A 15-year-old Dalit student of the St Andrews School in Hyderabad was allegedly made to strip by her teacher, on the suspicion that she was copying in the exams. Anita*, who studies at one of the branches of the St Andrews School in Hyderabad, was writing an Artificial Intelligence test on September 23, 2021, when the alleged incident happened. She was also menstruating that day and had to use the restroom a couple of times in the middle of her exam. Anita's mother, Sudha*, alleged that the class teacher suspected that Anita was going to the washroom to cheat, and accused her of the same. The teacher allegedly called Anita to the staff room, and then took her to the washroom with a sanitary worker (ayah).
There, she allegedly made Anita remove her top, including her undergarment, on the pretext of checking if she was hiding her phone there. On failing to find anything incriminating, Anita told her mother that the teacher insisted that she remove her pants, where she believed Anita was hiding a phone. However, Anita stood her ground and refused, despite the accusations the teacher continued to hurl at her, Anita told Sudha. The school has, however, denied all allegations and said that they have submitted their version to the police.
The day after the incident, Sudha went to the police, and an FIR was registered under sections 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 504, 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of the IPC, and section 3(2)(Va) of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015. Sudha has also complained to the Telangana State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) as well as the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), apart from the school itself.
Caste discrimination in the classroom
While Sudha was shocked by the harassment her daughter allegedly faced on September 23, this wasnât the first time Anita had complained of being mistreated by the same teacher, Sudha tells TNM. Sudha recalls many past instances when her daughter had complained about being singled out and scolded in front of her classmates by the teacher, sometimes over her clothes and appearance, and sometimes over trivial things like briefly turning off the webcam during online class.
According to Sudha, her daughter is being singled out because of her caste, as she belongs to the Mala community, a Scheduled Caste.
âKnowing the pattern of how she (the accused teacher) is treating my daughter and the several incidents that took place clearly indicate that this prejudice is illogical and deliberate and it is fair to assume this is due to the colour of skin of my daughter and her caste background,â she said in her complaint to the SCPCR.
Sudha says that the way her daughter was treated in the school is bound to have a lifelong impact on her. âWe are really shocked and ashamed that we have ignored the past indicators of this bullying and let this continue to happen to her. This is really a shameful teaching environment St Andrewâs school has created, that doesnât treat all children equally and deliberately pushes children into life-long trauma,â she said in her official complaint.
Sudha says Anita was once shamed for wearing a dress that the accused teacher considered too short. âThe teacher shouted abuses at my daughter asking if she was wearing a short dress to show off deliberately,â Sudha says, adding that while two other classmates who wore similar clothes were called aside and given a comparatively gentler warning, Anita alone was humiliated in front of her classmates. Sudha says the teacher has also repeatedly criticised Anitaâs choices in her appearance, like her hairstyle and wearing kohl in the eyes.
While young girls are often denigrated for being assertive, in Anitaâs case her caste location has made things worse for her, Sudha alleges. For instance, Sudha says that during online classes, âWhen her (Anitaâs) video fails due to network issues, the teacher shouts at her. When I return home from work in the middle of her class and my daughter has to open the door for me, the teacher shouts at her saying she doesnât concentrate, that she canât sit still and turns off her video frequently. But if another student does so, they are just given a warning. The disproportionate anger shown towards my daughter indicates the teacherâs prejudice,â Sudha alleges.
Parent says school did not act
When Sudha approached the school principal on September 24 with a complaint letter over the alleged incidents of the previous day, the principal denied that the incident had happened. âThe principal said I was wasting her time. She said my child was lying, and refused to acknowledge the incident. She also told me my daughter was caught copying in an exam last year,â says Sudha. When she asked why she wasnât informed of this as a parent, Sudha said she could not get a satisfactory answer from the principal. âRetroactively accusing my daughter only when questioned makes me believe the school is lying to malign my daughter and discredit the traumatic experience she underwent,â the mother says, alleging that the school authorities were prioritising shielding the schoolâs reputation over the childâs safety.
Sudha has demanded that the school carry out an investigation and terminate the teacher for abusing and sexually harassing her daughter, apologise for allowing the incident to happen, and to assure that Anita will be protected in the future.
When TNM called the school director, Hyacinth Emanuel, over the phone, a woman who claimed to be âMrs Sharmaâ answered, and said that âthere is no truth in the matter and it has been resolvedâ.
The police however said that the investigation in the matter is still ongoing, as CCTV footage from the school and other evidence are being examined. However, the alleged incident happened inside a restroom, where there are no video cameras. Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Malkajgiri, Rakshitha K Murthy, told TNM, âThe matter is still under investigation. We have not closed the case. Itâs not my case, the ACP has to come. We are still collecting evidence regarding it.â
The principal, Padmalaya Sarma, however gave a detailed response and claimed that their internal enquiry found that no such harassment happened.
âThe parent had come with the complaint. We did our internal inquiry. They have approached other investigating agencies as well, including the Child Welfare Committee and the police. We have submitted all the evidence. After doing a thorough inquiry, it was found that nothing that was mentioned has happened. All the evidence was collected and handed over to the investigation agencies,â she said.
The principal added that routine checks happen during examinations. âNothing like that happened, what her mother mentioned. It was a very routine thing which probably would have happened to all children,â she added.
On being asked if the school doubled down on accusations that the student copied in the past, when questioned about the alleged harassment, the principal said a routine check has been âblown out of proportion.â
âI have seen this teacher appreciating this student on online forums on two occasions. The student came and wrote her exam for five days after that day. She seemed happy and chirpy, I have never seen her nervous or scared or anything. She is a very nice child. This child has been with us for ten long years. You mentioned the caste thing. I am an army officerâs wife, we donât believe in anything like that in the school. We are very protective towards our children,â she added.
Sudha confirms that Anita went to the school on the days following the alleged incident as exams were still going on. âI made her go, she was not willing to. But I made her go to school to write the remaining exams as she had prepared for them. She was very stressed then, and is, even now,â she says.
Anita stopped going to school from October 20, when physical classes began. Sudha alleges that now, the school has turned hostile to her daughter, who, she says, is the only student in her class who is taking classes online. âShe refuses to go to school as she fears backlash from teachers and school authorities, and embarrassment from her friends and classmates. My child has already gone through a difficult childhood and this targeting and harassment has pushed her to the brink,â says Sudha.
On the school's claim that it was just a routine check, the girl's aunt *Radha asked why these checks are being done in bathrooms. "Should a routine check not be done in public? What is this check in a bathroom?"
TNM tried to get in touch with the Additional Commissioner of Police for Kushaiguda, Shiva Kumar, however he did not respond. A friend of Sudhaâs family, who has been helping them and coordinating with stakeholders, told TNM that he had spoken to the ACP on November 15, who said he is on leave and did not speak further on the matter. He said he also spoke to Hyacinth Emanuel, who told him that the âcase is closedâ.
Read: âThey knew, and they didnât careâ: Chennai schoolsâ #MeToo moment
Shaming young girls and caste discrimination
Though the school denies it, caste discrimination is quite common and even in upmarket schools. It has been recorded many times how teachers and even peers target students from marginalised communities. Shocking as it may seem to most people, the practice of doubting young girlsâ motives and punishing them when they are menstruating is not uncommon in schools and colleges, including in the Telugu states. Many young women who studied in corporate schools and junior colleges in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have talked about facing humiliation from school or hostel authorities, who tend to presume that periods are an excuse to skip class. In educational institutions where marks and ranks are given utmost importance, young girlsâ bodily autonomy tends to be ignored. Harassment in the guise of disciplining or surveillance by women teachers or authorities is deemed necessary, to ensure students are focused on studies. While this has been normalised in corporate schools and colleges in Hyderabad too, other private schools like St Andrews tend to enjoy a more progressive reputation.
Read: âProve you are menstruating': Junior college nightmare for students in Telugu states