The horrific incident of a seven-year-old child being done to death within what one would consider the safe haven of a school has left parents across the country worried about the safety of their wards.
The Ryan International School case is in the headlines because of the murder, but there are several cases of sexual abuse across schools that are never revealed for fear of public embarrassment. Incidents of seniors abusing juniors inside school toilets are spoken of in hushed tones but rarely exposed, leaving the victims scarred for life.
Public anger is justified because Ryan International cannot escape responsibility for the murder of a young student on its premises. It must answer how it allowed the school bus conductor – the man charged with the murder – to allegedly bring a knife onto its premises. Obviously, no security check was conducted on this person and perhaps on others too.
Apart from that, how could the school allow adults to use the same toilet as junior students and how could it turn a blind eye to the possibility of child abuse under the circumstances? Besides the security lapses, a well-resourced private school like Ryan International will have to take responsibility for not investing in something as basic as separate toilets for the adults who work for it.
The issue of toilets in schools is as important as providing toilets in rural India. Students who spend more than seven hours in a school need clean and secure toilets and drinking water, and that should be a top priority for management. In fact, care should be taken to see that junior-wing toilets are separate from senior wing because the needs of young children are different. Likewise, girls’ washrooms have to be segregated from the boys’ toilets, although that is not always the case.
Unfortunately, even in some of the best private schools, toilets are accorded the least priority. In some schools these are pigeon-hole sized, very tight on space. Girls who start menstruating at the middle-school level feel uncomfortable about using the poorly-maintained toilets – with missing door latches and broken doors – with boys using adjacent toilets. Often they do not know where to dispose used sanitary napkins especially as, more often than not, there are no bins around. Normally there are no purse hooks inside a toilet for a girl to hang up her school bag while she uses the toilet. School washrooms often lack any kind of soap and sometimes even water for students to wash their hands. Schools have to be sensitive about these issues. Besides, it would not be a bad idea to post female ayahs around toilets even in the senior students’ wing.
It is about time that basic infrastructure necessities are made mandatory for schools. If the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan has to succeed universally, the government should ensure that no school building is given a ‘completion certificate’ unless it provides for proper toilets and drinking water facilities for its students and staff.
In the case of the Ryan International School incident, obviously the accused man had easy access to the school premises. In any case, entry gates to schools, as well as boundary walls, are vulnerable points not only for intruders but even for wayward students who might want to skip class. Many times security guards do not check school staff, including contract employees, because of familiarity, allowing adults to have easy access to students. Investment in technology such as security cameras and metal detectors could be a safeguard but more than that, every school must conduct a police verification check on all its employees in order to wean out those with dubious records. What makes the Ryan school case especially egregious is that it is unusual for a bus conductor to carry a knife on his person.
Most of the time, a person employed at a particular place puts in a word for someone from his village or clan and gets him/her hired, leading to a number of people from the same background working at the same place. Security personnel can often be seen chit-chatting rather than paying attention to their duties. It goes without saying that schools and security agencies must hire staff from verified sources and a basic literacy level must be made compulsory for security personnel, ayahs, drivers and conductors.
At the same time, although mobile phone are empowering, they have increasingly become a toy in the hands of people and are the bane of security. It is not uncommon at security barriers to see security personnel glued to their smartphones rather than being alert to their surroundings. It may not be a bad idea to disallow the use of mobile phones by on-duty security personnel. Nor is there any reason to place a cable TV in the guard room.
Schools that garner thousands of rupees from parents every year for this event or that, or for construction activity, often turn a blind eye to dubious activities occurring under their nose for fear of compromising their reputation. The worst part is that the student or parent who raises their voice is asked to shut up or just leave. Several schools have parents’ representatives but more often than not, they are so blended in with the administration that they do not raise parents’ concerns.
On the day that the Ryan International School incident happened, a video clip went viral of a Greater Noida school student being slapped by another as part of some sort of bet. The victim was hit so hard that he lost 25% hearing in one ear. This kind of violence for fun is horrendous and only underscores the need for schools to invest in regular counselling and education of students.
With the kind of exposure today to television, the internet and mobile phones, schools have to brace themselves to meet the challenges these new technologies of communication, disinformation, voyeurism and prurience pose. Not doing so is a breach of faith of the parents who leave their children in their care and pay through their nose for doing so.
It is time school principals and administrators go back to being educators, rather than business professionals devoted to increasing school profits at the cost of educating children in a safe and secure environment.