Are our children safe in school?

Gayatri Vinayak
Are our children safe in school?

My three-year-old son has led a very protected life so far. He currently studies in nursery at a nearby pre-school. It’s a secure environment – I pick him up and drop him to school every day, the setup is really small and the preschool has an all-female staff.  However, all that is due to change next year, once he starts attending a proper school.

I have been narrowing down schools based on feedback from parents and other criteria such as the quality of education that the school offers, the school’s ranking, proximity to our home, etc. But, it is time I rethought my top priority – safety. How safe is my child at school? And, if I have to opt for a school vehicle to pick up and drop my child, what guarantee do I have that my child will return home safely.

Two incidents that have happened recently have sent shock waves across the country. In Gurugram’s Ryan International School, a seven-year-old was allegedly murdered by the school bus driver for thwarting a rape attempt. In Delhi’s Tagore Public School, a five-year-old was raped allegedly by a school peon.

These are just two among the many such crimes that have taken place in various schools in the recent past. In July 2014, a six-year-old was gang raped by two gym instructors at the elite Vibgyor High School in Bangalore. A 3.5-year-old was sexually assaulted by a helper at a play school in Bangalore in February this year and a five-year-old girl lost her finger when her hand got jammed just as a door was being closed, at Mumbai’s Thakur International School.

Schools shrug off responsibility

What is most bothering in all these cases is the callous attitude of the school authorities, who, in most cases, wash their hands off such incidents. While the staff is supposed to be hired after completing stringent background checks, most often only a cursory check is done.  Also, in many cases, third party employees such as bus drivers and conductors are usually employed at the school for short durations, and sometimes, without proper verification.

With Vibgyor High,  the school refused to listen to their concern when the parents complained that their child had been sexually abused. They then had to file a police complaint and the chairman was arrested on charges of intentionally suppressing information about the rape. In the Ryan International incident, there were very serious safety lapses. The murderer was allowed to enter the school premises with a knife and had access to the same bathroom that the children used. According to the Gurgaon Police’s Guidelines for Safety for Children in Schools, for bus drivers and conductors, whether employed by the school or contracted out, the access area must be limited to just the bus area. This specifically means that the bathroom is out of bounds for them. However, the school clearly did not follow these rules.

Similarly, had the school authorities at Thakur International taken the little girl to the hospital immediately after she hurt her hand, she may not have lost a finger. Instead, they waited until the parents reached the school, and handed over the bleeding and shocked child, along with the severed finger which was wrapped in a polythene bag.

It is not as if these schools have cash crunches, and hence are unable to ensure the safety of their students. These private and so-called international schools charge upwards of Rs 1 lakh annually as school fees. Many even take illegal donations and capitation fees which are collected under various headings such as ‘building fund’, and sometimes in cash.

However, these schools pay very little attention to ensuring that basic facilities such as separate clean and hygienic bathrooms for children and other employees are provided. Also, even though schools have to follow security guidelines, safety audits to ensure that these are enforced, are rarely conducted. Today, with education being reduced to a business, schools are more concerned about trying to cut corners for the sake of profit, with the result being that both education and safety are taking a back seat.

Parents have a role to play                                  

As much as the school is responsible for ensuring the safety of the children, as parents, we also need to ensure that we perform our duties in educating our children about such crimes. Thus, one of the most important discussions we need to have with our children is on child sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, in India, there is a natural tendency to shy away from the subject of sexual abuse – in most cases, we are not ready to consider that even our child can be a victim.  But, recent cases have shown us that all children are vulnerable. Hence, as parents and caregivers of children, we must ensure that we keep our children aware of the possibilities of abuse and teach them to be body safe.  Children should be informed, right from a young age, that their bodies are their own, and no one has the permission to touch them.

Both parents and schools need to be aware of the Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Act 2012 (POCSO), a powerful tool to fight against sexual perverts. According to the Act,  all teachers have to undergo a mandatory training to educate everyone in the school set-up about the POCSO Act. The Act also mandates that the school report any sexual assault, failing which the institution can be severely punished in a case of negligence.

In our search for top-notch schools for our children, we should put safety as the first criterion. As parents, we also need to be aware of the fact that it is our right to demand that our children have a safe environment at school, and not get bullied by the school management into keeping quiet. Because, what happened to the little boy from Ryan International, and the little girl from Tagore Public School, could happen to any child.

The school is an institution in which, as parents, we put our utmost faith. It is where we send our children to help mold them to become good citizens and to enable them to achieve what they want to with their lives. A school is not a place where we should worry about our child’s safety. And, to ensure that the school remains the safe haven that it is supposed to be, all stakeholders need to be actively involved.