Are primary schools too big to fail?

First it happened at the Vibgyor International School in Bangalore. An innocent six year old girl was raped and the school authorities had no answer. Police botched up the investigation.

The school chairman became a fugitive for a week before he was arrested in Goa, brought to Bangalore and released on bail. Parents protested vigorously for a few days and demanded action from both the Karnataka government and the police.

The State government issued safety circulars while the police delegated top notch officers from its cadre to continue its investigation. After a month or so, normalcy returned and it was business as usual at that school.

A similar crime gets repeated on a three year old but this time at a different school – Orchids International School, also in Bangalore. Similar protests from parents followed and assurances from the State government and police were eerily no different than in the first incident.

Soon, even this episode will be forgotten by the school management, the government and police department. The only victims of such gruesome incidents are the children on whom such monstrous crimes were committed and their parents.

Other parents are initially disinclined to send their children to these schools but later are compelled to do so for want of alternatives, logistical reasons and financial implications. Suspicious of school management, they live in fear knowing that their child could easily be the next victim of this heinous act.

In both cases, school managements have denied wrong doing and refused to take any responsibility for the atrocities that happened in their school premises.  Despite several irregularities, unlawful operation and gross violations of safety procedures, the State government has refused to punish the managements by shutting down the schools. A pertinent question to be asked under such circumstances is, are Bangalore’s schools too big to fail?

The logic and arguments advanced against permanent closure of these schools are jarringly comparable to those that were propounded for not shutting down big banks during the 2008 financial crisis. Authorities decided to pump in taxpayer’s money to save the large financial institutions rather than let them fail and go out of business.

And the reason put forward by regulators and government officials was that ending the operations of big banks will inflict more damage on the economy and the country. 

Moreover, regulators rather fallaciously argued that in an intertwined world, a depression or deep recession in developed nations will impose enormous costs on citizens across the globe.

School managements currently are being treated with kid gloves – just like the big banks. The rationale for non closure of schools that have witnessed violent crimes is the unwanted suffering and torture it will likely impose on rest of the children and their parents.

It is easier to sacrifice two or three students to predators allow them to suffer along with their parents in silence. This allows school managements to get away without having to face consequences and repercussions for criminal acts under their watch.

Timid steps

Civil society actions, parent demands and government stipulations have thus far been timid, toothless and feeble. Insisting on CCTV cameras, issuing safety circulars, installing helpline numbers, erecting high compound walls and demanding background checks on employees are unlikely to deter crimes.

Like banks serving customers with a profit motive, today’s private schools educate our children but with a clear profit motive. Unless, there is a real and severe threat to such profits, school managements will continue to ignore such acts and fail to learn any lessons from these gruesome incidents.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, governments in many countries woke up by introducing regulations to methodically unwind big banks without collateral damage. Similarly, in order to punish school managements and put them out of business, the State government must devise plan A and plan B whenever criminal incidents occurred school premises.

Plan A should be to take over the school and institute a change in management. License to operate the school must be immediately revoked and a team from the State Education Department should take over day to day operations.

After having established a semblance of order, the Government must handover management of the school to another qualified private school operator that has the capacity to run the school.

Plan B should be to give the government sufficient authority to orderly unwind and shutdown the school. For a start, there could be self regulation. School managements must be asked to provide a plan for orderly closure in case of an atrocious crime like rape having occurred in their school premises. The government can also tweak or redo the plan submitted by them after due consultations with parents and civil society. The government should be vested with adequate powers to implement such a plan.

It is time for the State government to act decisively to save our children from predators and other violent acts in educational institutions. Only a threat of closure will make school managements vigilant and responsible while ensuring safety and protection of children in our schools.

(The writer is a money manager)

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