The late afternoon sun sizzled over my head as I stepped into the dilapidated compound of a school in a run-down neighbourhood in an eastern suburb of Mumbai. Directly overlooking the main street, the school was a single-storeyed building with a large playground and no signs of any security guard at the gate.
"After school hours, the premises turn into a shady haunt for violence-prone drug and alcohol abusers. And everybody in the administration turns a blind eye to it. We tried bringing it up with local authorities, but gave up as they didn't respond. I don't send my daughter to school anymore," rued a mother I spoke to while exploring the scope of this community as an operational location for the non-profit I was working with.
I remember thinking, what kind of a miserable society have we been reduced to, if we are unable to safeguard the basic rights of children in our so-called safe havens of learning? And how such collapses can trigger a domino effect on other social development issues.
Parents must recognise the power of vigilance as the key to protecting them.
When a 7-year-old child was murdered inside the toilet of his school in Gurugram recently, it threw open the usual blame-game and outrage. As always, we sprung into action only after getting stung. Anxious parents rallied against the school management, media reports exposed the negligent behaviour of the school authorities, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) issued safety guidelines to all schools, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the state government stepped in to take over the probe. To make matters worse, there were reports of a 5-year-old girl raped by a peon in another school a few days later.
Are these the first cases of violence against children in schools? No. In 2014, a six-year-old girl was reportedly sexually assaulted by two gym instructors in a Bangalore school. Before that, in 2012, a three-and-a-half year old child was allegedly raped by the husband of her playschool's owner. Clearly, there are many similar cases that may have gone unreported.
So where did we slip up?
Following the public uproar sparked by the Gurugram murder, and the mounting pressure calling for action, checklists and protocols for school safety were circulated, from installing CCTV cameras in the premises, verifying the background of staff, to providing training to students and teachers on safety, and so on. But are these safety procedures enough to ensure that every child is safe in school? While these directions demand a decent amount of accountability from educational institutions, they fall short of a holistic approach for tackling this issue.
As primary stakeholders of the safety of children, parents must recognise the power of vigilance as the key to protecting them. Given the history of violence against children in the last few years, can parents really afford to assume that their children are safe from the clutches of abuse once they step inside the school gates? When one is vigilant, untoward incidents ring alarm bells and start the possibility of confrontation and action. Engaging with teachers and fellow parents regularly helps exchange concerns. This joint ownership goes beyond just discussing grades and lessons. It calls for a proactive collaboration on establishing and monitoring safety procedures applicable to infrastructure, resources, transport, as well as the emotional and physical well-being of children within the school campus to create a safe learning environment.
Like every other child safety protocol dictates, honest communication between parents and children is an indispensable approach towards preventing abuse. Being as involved as possible in their school routine builds up a solid support system that thrives on trust and protection.
It is only after the crime has been committed that investigations reveal the extent to which rules were violated.
At the larger level, there is also a need for the government to enforce safety policies across urban and rural settings. What good are these pragmatic regulations if they remain only on paper? More often than not, it is only after the crime has already been committed that investigation reveals the extent to which rules were violated. It's high time that non-compliance is dealt with seriously. Audits and surveillance should go hand-in-hand with implementation of child protection policies to identify lapses and bring errant schools to justice.
An integrated approach to child safety may not be a foolproof mechanism of always keeping them safe from harm, but it is certainly more fitting than unrealistically pegging all responsibilities on a single institution.
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