Many schools are actively complicit in allowing inappropriate behaviour to thrive and giving it any number of veneers.

School girl crying in classroom as teacher looks onImage for representation only
news Child Sexual Abuse Wednesday, June 02, 2021 - 11:12

It was 1997. Manisha had just started fifth grade in a prominent Chennai CBSE school. On the first day of school, she and two of her classmates were called to the front of the class by her male class teacher, who asked them to take attendance. And as they were doing so, he began touching their backs and legs and rubbing their bodies. For the next two weeks, 10-year-old Manisha excused herself to go to the bathroom when it was time to take attendance. She proceeded to make herself throw up and had the school call her parents to take her home. When Manisha finally told her parents that her teacher was touching her inappropriately, they immediately went to the school management and supported her in making a complaint. The first thing she was asked by the principal, as well as her class teacher who was called into the room, was, “Why aren’t the other two girls complaining?”

All that came of the complaint was that the teacher no longer touched her, and continued abusing the other two girls, Manisha says. Manisha — raised in a household where she could get questions around consent and sex answered, where her parents backed her up against errant teachers, where she could raise her voice against safe and unsafe touch — escaped a scarring situation by making a complaint and getting herself heard at least by her parents. 

The allegations of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse against Chennai schools brought up in the past few weeks have made clear that not every child is lucky enough to expect the same outcome as Manisha. 

The allegations made on social media have resulted in a police investigation, summons by the State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, and alumni organisations looking to hold their institutions accountable. Though these are welcome actions, it’s also clear that many survivors are afraid to share their experiences openly because they are still operating in an environment of trauma, shame, and the mental turmoil of coming to terms with the abuse. 

TNM reported last week about a larger culture of silence surrounding abuse in Chennai schools. How does this toxic environment sustain itself and what impact does it have over students? 

Normalising abuse

For some, it might have been a flashy watch. A side partition in the hair, a hint of kajal in the eyes. For others, it might have been ankle socks,  basketball shorts or a stray conversation with a boy in the corridor. The students TNM spoke with said that any departure from conformity would not be treated as a transgression consistent with the journey of adolescence; it was instead a chance to manipulate the child, humiliate them publicly, accuse them of wanting to attract the other gender, and entirely discourage them from going to the school — a place meant to guide and shape young minds — if they should ever have a problem. If they brought their parents to school, they would be mocked for ‘causing a scene’ until they left the premises for good. If they were seniors, the bogeyman of Board exams hung like a dark cloud over any possibility of complaint.

Some students learnt very young that they would not be helped. Nita*, an alumnus of the same prestigious Chennai school as Manisha, remembers being mocked for attaining puberty early and being shamed for her body type through middle and high school. She had no reason to trust anybody.

So, when a male invigilator touched her inappropriately for the duration of an exam, 11-year-old Nita didn’t tell anyone. The next year, when she borrowed a male teacher’s phone to call her parents from school and he violated her during the phone call in the classroom, 12-year-old Nita fled the room and didn’t tell anyone. 

When she was sexually groomed by another teacher of the school two years later, a man who isolated her from her parents for two years, shared pornography with her, and forcibly kissed her on the lips as she screamed ‘no’, she didn’t tell anyone. 

“I blamed myself for what had happened to me,” Nita says. “I blamed myself for looking a certain way, for developing breasts too early, for going through puberty at a young age because that was what I was conditioned to hearing throughout my childhood from my teachers and adults in the school. I remember feeling very lonely as a child as I could not speak to my parents or approach my teachers about this.”

Nita suffered panic attacks for years when she saw anyone who resembled her abusers. She rebuilt her self-esteem and unlearnt shame slowly, over years of therapy and support from her family and friends, and social media movements around #MeToo and body positivity. And now, she’s reliving her trauma every day as more students share their experiences. The environment hasn’t changed.

“The fear of shame and alienation and losing their chance to pursue what they are passionate about stopped many from speaking up,” she says. “We, as students, were all gaslighted into believing that these violations were all tough love of some sort and came from a ‘place of care’. They dressed up the physical assault, shaming and verbal abuse as care and the mockery as ‘jokes’ when none of these were even humane.”

Also read: 22 alumni allege sexual abuse by teacher, KV CLRI insists on physical presence for inquiry

‘Tough love’

Tough love, the sacrosanct Guru-Shishya relationship, and gaslighting were perhaps even more common outside the classroom — on the sports courts. Allegations against a basketball coach employed by this school speak of normalised abuse and harassment that were repeatedly justified as part of coaching. 

Rachel*, a member of the first basketball team at this school in the ‘90s (which would go on to become a formidable team in later years), remembers all too well the contempt a girl’s basketball team received from the school at the time. If academic performance dropped or at the first sign of trouble, the school seemed to be willing to let them fall through the cracks, Rachel says. 

Amidst this, the basketball coach seemed to be the lone figure standing up for the girls against a hostile administration. Corporal punishment, victim-blaming, and fear of being “that girl” stalked every player who experienced abuse — many of whom were willing to tolerate the coach’s harassment for the love of the game and a shot at an engineering seat. So, when he began to turn violent and invasive — molesting her in the PT room, switching between “fatherly affection” and “romantic love”, saying inappropriate things — Rachel didn’t even consider complaining to the school. She yelled back at him and put her foot down, but did not take matters further. 

“If in a loaded slut-shaming environment you had to say after a while of playing and rising in the team that the man who is training you is groping you, you don't feel like anyone would believe you or not discredit your game,” she says. 

Meena*, another former basketball team member at the same school, agreed. Eighteen years ago, Meena was a player in a basketball team that was winning every tournament. The same coach was now leading a highly sought-after team and he knew it. He exploited the love the girls had for the game and the trust their parents had in him. He punished girls emotionally if they retaliated, banning them from games they were promised and telling them they were “assuming things.”

“He would confuse you in making a decision as to whether he was doing something to you or whether he was playing God in the form of Guru,” Meena says. 

Meena tolerated the coach’s emotional abuse and threats of molestation if she made a wrong play for two years. She left the school after that, but kept her silence: she had to prepare for college, pass exams, and get out of toxic school environments. She was just surviving, she says, with no other recourse.

 “We never had a system where we could speak to somebody and trust somebody,” she says. “Trust had already been let down on the court, where else could I go?” 

Schools complicit in abuse

Many schools are actively complicit in allowing inappropriate behaviour to thrive and giving it any number of veneers: that teachers knew best, teachers were trying to be friendly, the character of a teacher was beyond question, and children themselves were of dubious character because they dared to have boyfriends and girlfriends.

A practising lawyer and an alumnus of another prestigious school whose staff member has been arrested, recalls how the Accountancy teacher would use the names of two students —  a boy and a girl —  in setting examples for exam papers if he suspected that the pair had romantic links. The significance of this violation and many others struck the students only much later.

“God knows, if I am speaking to a boy today and tomorrow it ends up in the question paper, then what? And if mere acquaintance and conversation can imply a romantic relationship, that too inferred by the teacher and not other students, it is hugely problematic,” she says. 

This inside-joke of the exam paper example might have made students squirm — but the lurid invasion of privacy didn’t strike any other adults at the school as inappropriate. Besides, as a highly-regarded teacher with a long legacy, he had the institutional stamp of approval. 

“[It was like] I am being inducted into adult behavioural norms, that includes romantic relations before I am even a major because of the way the school is dealing with it.” she says. “Being in a school for the majority of your day as a child means that your sexuality was not just being dealt with by people who were not you or your parents, but people in positions of power and authority. There has to be a certain kind of confidence to be able to tell the management about what happened. Does that confidence even exist when this is the atmosphere in schools?” she asks. 

She says that there was only a hostile attitude, which seemed out of place in a co-educational school. “Co-ed schools were established to deal with then-segregated schools, not just for equality, but to make sure everybody gets along with everybody else and you’re not put into the world not knowing how to talk to the other gender,” she points out. 

Schools either circumvent accountability, or are just not aware of basic requirements when it came to fundamental non-negotiable expectations in line with the law, she says: a legally mandated child protection policy that was easily accessible, a child protection committee whose members’ names and contacts were accessible, an anonymous complaint box or at least, an active reporting mechanism. If the school did have such a policy, it wasn’t readily publicised to students or parents.

It didn’t seem like the school wanted to try its hand at a lasting systemic solution until a student council in 2017-18 gave it a shot. Rahul*, a member of the student council, spoke to TNM about establishing an equity policy and office during the school’s cultural fest in 2017 to deter participants from passing off fat-shaming, slut-shaming, and sexually inappropriate jokes as content. After the festival, the council tried to scale this up to a permanent school feature with a peer education component along with strategies for escalation and resolution.

In the effort’s nascent days, the school was approving of the council’s class-to-class efforts about consent education, personal boundaries and safe and unsafe touch. However, when the council’s reporting mechanism—one that was set up to allow students a chance to approach a student intermediary instead of a teacher—received 150 complaints, some of them about bullying and stalking, in two weeks, the school clamped down and disbanded the committee.

“I think it was pretty heavily implied that they didn’t want student effort looking into something so sensitive,” he says. “They ended up dismantling it because half-yearly exams were coming up. I don’t think there has been a formal process or committee or student effort since then.” 

The council was asked to remain mum about the complaints they’d received. The institution had once again chosen the status quo. “We were quite disappointed,” Rahul says. “We didn’t have much of a choice and we couldn’t have done more than what we’d already done.”

#MeToo in schools

Fast forward to the last two weeks, when another generation of students has been trying to give their peers a choice: speak up. Soukhya and Priyanka, alumni of the Chennai schools in question, who have been sharing their peers’ allegations against their respective schools on Instagram, are fighting battles every day. The two are now reading stories of abuse daily — and receiving threats for sharing them is a constant trigger.

“Sometimes I get so traumatised and anxious reading stories,” Soukhya says. “When I get a call, I’m alarmed that it's a threat call. Not being sure of who is calling, I’m recording every call.”

Both Soukhya and her family have received threats about consequences if she doesn’t take the stories down. When she was pushed to her lowest point by threat calls, someone told her: “Where there’s guilt, there’s threats.” So Soukhya fights on.

Priyanka received more than 2,000 messages when she began sharing stories of another Chennai school. What horrified her more than threats was former students invalidating their peers’ experiences. 

“A few students even say the abuse was what made them a better person, and that I am trying to defame the school,” she says. “This is not about bringing down or defaming a 50-60 year old institution.”

Also read: 'Why didn't she file a complaint?': A survivor not going to cops doesn't mean she's lying

Both Soukhya and Priyanka were victims themselves: Soukhya experienced assault as a seven-year-old in school and was constantly bullied for being a “silent student”. Priyanka still stammers to this day when she recalls how a Maths teacher, livid that she had used a different method than his on a test, called her parents, threw the paper in their face, accused her of staring inappropriately at him in class and said he was ashamed to teach her. 

Anxiety, trouble vocalising, panic attacks — speaking up about mental health in light of sexual abuse was almost as taboo as speaking of the abuse itself. Dr. Sindhuja Sankaran, a Chettinad Vidyashram alumnus, and current assistant professor of social psychology, recalls a matrix of incidents — slut-shaming for wearing shorts during athletics, victim-blaming when it turned out her stalker had shared photographs he had taken of her, and academic pressure to perform even as she competed in athletics nationally. In retrospective, all this could’ve led to what she now suspects were psychosomatic attacks, she says. She suffered severe back pain for 1.5 years that disappeared only after the 10th board exams.

“If I went through that, I can’t even imagine what everyone else was experiencing with other kinds of sexual, physical and verbal abuse,” she says. “Heightened stress leads to an increase in cortisol levels, resulting in a host of other physical problems.” Her teachers accused her of using back pain as an excuse to get out of exams, rather than helping her out in a time of struggle.

Nothing institutionally seems to have changed since 1999, she says, least of all the ambivalence and apathy from the staff, even when students say that something is off. 

“You got into education to help students learn and not to be military, authoritarian leaders where everyone has to do exactly as you ask them to do and if they don't, you punish or ignore them,” she points out. “This is not what teaching should be and this is not what education is about.”

Making schools accountable

Over the last two weeks, alumni of Chennai schools have been re-uniting amid somber circumstances. They recognise classmates they haven’t seen in a decade, only to empathise with them in the next message about the abuse it turned out they had endured. A collective unpacking of trauma and a fierce determination to hold their institutions accountable is palpable. High on their wishlist? Systematic overhaul that installs a child protection safety policy, an independent committee that investigates cases in a non-judgemental and confidential fashion, proactive in-house psychologists and sensitivity training for staff and students. One alumni statement also requested the school to let alumni also give statements about how the atmosphere was, so that they understand it was not an isolated incident, but a widely prevalent one fueled by inaction across the years.

Every survivor TNM spoke with for the story wished they had been listened to five, 10, or 20 years ago. The environment they had trusted as children had failed them — today, as activists, lawyers, researchers, and professors with children of their own, they are fighting to change the conversation.

“We underestimate children as a society,” Manisha says. “It is our job as adults to empower children.” 

That starts with believing, listening and systematic support.

“In our culture of victim blaming, slut shaming and saying being raped or abused is worse than death, there’s just so little of being listened to and supported,” Manisha concludes. But abuse needn’t be the end of the road. “This happens, and you can still be a whole person after this happens to you,” says Manisha. And survivors need to remember that. 

*names changed

PSBB Alumni Statement Against Sexual Abuse of Students:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1inpEEEP_5W1bfOGcWkGpLjCbYAIbwHO1/view?usp=sharing

Chettinad Vidyashram Alumni Statement Against Sexual Abuse of Students:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ISyW5BmC-Zb8IurVTBTsh54AIkxZn678/view?usp=sharing

Divya Murthy is a freelance writer with five years of experience working in the journalism, publishing, and copywriting industries. Please find her features and miscellaneous writing work on divyamurthy.net.

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