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Hands off that child

Rasheed Kappan, DH News Service, Bengaluru, Sep 24 2017, 1:21 IST

The chilling murder of a seven-year-old boy inside a prominent Delhi school has shocked the nation. But similar shocks have been delivered to Bengalureans by schools in our own backyard, sparking repeated public outrage. Rules were framed and stringent guidelines issued to make every school-going child safe and secure. Yet, the safety umbrella continues to wither. Why?

Early this year, the sexual assault on a three-year-old girl inside a Marathahalli pre-school had exposed the horrors of a deeply compromised safety ecosystem. The rot had run so deep that the school management used every ploy to hush up the case. The suspect was a non-teaching staffer, recruited without any verification of his background.

Sense of insecurity

Despite systems in place on paper in many schools, the recurring episodes of child abuse have instilled a deep sense of insecurity among parents. School van drivers caught for drunk driving and behavioral issues and absence of attendants in these vehicles as mandated by the new rules, indicate that the school-home commute too is equally unsafe.

CCTVs could be seen displayed prominently at many school gates. But are they really functional? Are they being monitored round-the-clock? Or are they merely cosmetic add-ons to instill a false sense of security, an eyewash strategy to comfort parents and satisfy the mandatory requirements?

Enforcement loopholes

At a private school near Annasandrapalya, a lone CCTV at the main entrance is positioned in such a way that it does not capture the entry of anyone into the premises. Outside another school in Indiranagar, the security guard claims the CCTVs are in place, and female attendants accompany children in every van.

But at the school’s main gate, the cameras are nowhere to be seen. Questioned, the guard looks away. No lady attendant is seen inside the school vans emerging out of the institution. This is true of most school vans that crisscross the city.

Beyond CCTVs and attendants, the priority should be to ensure an environment where the child can report any incident to anyone in the school without fear, as Sujata Mohandas, principal of the Sishu Griha Montessori and High School puts it.

Shared responsibility

But there are challenges. The responsibility should be shared by the parents, schools and society at large. She explains, “It is the bound duty of all schools to provide a safe and secure environment to every child. But as long as we don’t eliminate the monsters with devious minds, bent on carrying out crimes against children, the best security measures provided may seem futile.”

Mohandas says 24/7 security was posted at all the gates of her school, long before the government issued the safety guidelines. She listed the other security features: “A lady security is also present during school working hours. Floor supervisors are positioned on all floors and corridors of our school. Lady staffers are deployed outside female washrooms and male staff outside male washrooms. Rooms not in use at certain times of the day are always kept locked.”

Most of these measures were mandated for all schools three years ago, shortly after a six-year-old girl’s rape at a Kadugodi school sparked widespread public outrage. The school made amends thereafter, says Mujeeb Rahman, a parent whose two daughters study there. “They have even introduced smart cards for children. On getting into a van, they swipe it, alerting the parents through a mobile app,” he says.

But the safety rules are only on paper in many schools for a reason: There are no inspections, no officially sanctioned committees to check whether the rules are being implemented. Several schools with poor infrastructure choose to ignore the guidelines blatantly, as installing, monitoring and maintaining CCTVs, recruiting additional staffers with verified antecedents add to the costs.

Child Protection Policy

So, who is to blame for poor enforcement? Nagasimha Rao from the NGO, Child Rights Trust draws attention to the tussle between the education department and the department and women and child development on who should implement the Karnataka State Child Protection Policy (KSCPP).

Framed by the department of women and child development in collaboration with the police, education department and United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), the policy employs a ‘rights-based’ approach to child safety.

The policy laid down operational guidelines for educational institutions to follow. They included measures such as conducting background checks on all staff, installing CCTV cameras and forming Child Protection Committees in the schools. Although the policy was approved by the State Cabinet in April 2016, there is no visible evidence of any substantial change in the way schools function.

Policy amendment

One lacunae in the policy was the lack of any provision to penalise errant schools. To address this, the policy was amended in April this year by including a clause that mandated a penalty of up to Rs 10 lakh. The District Education Regulatory Authority (DERA) could collect this amount and even recommend withdrawal of the school’s recognition.

Now, the question in everyone’s mind is this: Will the threat of punishment push the schools to enforce the safety guidelines or will they wait till the next disaster strikes?

(with inputs from Meghana Choukkar)

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