As parents, schools and the police argue, who will protect our children while they are at school? Nivedita Niranjankumar (Twitter: Nive_nk) examines.
The murder of a seven-year-old Pradyuman Thakur in Ryan International School, Gurugram, has revived fears about child safety among parents across the country. A bus conductor was first arrested by the Haryana Police, which accused him of sexually assaulting Pradyuman before slitting his throat. Soon this allegation was proved baseless, and the Central Bureau of Investigation held a student from Class XI for Pradyuman’s murder. The trustees of this posh school brand, which has schools across the globe bearing their son’s name- Ryan, now the CEO of the group - Augustine Pinto, Grace Pinto and Ryan Pinto - have evaded questioning, and moved various courts seeking anticipatory bail.
Amidst the confusion, what rankles parents most is the absolute lack of accountability from the school management. This, it seems, is a pattern that repeated itself in Karnataka too.
When three-year-old Ayushi* reached home crying in February in Bengaluru, it led to a series of events that would expose a habitual child abuser in the school. The pre-schooler told her parents that day: “Manju bhaiyya hurt me in the toilet.” Scared, the parents immediately took Ayushi to the school principal, to whom she narrated the whole incident again, and this time, pointed to Manjunath.V, the supervisor.
“The girl said she wanted to go to the toilet, and Manjunath took her there,” said a police officer from the station investigating the complaint the parents later filed. “When we enquired, we found that none of the female staff were available at the time, which is why Manjunath was asked to take her. He sexually assaulted her in the toilet.”
The incident of sexual abuse in this Bellandur franchise of a prominent pre-school chain shocked the parents, most of them IT or banking sector employees from upper middle-class backgrounds. When investigations began, many other parents approached the police, saying that their children had also complained about “inappropriate touching” by Manjunath. The supervisor, who was also in-charge of all the CCTV cameras, had worked in the school for about eight years.
“My child told me that the kids were scared of him,” said the mother of a student from the same school. “If any child cried or did mischief, the teachers would send the child to the supervisor. My child used to call him ‘Manju bhaiyya’, and look what he did!” Many other parents from the pre-school got their children medically tested and six others were confirmed to have been sexually assaulted. Manjunath was immediately arrested and charged under sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. After a few days, three other staff, including the national academic head of the chain, were arrested.
According to the data released by the National Crime Records Bureau, Karnataka recorded 1565 cases under the POCSO Act, with 1602 victims in 2016. While the number is far less than the top three states in the country, it is an increase of about six percent from last year (1480 cases). Bengaluru recorded 308 cases in 2016, an increase from 273 in 2015.
Nagasimha Rao, Director, Child rights Trust, believes all parties involved have failed to protect children once they step out of their homes. For most schools, he says, just installing CCTVs and padlocking the gates of the premises is the definition of safety. “Who is checking the backgrounds of all the staff members?” he asks. “The schools should do it before hiring any teaching or non-teaching staff. But they just look to hire those ready to accept the lowest salary.” Rao adds that the school should display names of all the teachers, and hold weekly parent-teacher-student sessions so that there is more familiarity and open communication.
Such safeguards, however, were mentioned in 2014 too, after Bengaluru saw two horrific incidents of child sexual assault in other schools. The first was the branch of a school with a national presence, where an instructor raped a class 1 girl. Parents held intense protests across the city, demanding better safety for their wards. The police charged two gym instructors with rape, and the chairman of the school with suppressing information about the rape. In the second incident, an attendant at an international school was charged with raping a three-year-old girl.
A parent, 101 reporters spoke to, has since withdrawn their daughter from the latter school and enrolled his child in “a holistic boarding school” in another state. “I get weekly reports about my child from her teachers, she has a counsellor who she has to meet once every week,” says the 36-year-old father. He also has access to the direct contact numbers and professional history of all the school’s teachers. “They also confirm any changes in the school infrastructure with the parents,” he says.
“My wife and I were very scared after the incident in the previous school,” the father said. “We were not able to sleep for weeks, and were paranoid about sending our daughter back to the same school. We send our children to schools with the belief that their teachers and the school will keep them safe. But when they fail to do so, where can our children go?”
After the outrage among parents, the Women and Child Department in Karnataka set up a Child Protection Policy (CPC) to be mandatorily implemented in all schools. The CPC states “every school must have a child-centric approach among the management and teachers and there should be active involvement of children in all school-related activities”. Sadly, says Nagasimha Rao, this policy is not fully implemented in schools. “Schools must involve the parents in every decision, including hiring instructors. They have to install CCTVs in buses, corridors, staff rooms and also at all access points to the school. But, schools always try to cut costs,” he says.
In addition to security measures, the schools must have an in-house child counsellor independent from the other staff, says Ajith Onwale, a Mumbai-based psychologist. “A counsellor is not just to give career guidance but also provide emotional release and support,” he says, explaining that the counsellor must put the child above all else. “Children spend most of their time at school. But children nowadays fear their teachers, who are also young and don't know how to deal with children and teenagers. They need to be trained through modules and weekly sessions held for all staff members."
Rao says the police too must ensure child safety. He calls for child-friendly police stations, random checks on schools, inspection of premises and teachers, and police conversations with children, probing gently about any fears or disturbing incidents. Such strict preventive action must occur before another child falls prey to a child abuser.
A senior police officer who has handled a few recent child abuse cases admitted that this is wishful thinking. “Sending policemen to run background checks on school staff, inspecting every school premise or monitoring is a difficult task – we are short-staffed. Yes, it is important but it needs to be a joint effort of the parents, teachers, and the school management.” He mentions instances where schools don’t allow policemen to interact with children citing school policies. “It’s the parents who should make the child aware about good touch and bad touch, and tell them to report anything they see. The schools should also arrange visits to police stations, so that the children can be comfortable coming to us,” he says.
While the custodians of the society blame each other, some children are starting to believe that it might just be up to them. “After I heard about all the incidents in the city, I told my mother that I wanted to enrol in a karate class,” says 10-year-old Sharon D’Souza*, who goes to a renowned girls’ convent school in Bengaluru. “I want to keep myself safe. I am learning to fight so that nobody can dare to touch me.”
Sexual Assault on child in Kolkata School exposes huge security gaps
The recent sexual assault of a child at a Kolkata's famous GD Birla school exposed the gaps in safety in schools. Its management has shut down the school indefinitely. Some parents want it reopened. But not others, nor the father of the girl who was molested inside the school.
"My fight is with the GD Birla group," the father told NDTV. "When I admitted my daughter, I did not know the name of the principal or the PT teachers. I only knew the GD Birla brand. If they are guilty, the school should be shut. If they are not guilty, the school should be opened," he said.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee speaking on the issue said, "All teachers are not bad. But there are some bad people. We have to take action against them. It's a very bad incident."
Who is responsible for the child's plight? Two teachers were arrested and certainly they are responsible. But is the school's management also responsible? Is it not up to the state or the board to which they are affiliated to establish security guidelines and monitor their implementation? That is why the school where the four-year-old was abused got away with not a single CCTV in place though a girl was molested there three years ago.
According to the NDTV Report, the GD Birla School is affiliated to CISCE - the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examination which takes the ISC and ICSE exams. After the Ryan International murder case in Gurugram in September, the Council asked for security audits from all affiliated schools - including GD Birla. But that changed nothing. GD Birla did not install CCTVs till November 30 when the child was molested.
Lt. Col. Suresh Nath, administrator of Modern High School For Girls, said, "Presently every school takes security steps within their ambit. If the government streamlines it, it would be better."
*name changed to protect identity
(NiveditaNiranjankumar is a Bengalurubased freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)