A teenage boy hugs a girl after she finishes a performance on stage. The teacher who witnesses this doesn’t like it. Like many schools and teachers in India, this one, too, believes that any physical contact between them is wrong. So what’s the best way for the school to deal with this?
For St Thomas Central School in Kerala capital Thiruvananthapuram, the answer was to expel both students. In fact, the school went to great lengths to gather ‘evidence’ against the teenagers, including accessing their Instagram account despite privacy settings, and going to court to enforce their ‘discipline’ when the parents of the boy objected.
It’s been five months since 16-year-old Rahul* has gone to school. It all started on July 21, when he hugged a girl student who had just participated and performed in a western singing competition. The two students were walking on the stairs after the competition and Rahul had given his friend a hug to congratulate her performance.
A teacher who happened to see the incident took the teens to the Vice Principal. Calling the hug ‘indecent, scandalous and an undisciplined public display of affection’ the St Thomas Central School, Thiruvananthapuram asked the boy and the girl not to come back to school for a week.
Speaking to TNM, Rahul narrated the incident: “Apart from a friendly gesture, shown to a friend, nothing more should have been attributed. The teacher didn't even ask us for any explanation. She saw us hugging and started shouting at us. We were immediately taken to the Vice Principal’s room. We waited there for half an hour, and on her arrival, I explained the incident to her. The Vice Principal looked convinced and warned us against repeating such actions.”
At this point, both students gave hand written apologies to the Vice Principal, and both of their class teachers were summoned. And that’s when things went further downhill. Rahul’s class teacher was allegedly adamant that the students should not be let off, and took it upon herself to ‘sort out’ the issue.Rahul’s father was then summoned to school on July 24 by Rajan Verghese, the secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society.
“I went along with my mother to meet the secretary as my wife was caught up with work,” said Rahul’s father.
But what shocked the father and the grandmother was the secretary’s alleged abusive behaviour towards the 16-year-old boy.
Speaking to TNM, Rahul’s father described his experience: “We were taken to the secretary’s room and I was shocked at the way he behaved with my son. He abused him and accused me of not knowing how to bring up a boy.”
“He called my son a ‘Vithukala’ (bull in heat), many other abusive words were showered on him. He told me to kill my son rather than bringing him up this way,” recalled the father.
According to the father, the secretary also said that Rahul should be punished like a godman who had recently been in the news. (He was alluding to the seer who was castrated in Thiruvananthapuram.)
The Instagram account
After this traumatic meeting, Rahul and the girl were allowed to attend the Onam examination.
But Rahul’s parents were summoned once again on August 11. And this time the school was in no mood to accommodate either of the students and were ready with ‘more evidence’ against the teenagers.
The parents and the boy were taken to the Principal’s office. The Principal showed the parents a set of screenshots of pictures that Rahul had posted on his private Instagram account. These personal pictures of the two teenagers were described by the school as “indecent, scandalous, highly objectionable lascivious material which appeals to prurient interest.”
Speaking to TNM, Rahul’s father alleged that the school officials were assimilating evidence from his personal life to harass his son.
“Doesn’t a student have his right to privacy? He had a private Instagram account and only those who are friends with him on Instagram can access his posts. The school authorities must have made another kid take screenshots and give it to them. Their intention is to assemble such evidence simply to discourage my son,” said Rahul’s father.
Rahul, too, has accused the school of violating his privacy. “My Instagram account is a private one which can be viewed by my followers only. The photos posted were not vulgar, obscene and raunchy as mentioned in the chargesheet. But still it has been removed from my Instagram account as it was brought to my notice that some undesirable persons are using it in different contexts.”
The school then asked Rahul to appear before the enquiry committee on September 18. The school in a charge sheet given to the parents and the boy on September 22 said that the Instagram account had “photographs containing, immoral, indecent, raunchy, intimate, explicit, obscene and objectionable content which were viewed by several students of the school which is not conforming to the discipline and moral values intended to be upheld by the students of the school.”
Rahul, speaking to TNM, alleged that his class teacher who had harassed him on several occasion since the year he joined the school, was the one who was adamant to go tough on him.
“She has always harassed me for no reason. On several occasions I have asked her politely why I was being treated badly, she had told me I was a headache for the teachers and was disappointed that I had joined this school,” said Rahul.
After two or three sittings on the issue, the school authorities finally on November 22 served the parents with an expulsion order for the two.
Child Rights Commission intervenes
The parents lost hope that the enquiry commission would be fair, considering it was headed and membered by the school authorities. They then decided to approach the state Child Rights Commission.
The Child Rights Commission gave an interim order on October 4 that suggested that the incident should not hamper the student’s education, and that the school should let the student attend class. The father then approached the school on October 5 with the interim order.
“I went to the school on October 5 and unfortunately couldn’t meet the Principal as he was out of town, and met the Vice Principal instead. She refused to acknowledge the order,” said Rahul’s father.
The battle goes to HC
The school, unwilling to accept the Child Rights Commission’s interim order, approached the Kerala High Court with a writ petition in which they highlighted that the hug and the Instagram pictures were not in line with the school’s discipline. The Secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society and the Principal argued that they were well within their rights to take action against their students. Justice Shaji P Chali on December 12 quashed the Child Rights Commission’s interim order, and held the school’s position as legal.
“We were disappointed that the HC’s judgment was against us. The school is of the mindset that they would go to any extent to not let my child into the school again,” said the father.
Students and adolescence
Though the Kerala High Court did not give relief to Rahul, the judge did mention that the school should have a larger and broader outlook when it comes to issues of adolescence. The court said that certain adolescent behavior was a ‘reality’.
When TNM approached the school, they stuck to their stand that hugging and handshakes between a boy and a girl in the school premises were against the discipline and conduct of the school rules.
Rajan Varghese, Secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society, told TNM, “Such undisciplined actions will not be allowed in a prestigious institution like ours. Boys and girls are not allowed to hug in the school premises, it is against the discipline and decorum of our institution. What about discipline? No colleges or schools in Kerala would allow such actions not just our institution,” said Rajan.
He later added, “The teacher who had seen the students hug each other has clearly said that they had hugged for a long time. At first she had asked the students to move back which fell on deaf ears. And then she shouted, that’s when the students moved back. Is that a congratulatory hug?”
Another school official spoke to TNM saying, “If everybody is allowed to hug each other to congratulate their friends, is it practically possible for a disciplined institution like ours to run? A girl and a boy are not allowed to congratulate even with a handshake inside the school premises, it is against discipline.”
Rahul’s father however believes the school could have dealt with the entire incident in a less harsh manner. “The school should have handled this better and in a mature way. They can punish the children but the quantum of punishment should weigh equal to the act of the students. These are adolescents, and teachers should deal with them in a better way,” he said.
"My son is an above average student and his future now hangs in the balance. He has a fundamental right to education, and privacy. It is the court that has to ensure him his rights," Rahul's mother said.
* Names have been changed to conceal identity.