Home visits, background checks and a dependence on longstanding school-parent relationships — these are among the measures employed by schools to ensure the safety of foreign exchange students staying with host families.
In the light of a 16-year-old French exchange student alleging that she was sexually assaulted by the father of an Indian student at whose house she had initially stayed, questions have cropped up on whether such safety precautions are enough.
According to principals of schools which participate in such exchanges, checks and balances are in place at every stage — starting with the selection of the school with which an exchange is to be conducted.
“In our school, these are never initiated arbitrarily. It is either through the initiative of the government or a quality institution,” said principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, Ameeta Wattal.
According to Sudha Sahai, principal of The Shri Ram School, Aravali, the selection of the other school is often done through the embassy concerned.
When selecting host families to house students from other countries, schools said they primarily depend on relationships of trust built over time with parents who have been associated with them for many years.
As for host families for Indian students going for overseas exchanges, schools said they rely on the recommendations and selections made by the host school. However, they said they lay down certain requirements, like the host student be of the same age and gender.
However, Wattal said Springdales has a longer vetting process before selecting a host family for their students. “We send across a detailed questionnaire asking about the professions of the parents, number of rooms in the house, number of siblings of the host child and their genders, the family’s political leanings and so on. We also prefer for two of our students to be hosted in one home as there’s always safety in numbers,” he said.
However, the schools said they do not conduct a criminal record check or police verification of host families, stating that criminal behaviour of any parent they have a long association with would be known to school authorities. Principals said that after the commencement of the exchange programme, regular home visits by the accompanying teachers to the homes their students are hosted in is a norm, as is constant communication between teachers and students.
“We form email and WhatsApp groups comprising students, accompanying teachers, exchange coordinators and school authorities so that there can be minute-to-minute updates, if required,” said Sahai.
“The exchange students we host are kept busy in various group activities so they are occupied and in company. They actually spend very little time in the homes. If any child falls ill, we shift them to our school’s nursing home because we do not want him/her to be in an unmonitored space,” said Wattal.
Other schools also stated that, when ill, students shift in with their accompanying teachers. However, principal of Mother’s International School Sanghamitra Ghosh said: “We try our best and do everything we can, but I don’t know if any fool-proof policy or checks can be put into place. No matter how well we know a parent, we can never foresee this kind of aberrant behaviour.”