some horrifying findings concerning children’s views on education and safety in their school. Conducted in 41 countries among nearly 6,000 children aged between 10 and 12 years, the survey found that one in three children have reservations about safety in schools due to deficient infrastructure, lack of toilets, broken boundary walls. Only 23 percent of children described feeling safe as not being the target of physical or emotional abuse or violence.

At the national level, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007 conducted a study titled “Study on Child Abuse in India” in partnership with UNICEF to determine the ground reality of child abuse in the country. Conducted among nearly 12,000 five to 12-year-olds in 18 states, the study found that 65 percent of the students had undergone corporal punishment in schools. Corporal punishment, a kind of physical abuse, is the deliberate infliction of pain intended to change a person’s behaviour or to punish them. Further, 53.22 percent reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse. Among them 52.94 percent were boys and 47.06 percent girls.

Needless to say, in the past 10 years nothing has changed and the numbers and the plights of students in schools like Ryan International School, Gurugram is proof enough that there is not enough being done to make students secure in schools.

It is no more the bogeyman under the bed or the big, bad wolf from the fairy tales that has the children scared. The school-going children are living out their worst nightmares in spaces where they are supposed to get quality education so as to lead a better life. Dave Pelzer in his 1995 memoir of childhood abuse “A Child Called ‘It’” writes, “Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul.” By sending children to schools that have turned into business conglomerates and units of mass production, their safety has become a casualty.

A teacher from a prominent school in the city says under conditions of anonymity that what we have come to witness in the Ryan International case is the result of gross negligence on the part of school authorities and management. “This is total negligence of school authorities because during morning hours, which is usually the rush hour, the staff has to be extra vigilant, especially non-class teachers and physical education trainers. As a rule, the teacher must go to her class within five minutes of coming in and Principal and Vice Principal have to be out on their rounds. Had there been anybody manning the corridors, such a disaster could have been averted,” she noted.

The responsibility of maintaining the infrastructure of the building and providing for the needs of the students and the employees is the responsibility of the management. In here, the teacher exposes a greater malaise and points out that the teaching staff find it too difficult to convince the management in financial matters, but “if there is any fee defaulter then the management puts pressure to collect the amount without taking into consideration the financial situation of the parents and imposes a heavy fine as well.”

Some of the ways in which parents can ensure that their children are in safe environment, the teacher suggests, is by making sure there are working CCTV cameras on all floors at every turn, separate wash area for teachers and Class IV employees, security checks for employees, and transparency regarding hiring of Class IV employees.

While school authorities are wholly responsible for the safety of students during school hours, Rajani Nair, mother to two daughters aged 13 and 7, says that as parents it is their duty to inspect the school building and premises as the safety of the children is paramount. She stresses that it is important that parents intervene because, “In the present scenario, we cannot be at ease even in our homes, let alone schools. Also, the sacred guru-shishya relationship where teachers considered pupils as their own children is not followed anymore. The trust factor is gone.”

Both Mrs Nair and the teacher strongly urge that the children be taught to differentiate between good touch and bad touch and learn to raise their voice or bite or hit the perpetrator when attacked. “Teach children both boys and girls to inform parents or teachers about any such situations immediately without being ashamed. The parents have to make the children understand that it is not their fault that they are attacked,” advises Mrs Nair.

Notably, Pradyuman’s teacher had falsely proclaimed the child had killed himself while playing the Blue Whale challenge. What she did not know was he was too young to have played such a game. Similarly, when the rape victim of Tagore Public School approached her teacher, she dissuaded the child from complaining by waxing platitudes and giving chocolates. In an attempt to uphold the reputation of the school and keep the money coming, the teachers haven’t stooped to such low levels.

In the light of the present situation, the Central Board of Secondary Education has laid out a plan of action which includes mandatory installation of CCTV cameras on school premises, police verification and psychometric evaluation of all staff members, and training for staff to protect students from any form of abuse. Significantly, CBSE has directed schools to control access to school building by outsiders and monitor visitors. Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act has also found a special place in the directives laid down by the Board.

The teacher who spoke under anonymity further suggests the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) in schools. RFID technology wirelessly transfers data and can help in tracking the movement of students. The RFID student tracking system generates a message to the parents’ phone informing them that their child has boarded the bus/reached the school. Movement of students inside the school can be tracked if RFID readers are installed in labs, halls, classrooms, etc. Although these can burn a hole in the parents’ pockets, the teacher weighs in, the school can make provision for such technology for the sake of students’ safety. In the wake of the Ryan International School incident, DPS Noida has already put RFID technology in place.

Other practical solutions to safeguard the students are to set up regular awareness camps for teaching and non-teaching staff, conduct comprehensive police verification of all employees, check for criminal history, keep a record of previous employment, and avoid frequent hiring of Class IV employees. However, it will be pointless if the sensitisation drives are one-off exercises; these should be carried out in regular intervals.

The worst kind of crimes is when predators prey on children in the supposedly safe confines of a school. The temples of knowledge have to be kept sacrosanct. In the farrago of rapidly mushrooming brand-conscious private schools, international schools and global schools, let not the sanctity associated with schools be polluted. Investment in children is an investment in the future. It’s time the message is sent out loud and clear that business has absolutely no business in education. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate and children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi proclaims, “Safe childhoods for a safe India.”

(Published on 18th September 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 38)