How safe are our schools?
New Delhi: Barun Chandra Thakur dropped his seven-year-old son Pradhyumn at his school, Ryan International in Gurugram, on the morning of 8 September. Minutes later, the boy was found in the school toilet with his throat cut.
Days later, Thakur moved the Supreme Court praying for stringent norms to ensure the safety of children in school. “Today, they (parents) are in fear whether or not to send their children to schools,” he said in an emotional appeal to the apex court. “Today they are in fear whether the child being sent to the school by them would return in the same manner as they sent him or whether they would return at all or not!”
Police have charged a school bus conductor with the murder, which shocked and angered the parents of the children who study at the school.
“I cannot explain how I am living for the last few days,” Thakur said in a phone interview. “I lost my Pradhyumn 15 minutes after I dropped him at the school,” he added, breaking down.
“I went to the Supreme Court hoping to prevent lakhs of parents from suffering like me…there should be a proper system for students’ safety and schools need to be made accountable,” said Thakur.
The bereaved father’s words find resonance with millions of parents across the country.
Pradhyumn’s murder was not an isolated incident. A child drowned in a water tank at Ryan International’s Vasant Kunj branch in Delhi about a year ago. The school’s Mumbai branch had come under scrutiny after a student was allegedly beaten up by a teacher two years ago. The child was later suspended by the school.
A few days after Pradhyumn’s murder, a five-year-old girl was raped in a Delhi school. In April, a central school student near Hindon Airbase on the outskirts of Ghaziabad died in school when a cricket ball hit him on the head. In January, a Class II student of DPS World School in Noida Extension died after being injured in a karate competition at school.
In July, a three-and-a-half-year-old girl was allegedly molested by a school cab driver in Bengaluru. Earlier this month, a 54-year-old foreign national was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting three blind students at a south Delhi-based blind school.
“What happened at Ryan is beyond words. But it raises a bigger question—are children safe in their schools. When you are sending your kid to a high-profile school, pay a fortune every year, the least you would expect is your kid is alive. Forget learning, you want them safe,” said Sumali Moitra, whose son is a Class VII student at another school in Gurugram.
Moitra said his son’s school had sent him a note on safety after the incident at Ryan. “As a worried parent, I have written to them back to be on alert and go for third-party audit of security arrangements and regular background checks on support staff,” said Moitra, whose son studies at GD Goenka Public School in Gurugram.
Moitra’s apprehension originates from the fact that a Class IV student died at GD Goenka Public School in Indirapuram (Ghaziabad) in August.
Ryan International School and GD Goenka Public School did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, India reported 94,172 cases of crime against children in 2015 as against 89,423 cases in 2014. Four states and Union territories contributed more than half of such cases. Maharashtra accounted for 14.8% of such crimes, Madhya Pradesh 13.7%, Uttar Pradesh 12.1% and Delhi 10.1% of such cases.
According to NCRB, the crime rate against children during 2015 was 21.1, meaning at least 21 kids in every 100,000 children population were victims of crimes such as rape, murder, molestation, abandonment and kidnapping. The crime rate was the highest in Delhi (169.4) followed by the Andamans (75), Chandigarh (67.8), Mizoram (50.1) and Goa (46.5).
To be sure, it is not clear how many of these victims were students or whether the crime took place at a school.
“Children are vulnerable. Since children have now near universal access to schools, safety in schools has become paramount. Schools cannot evade responsibility by saying they have installed closed-circuit cameras,” said Lalatendu Mahal, a school teacher in Hyderabad.
The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) last week issued guidelines to ensure the safety of children. “As the children are spending most of their time in school, the concern of parents about the safety of school children is increasing every other day regarding their physical safety, mental and emotional health or child abuse owing to increasing incidents involving safety and well-being of school children,” said a CBSE circular.
“The onus for safety and security of children in school campus shall solely lie upon the school authorities. It is a fundamental right of a child to engage and study in an environment where he/she feels safe and is free from any form of physical or emotional abuse or harassment,” said the CBSE circular sent to schools on 12 September.
CBSE oversees 19,000 schools—a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million schools operating under 28 school boards in India.
“Yes, school has a bigger role. But parents too need to chip in. In large cities, parents often say that since we are giving good fees, the school should do everything and they don’t have to contribute to the growth of a child,” said Prashant Bhalla, president of Manav Rachna Educational Institutions.
Bhalla operates over a dozen schools across states and vouches that his schools take the safety and security of children seriously. “We have CCTVs on all parts of the schools, the support staff has undergone safety audits and teachers are sensitive to the needs of students,” he said.
Even GD Goenka Public School in Gurugram has written to parents underlining how the school has more than 350 CCTVs and the support staff has been verified by the police.
“Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and team efforts… In a time like this where the recent incidents have grieved and moved everyone, we have come together and give assurance and confidence to our children,” GD Goenka Public School in Gurugram said in a letter to parents, a copy of which has been reviewed by Mint.
But CCTVs or background checks alone won’t help; all teaching and non-teaching staff need to be trained and sensitized to the needs of students. “Good schools have trained staff on their core jobs—driver is trained to drive, sweeper to sweep but they are not trained how to behave with, let’s say, a teenager—a boy or a girl. Are they aware of how to deal with students—a five-year-old boy, a 13-year-old girl or a 15-year-old teenager. That’s where the conflict begins and leads to situations like Ryan or any other incident where a facility staff abuses a kid,” said Samay Dixit, a Class XI student at a leading government school in Delhi.
“The crux is, we need an ecosystem in place where every employee is tuned in to the needs of students, a place where child-centric education is more meaningful than just a slogan,” said Dixit.