Education is one of the most important building blocks of one's life. A child spends nearly 13-15 years of his/her life in school. Along with providing quality education, ensuring a safe environment should be one of the top priorities for schools.
The recent death of a 10-year-old from a snakebite in a school in Wayanad district caused an uproar in the state of Kerala. What we saw after that was a blame game between the opposition and the government; students and residents came down heavily on the school authorities while a minister accused the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). The question here is who is ultimately responsible for such incidents and what are the ways to prevent them?
From the Dabwali (Haryana) fire incident in 1995, where 425 children perished, and umpteen number of sexual abuse cases that have been reported from schools across the country, to the most horrific murder of 7-year-old Pradyuman Thakur in a school in Gurgaon, there have been so many instances where lives of innocent students have been snuffed out. Yet we are still unable to do anything to prevent such incidents. Data shows that 43 children die in road accidents every day in India. Many innocent lives were lost in a number of accidents and boat mishaps in Kerala in the past years.
At the policy level, there is no dearth of guidelines or policies to address these issues. The Indian Constitution guarantees the right to life and dignity, education, protection from abuse, and opportunities to develop as able adults through Articles 21, 21A, 39(e) and 39(f), respectively. Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, and Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, have strict provisions to deal with any offences against children, with POCSO having the provision of capital punishment. It is worthy to mention that in this particular case from Kerala, the accused have also been charged under Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, which deals with any cruelty against children. The same provision can also be invoked for any corporal punishment that is meted out in school. (Corporal punishments are banned across schools in India.)
The Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) issued detailed guidelines on school safety in 2014, with further additions in the coming years to ensure that institutional mechanisms and procedures should be implemented in the school system along with relief and redressal strategies in case of any such incidents to guarantee a safe and harmonious school environment. Both the Central Board of Secondary Education and the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations have enough provisions to ensure that children are safe in schools. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) came up with a comprehensive manual on safety and security of children in schools which is a compilation of 22 existing and approved manuals/guidelines developed by various government agencies like NCERT, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MoDWS), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), National Institute of Disaster Management Authority (NIDM) and many more. To add to this, there are guidelines issued by specific state governments, police departments, National and State Disaster Management Authorities, among others.
In August 2018, MHRD proposed draft guidelines that fix accountability of the school management in ensuring safety and security of children in school. The provisions advocate following of the guidelines set by NCPCR as the central document and propose that in case the schools do not adhere to these, they should be fined anywhere between 1% to 5% of the total revenue that they have generated in the preceding year. In case of continuous violation, the government has been given the right to withdraw the recognition of such schools and take over its operations. However, the draft guidelines have not seen the light of day.
The majority of the above provisions target private schools. Compulsory provisions like installation of CCTV cameras in schools, appointment of a counsellor, police verification of staff and many other guidelines are forced upon private schools, while the government schools get away. Safety of children should be the top priority for schools and states should take the initiative to implement these provisions first in the government schools and then in private schools in a phased manner.
There are many challenges before us—policies are scattered; state and board provisions are not centralised; various organisations dealing with schools have no idea of how to go about dealing with these issues. A few suggestions listed below could be a positive step towards a safe school experience for children across the country.
1. All the provisions which are scattered right now should be brought as one policy document, and preferably under one agency which could be either the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights or the National Disaster Management Authority.
2. The agency selected as the primary agency should be given ample rights to take necessary action against any violation, whether it is at the government level or at the school level.
3. The teacher training institutes and teacher training courses across the country should include ‘child safety’ as a subject.
4. Even though School Management Committees (SMCs)/PTAs are legally empowered to take decisions, majority of the schools do not allow them to exercise it. Hence, SMCs/PTAs should be given the right to exercise their powers.
5. Schools should create awareness among parents through SMCs and PTAs about the importance of educating their children about safety and against possible dangers.
6. In a country where nearly 53% of the children are sexually abused, it is important that children are taught life skills to tackle such issues. It is also imperative to make them understand the difference between ‘safe touch’ and ‘unsafe touch’.
7. All schools should have Student Safety Committees led by students. They should be given the authority to audit the school premises and report issues to the school principal leading to immediate resolution.
8. Many states and education boards across the country have included disaster management as a component in their curriculum. A stricter implementation of this should be given priority.
9. Once most of the schools get permanent recognition, further inspections are not conducted (except in certain states, where the fire department does demand renewal of the fire safety certificates) to check if they are adhering to the norms. In such a scenario, the government should form a District Safety Committee with the officials from District or the Block Education Office along with the local police authorities and fire station, who should be given the right to inspect schools for any grave safety breach. The findings should be used to penalise schools or take stricter action against them.
10. A safety audit of the schools (every year or every 2 years) by an external agency should be made mandatory.
11. Reporting protocols in case of any offence should be publicised across schools to make students feel empowered to report such matters to the relevant authorities.
12. Mandatory refresher trainings on child safety should be given to teachers, students, parents and support staff like drivers, peons, housekeeping staff, etc.
13.All schools should make health and life insurance coverage for the students mandatory. Both the parents and the school could contribute equally to this.
14.Schools should have at its immediate disposal emergency numbers, number of nearby hospitals or clinics, vehicles on call, school safety plans and mapping of the neighbourhood for dealing with an immediate crisis.
15. Form Child Safety Committees at the community level with Sarpanch/Panchayat President as the head of the committee. They should be ready to address any emergency situation in schools.
The responsibility of Children’s safety cannot be solely put on schools. It should be a collective effort of the government, community, schools, parents, students and teachers. They should come together and work as a unit to ensure safety and security of children and not a single life will be lost in future.
Ashish Alex is the Director of Operations at Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) a think tank based out of Kerala.