In July, over 200 anxious parents gathered at the Lalaji Memorial Omega International school in Kolapakkam to question authorities about alleged sexual abuse of children travelling by a school bus. Amongst them were two families, whose boys were allegedly abused along with several others. These two couples were the only ones ready to lodge a complaint with the police against a cleaner, who travelled on the bus with the survivors. Soon after the protests, 48-year-old Bhaskar was arrested by the police and it seemed like the nightmarish ordeal faced by the victims would end.
But now, three months later, Bhaskar been let out on bail. ToI first reported that the families which stood up to fight have allegedly been harassed and intimidated by the school. In a letter to the Tamil Nadu Director General of Police on September 20, one of the complainants, whose four-year-old child was sexually abused, alleges that school authorities were threatening the parents to withdraw complaints.
'My child was sexually abused'
According to reports, around 40-50 children took the school bus every day and the complainants claim with certainty that at least five of these children were sexually abused. The harassment allegedly began when the school term started in June.
Girija*, a complainant and mother of a 4-year-old boy who first revealed the abuse, explains that her child was psychologically affected by the entire episode.
"He used to be a bright and outgoing child and suddenly, he became very withdrawn. He wouldn't let any of us touch him and he was scared of everything. Soon, when I started listening to the conversations of the children who went with him in the van, I realised they were discussing matters inappropriate for their age," she tells TNM. "They would say things like 'Lets lick each other' or 'Can I lift your skirt'. One day my son simply refused to go to school and kept crying. I asked him what happened multiple times, and he said that if he tells me, his father and I will get murdered," she adds.
For an entire night following this shocking statement, Girija tried to win her sonâ€™s confidence and understand what the matter was. But the traumatised four-year-old kept saying that his parents will die, his heart will burst or ghosts will come if he reveals the truth. It was only after she ensured him that none of this will happen and that he was safe, did the young child open up.
According to the FIR filed in the case on July 26, "The child said that the cleaner showed him a large worm like object (penis) and told him it was magical and that it could become big and small. He asked the child to touch it but the child claims he was disgusted."
When Girija went to another parent in the same apartment whose child travelled in the bus, she discovered that the matter was more serious than she had realised. The other child's description revealed that the cleaner was attempting penetrative sexual assault on children.
The complainant suspects that at least four members of the school staff, including the cleaner were involved in this sexual abuse of children.
"The two children told us that they were taken to secluded spots in the school and stripped. Young girls and boys were then made to lie on each other and do sexual things," says Girija. "Whenever these small children said they will tell their parents, the culprits used to lift them by their hair and threaten to murder their family. My son has been kicked and beaten up several times," she adds, her voice breaking.
But when the parents shared their findings with the school, they were allegedly stone-walled by authorities.
"It is the duty of the institution to protect the child," says advocate V Kannadasan, counsel for the complainants. "In fact, from the time the child steps into the school bus to the time he is dropped back, he is considered the responsibility of the school. What more, according to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, it is the school that should have filed the complaint. But instead, they have taken to harassing the parents," he adds.
The lawyer alleges that the school has done everything it can to quash this case.
"A multi-pronged approach has been adopted to unsettle the parents. Rowdy elements, intimidation, hospital authorities, and even the police are all being used as tools in a larger game being played out by the institution," he explains. "They are clearly trying to avoid a conviction because the reputation of the school will take a hit," he adds.
In the complainant's letter to the DGP, it is clearly stated that threats were issued to other parents who were ready to support their allegations.
"I submit that initially a parent teacher association meeting was not permitted in the school premises by the school authorities. On behalf of the school authorities, one Senthilnathan conducted a meeting at a park in Kolapakkam on September 29 and there we were threatened by him and other rowdy elements," reads the letter.
In addition to this, on August 8, even as the victims were giving their statements to a judicial magistrate, the school allegedly called for a meeting of other parents without the knowledge of these two affected families.
"In our absence, another PTA meeting was held at the school premises and parents were threatened by the school authorities and the above said rowdy elements. It was informed to us by other parents," the complainant alleges.
The Kilpauk Medical College doctor who examined the two children first claimed that there were no signs of sexual assault and stated that the case was false. Following this, Girija demanded a re-examination. The children were admitted on August 1.
"These children were so scared and for no reason they were taken in an ambulance to the children's hospital in Egmore. Then they were kept there for three days with very ill children and frightened further," she says. "My son is so scared that he doesn't even let me give him a bath. He is frightened when I, his own mother, touches him. And without even understanding all this trauma, the doctors made these children undress over and over again. There was no sensitivity shown," she says, her voice breaking.
The parents and their counsel are yet to receive the results of the second examination.
The parents claim that even the police is on the side of the alleged culprits.
"The investigating officials in the case are unnecessarily harassing us by showing the children at least 40 to 50 photos and confusing them by telling them that they would have seen sexual activities of their parents and told imaginary stories," reads the complainant's letter to the DGP.
School authorities have refused to comment on the matter. But TNM spoke to the investigating official in the case and she states that chargesheet in the case was filed last week.
"And in between all this they allowed the cleaner to be let out on bail," points out advocate Kannadasan. "I was keenly following up to ensure that this doesn't happen. But they purposely hid all details from me and then later claimed that even they were unaware that he was let out," he adds.
The complainants now fear that the cleaner would go warn others involved in the case and destroy relevant evidence.
Facing social isolation
In addition to the burden of fighting the school administration, the parents have also had to fight a social battle.
"Everyone in our apartment has stopped talking to us and they don't let their children play with mine," says Girija. The landlord too has asked them to move out of their residence. "I thought this fight that I took will ensure no other child will be harassed. But I wonder, have I let my own child be further harassed to save others?"