By: Devi Kar
The recent rape of a Class I child inside a school in Bangalore served as a wake-up call for schools across the country. The incident aroused intense emotions and unprecedented protests by the parents, who demanded justice and that immediate action be taken by the Karnataka government. Unfortunately, every “incident”, major or minor, tends to be politicised. Irrespective of politics or government action, we need to get down to making our schools safe.
First off, it is imperative that every school accepts that it is responsible for the children in its custody for the period that they are on the premises. The fine print and clauses included in the document that parents are made to sign at the time of admission cannot absolve the school of this responsibility.
A thorough background check must be carried out before any member of teaching or non-teaching staff — permanent, temporary or “casual” — is appointed. Even teachers and family members can be guilty of child abuse, and the brutal reality is that the incidence of same-sex offences is increasing.
There is much talk of putting CCTVs everywhere. No doubt we need to be vigilant, but being watched in every corner of your school and playground is a suffocating thought for any child. So the strategic positioning of CCTVs has to be carefully and sensibly planned. Equally important is the constant monitoring of the CCTV footage. After all, the main purpose of this exercise is to prevent crime. The apprehension of perpetrators after the crime has been committed is of secondary importance.
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Identity cards displaying names prominently should be worn by staff and students, while all visitors should carry official passes that may be issued on arrival and taken back at departure. Some schools have a policy of designating a trusted female teacher on duty with any male coach, instructor or professional who has been hired for co-curricular activities. Schools that provide a bus service need to take several precautions. My school has a woman attendant on every bus in addition to the bus driver and conductor. A student travelling by school bus is brought back to school if her escort is not waiting at the stop to collect her.
With regard to ferrying children to and from school, it is worrying to see girls being escorted by drivers and domestic workers, and commercial carpool drivers taking single-handed charge of very large groups of children. A school may not have the right to dictate to parents the mode of their children’s transportation, but it could encourage the formation of intra-school carpools. This involves parents taking turns to escort a small group of children to school and back. The Kolkata police had started this initiative to counter the risks that were being posed by commercial carpools. But it was not pursued. However, schools could try to promote this by informing parents of students residing in their neighbourhood or at locations along their respective routes.
There have been long debates on whether it is a school’s responsibility to educate children about sex and sexuality. A structured sex education programme is, till date, absent from our curriculum, while most parents do not appear to tackle the task on their own. We have to accept the power of the media and information technology — in spite of child locks on television sets and computers, it is impossible to protect children from exposure to sex and violence. Newspapers, family magazines, music videos and even advertisements feature material that many parents would not want their young children to engage with. Even if a child only has monitored internet access at home, the Net could freely be available to her on a friend’s smartphone. It is naive to think we can control or censor what our children are exposed to.
In this scenario, we have groups of extremely muddled children, adolescents and young adults. They pick up information willy-nilly from various sources. Some start experimenting and run into serious trouble ranging from mental distress to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. And all along, they have to pretend innocence at home and in school. Is appropriate sex education the answer to this complex and dangerous situation?
Sex education is not only about teaching children to protect themselves from potential rapists and alerting them to the dangers of sexual activity. It is much more. If schools decide to embark on a sex education programme, they should see to it that trained, competent and sensitive people are employed to conduct it. In the aftermath of the Bangalore rape incident, it was alarming to see little kindergarten girls holding placards saying, “My body is not your playground”.
The writer is director, Modern High School for Girls, Kolkata