The murder of seven-year-old Pradhyumn Thakur at the Gurugram branch of Ryan International School has raised many questions about child safety in the school. This is not an isolated case and many such incidents have been reported in the recent past.
In February this year, a three-and a-half-year old girl was reportedly sexually assaulted in her nursery school by a supervisor. There have been similar such cases reported from Bengaluru as well. In another case in August this year, the Mumbai police arrested the staff of a school in the city on charges of rape. According to the police, he molested the rape survivor inside the school premises for over four days. The crime reportedly took place in the toilets. The common factor in most of the recent cases is that the victims were below the age of 10, and were molested by someone from the non-teaching or the outsourced staff, raising questions about the screening process adopted by many school managements when hiring employees.
Easy way out
Pavittra Aroon, an educationist associated with Auuro Educational services points out, “Most of the schools these days have outsourced their service to an outside agency. A few years ago, a school girl fell down from a moving school bus in Chennai. Strict safety guidelines were put in place after that, to ensure the safety of children. Schools did not want to deal with the ‘headache’ in the first place when the fee regulation came into place. Outsourcing the services eventually became an easy option. These are independent entities, where the staff – driver and the conductor – change regularly. They also hire the non-teaching staff like the swimming instructor, the music teacher, etc. Often, the background checks are not done. These outsiders have easy access to the school and the students. They are free to roam around the campus and no one questions them.” However, it is not correct to paint all of them with the same brush of suspicious behaviour, she adds.
Banking on facilities
It is important to note that schools are mushrooming across the city but there is just not enough space to accommodate all the facilities. They rely on external sources without proper verification. “Not only the schools, but also parents depend on outside help to take care of the children when they are at work. When it comes to the school, they check all the facilities, like the bus service and trust the school to take care of the safety,” she says. Now, many of the schools have started installing CCTV cameras on their premises but parents feel that verifications should be mandatory. Equally, the parents must be attentive to changes in a child’s behaviour. Dr P Manorama, former Chairperson for Child Welfare Committee, says, “No child is safe anywhere. Parents think that they are safe in a school, but the recent cases prove otherwise. It is important to note that very few cases are reported and brought to light. Many times, the school tries to brush these incidents under the carpet,” she says, adding that parents refuse to go to the police, fearing embarrassment.
She recalls many incidents. “A child in a popular convent school was abused within the premises. The student was looking for the restroom and the gardener offered to help her find the restroom and abused her eventually. The student complained to the teacher and the mother was called, but she refused to file a police complaint saying that this will tarnish the family’s image. The mother admitted the victim to another school and the predator is free. In another incident, a Class 12 teacher of a school in North Chennai was accused of corporal punishment, where she beat the students black and blue for mass bunking. The school threatened the parents not to take any action, as it will affect their board exam procedure and performance. In another incident, a child enacted the assault done on her, but no action was taken,” says Manorma.
Some schools, however, say that they are adhering to all safety norms. A correspondent of a popular school in Chennai, while speaking to DT Next, says that they carry out proper verification and background checks of the teaching and non-teaching staff and have installed CCTV cameras in the premises. However, experts say that upon looking closely, these incidents happen in the restrooms and other areas that are often not covered by the CCTV.
Meanwhile, police officials also claim that they are taking steps to ensure the safety of students in schools. “We have female police officers who visit the schools regularly to interact with the students and teachers. They also participate in the Parent-Teacher meetings. When it comes to the bus drivers, every staff is given a verification certificate by the police,” says P. Saravanan, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Law and Order) Mylapore.