No priority is as important as ensuring the safety of our nation’s children. And nowhere is this more critical than in our nation’s schools – the erstwhile havens of safety, learning and growth for our children. The recent deaths, injuries, rapes and abuses of children in schools have underscored the need for better school child safety standards, closer monitoring of the safety of children, scrupulous screening of school staff, stronger enforcement of safety standards, active participation of parents in the safety of their children, and increased use of training and technology to improve school child safety.
The lives of school children in India are under siege from a horrifying plethora of safety issues, such as sexual abuse/ molestation/ rape, corporal punishment, physical and mental abuse by teaching staff, school employees and students, unsafe and unsanitary school building conditions, callous school staff and employees, unsafe and unauthorized transport, unlicensed, untrained and uncaring drivers, transport owners, bus attendants and caretakers, corrupt and lethargic law enforcement agencies and ostrich-like, negligent parents.
The UNICEF reports that 19 out of 100,000 children in India die of safety-related accidents – the highest in the world. For example, the principal of a Delhi-based school raped a 3-year-old child of his school, while his wife, the school manager, did nothing to stop it. After the shocking rape of a 7-year-old girl in Goa, the school trust officials told the rape survivor’s parents “that your child isn’t suffering much”. Despite the gruesome death of a 6-year-old girl who fell through a gaping hole in the floor of her school bus, unauthorized, poorly maintained vans carrying school children continue to run rampant on the roads of Chennai with the tacit approval of the parents, school, transport and safety authorities. The horrendous Kumbakonum fire tragedy that burned 93 school children alive has not served to bring about any changes in school safety standards. A class I girl in a school in Rajasthan died after having lost vision in both her eyes due to the beating she received from her teacher, and a class V student in West Bengal was forced to drink her own urine by the warden as she had wet her bed. Yet, corporal punishment – a form of physical child abuse – is rampant in schools across India. The Times of India reports that one in every two children is subjected to child sexual abuse in India while 80% of the cases go unreported. The WHO reports that 41% of deaths of children are because of a lack of road transportation safety – again the highest in the world.
And yet we as parents, grandparents, teachers, well-wishers, authorities and guardians of children shamelessly watch as mute spectators or avert our eyes to the travesty that is child safety in schools across India. How many of us have asked to see the school bus’ fitness certificate when the bus arrives to pick up or drop off our children? How many of us have asked to see the school bus driver’s license? How many of us have asked the school whether the school bus attendant and the security guard at the school gates have been verified by the local police? How many of us have checked to see whether the school bus that carries our children has a fully equipped first aid kit or a recently certified fire extinguisher? How many of us have bothered to check whether the school premises are built with fire safety standards in mind? Or that the construction has been approved by the government?
Shockingly, less than 0.5%! In a survey conducted by the Child Safety Association of over 12,000 parents, the overwhelming response was “No, I have not”. That’s 99.5% of parents stating that they have never bothered to examine any safety standards in their child’s school. When asked why, almost all of them said that they hadn’t thought of it, and that they assumed that the school would “take care” of their child’s safety. None of them had any idea what “taking care” of child safety meant. Would the same parents adopt the same callous and careless attitude if their children were to go to a water park, fairground or theme park? Very unlikely. But put that parent on a two-wheeler with a child on the pillion seat and watch the two-wheeler weave in and out of traffic, speeding through illegal one-ways, over-taking on the left and risking the life and limb of the child in the back seat.
When the Child Safety Association polled schools about their child safety measures, the results were not encouraging. More than 80% of schools had no comprehensive, child safety systems in place, such as fire extinguishers and first aid kits, regular safety training for staff and children, live cameras across the school, speed governors and GPS in buses, police-enabled background checks of school employees, child tracking technologies such as RFID and Bluetooth or even a child safety policy or vision. What’s worse, many schools squarely placed the responsibility of child safety on the parents and the school bus owners and drivers, and completely absolved themselves of all responsibility of ensuring that the children under their care were safe on the school premises or while being transported. Rather than provide a safe environment for children to learn in and grow, most schools preferred to point the finger at someone or something else – parents, transporters, RTOs, police, traffic, television, food, morals, upbringing, etc. – and claim innocence for the rampant assault on school child safety standards that’s become the norm rather than the exception.
But not all schools fared this badly. Several international schools and “new age” schools were well-informed, mindful and vigilant about child safety, and had implemented several, if not most of the measures listed above. A few schools had even engaged the active participation of parents to help implement and improve child safety standards. Two reasons were given for this exceptional and atypical behavior; one was that schools wanted to admit the children of safety-conscious parents (to improve and quality and quantity of admissions), and two was that the founders and staff of the school were caring, safety-conscious individuals who wanted to make their schools better, safer places in which to educate children. I’ve personally spoken to the principals and founders of several such schools, and they’re wonderful, enlightened, compassionate human beings who genuinely care about the children they’ve undertaken to protect. Sadly, no more than 4.3% of schools have implemented comprehensive safety measures to ensure the safety and security of the children under their care.
What then, about the remaining 99.5% of parents and 95.7% of schools? Are they death traps for children? Are their principals and founders so detached and callous about child safety that nothing matters to them but fees and profitability? Probably not. After all, this is India, the land of the Buddha; compassion and caring are in our genes. This is the country, and these are the people that gave the world the “gurukul” – meaning Sanskrit guru “teacher” or “master” and kul domain, from kula, “extended family”. And perhaps buried – albeit deeply – within ourselves are the seeds of tenderheartedness and caring that can grow to become mighty trees that provide safety and security to our children.
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