For scores of children from Kerala's tribal hamlets, the Model Residential Schools run by the state government are windows to a brighter future. The 20 residential schools spread across the state admit boys and girls from the most disadvantaged tribal communities and offer them quality education, with all expenses -- including syllabus material, food and accommodation -- borne by the government.
However, in October 2019, 12 tribal girls from a Model Residential School in Kottayam wished to give up all of these facilities, drop out of school and return to their villages. The 12 minors were allegedly being sexually abused by their music teacher, Narendra Babu, during classes. Over the last four months, the accused teacher had been inappropriately touching the minor girls who went to him for their weekly music classes, their complaints revealed.
Traumatised by the experience, the children turned to the school authorities for help in early October. However, the very academic institution which was responsible for their well-being and safety failed them in an appalling and criminal neglect of duty.
For over two weeks, the top authorities of the residential school not only sat on the handwritten complaints filed by the girls on October 13, but also allowed the accused teacher to continue interacting with these students; enabling him to bully and coerce the students to withdraw their complaints.
The school not only failed to inform the local police, but a few of the teachers also lobbied in support of the accused music teacher claiming that the minors were 'soliciting' him.
"The children had revealed the music teacher’s actions to the counsellor. Their complaints varied, with some stating that he would pass sexually suggestive comments, hold their hands tight, and touch them inappropriately,” said Cathy*, the mother of one of the survivors. “Dharmajan, the Senior Superintendent in-charge of the school administration, was duly informed about this. Based on his suggestion, the children wrote down their problems and the handwritten complaints were submitted on October 13," Cathy added.
Over the next two weeks, the two state departments -- Department of Public Instruction and the Scheduled Tribes Development Department -- failed to report the incident to the local
police or child protection unit -- which is actually against the law. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, under section 19, mandates that anyone with information regarding a sexual crime against a minor must report it. Local activists as well as Cathy tell TNM that by not doing so, the school was trying to protect its reputation.
Coercing students to withdraw complaints
Till October 31, when he was sent on leave, Narendra Babu, a violinist from Vaikom, continued to serve as a music instructor in the school. He allegedly used this time to attempt to coerce the children into withdrawing their complaints. He wasn’t alone either -- apparently, four teachers supported him, and helped him gaslight, bully, and victim shame the complainants.
"A few of the victims had already dropped out from school following the harassment -- Narendra Babu would enter their classes and ask them to withdraw their complaints. Four of his associates -- who included a senior teacher as well -- also tried to convince the children that his abuse was an expression of 'fatherly love'. The teachers also fought with the school authorities claiming that the children were soliciting the accused teacher. “It takes two hands to clap,” they said,” the mother of a survivor recalled.
"In the days between October 13 and 31, many of these children faced unbearable harassment from the accused teacher and his associates,” alleged Anish Parampuzha, a member of the Fraternity Movement, a local political organisation working with the complainants and their parents. “The teachers said that the students would face the wrath of god if they didn’t withdraw their complaints. One of the children even fainted in the assembly following seizures after she was confronted by the accused teacher."
It was only on October 17 that the Parents Teachers Association (PTA) Executive Committee of the school came to know of the issue, after some of the students complained to a parent -- a PTA member -- saying they wanted to go home. Parents had allegedly been kept in the dark about the child sexual abuse complaint for four days.
The PTA escalated the matter by approaching the District Collector and demanded a probe. Two parents directly filed a complaint with the local police chief. However, the school has still not filed a complaint with the police.
As a consequence of the alleged abuse, at least 96 students have boycotted the school and returned home, Cathy told TNM. “They promise to not go back unless the accused, and the four teachers who enabled the abuse are removed from the school. We have directly filed a complaint with Kottayam District Collector Jeevan Babu IAS regarding the removal of these teachers.”
“I got a call from the school yesterday asking me to send my daughter back as exams are coming up. I told them no. My daughter studies in grade 6. For me her dignity and safety is much more important than school exams,” Cathy added.
School defensive, says it raised matter internally
The Model Residential School system comes under the purview of two separate departments of the Kerala government. While the Scheduled Tribes Development Department (STDD) was in charge of the administrative affairs of the school, all the teachers, including the headmaster were appointed by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).
Senior Superintendent Dharmajan, who is the head of the school's administrative affairs told TNM that he raised the matter within his department. But this only happened after the PTA escalated the matter.
"These were separate incidents which took place over a period of time. On receiving the complaint from the students, I alerted the headmaster and the concerned teachers (who belong to the DPI). I then informed my controlling officer who raised the issue with higher authorities inside the department,” said Dharmajan.
“On October 22, a project officer (from the STDD) met the students and took their statements. I have to take the proper course in such cases as it is also the teacher's reputation which is at stake here," he justified.
MR Vijayan, the school headmaster said that he had asked the accused teacher to 'go on leave' on October 31. "I had been alerted to the complaints verbally by the Senior Superintendent. None of the written complaints had been shown to us. We discussed the matter among the teachers and I had asked the accused to go on leave," MR Vijayan told TNM.
No complaint filed by school
However, none of the procedures resulted in the school submitting a police complaint. On October 26, members of the PTA met Kottayam District Collector Jeevan Babu IAS and submitted a letter demanding an investigation.
An inquiry was initiated by Babu. The Assistant Collector visited the school and collected statements of the children. Based on this, a complaint was filed with the District Police Chief, who had already received two other complaints from the parents of minors who faced sexual abuse.
Over a fortnight after the students reported the sexual abuse to school authorities, the accused teacher was asked to go on leave on October 31. This, after police a team led by
Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP) R Sreekumar, who was charged with the probe, took statements from the children. Narendra Babu was arrested the following day.
Speaking to TNM, DySP R Sreekumar said that on visiting the school, three other students also came forward, accusing Narendra Babu of sexual abuse, bringing the number of victims to 15.
"Currently we have filed 15 cases against the accused. Cases have been filed under seven sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, including aggravated penetrative assault; and IPC section 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty) and the SC/ST Act," the DySP said.
However, no cases have been registered against the school authorities for failing to inform the police.
Are the authorities culpable?
Speaking to TNM, Anwar Karakkadan, an official from Childline Malappuram says that school authorities are legally obligated to inform the local police, and the local child protection unit of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) on learning about sexual crime against a minor, or, when upon receiving complaints of child sexual abuse. The punishment for failing to do so, invites a fine and imprisonment up to a year.
"When child sexual abuse is reported in a school, the first impulse is most often to always bury the incident and protect the reputation of the school. Those close to the accused person can also try and stop the issue from being escalated. In such cases, the school authorities are required to first alert the police or child protection agencies instead of following proper channels of hierarchy of the school management," Anwar added.
Anwar says that certain sections of the POCSO Act can be interpreted to deem sexual abuse as 'aggravated' under certain circumstances: such as when the abuser is in a position of trust or authority vis-a-vis the minor, like a family member, or doctor, or a teacher, as in Narendra Babu’s case. This can attract a graver punishment for the offender.
Kerala bears the ignominy of recording poor conviction rates for child sexual abuse cases. Between 2013 and 2018, the conviction rate of cases registered under POCSO Act across the state have been less than 18%, according to data released by Childline.
Between these years, trial of 1255 cases under section 5 (aggravated penetrative sexual assault), section 7 (sexual assault), section 9 (aggravated sexual assault), section 11 (harassment), section 13 (using children for pornography), and section 15 (keeping in possession pornographic records involving children) of the POCSO Act have been completed.
However, the accused in only 230 cases were convicted. Kozhikode district recorded the highest number of cases - 282 - with only 23 of them ending in conviction.
*Name changed to protect identity