‘They knew, and they didn’t care’: Chennai schools’ #MeToo moment

After students of PSBB, many students from across schools in Chennai have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment at the hands of the staff.
Teacher in class
Teacher in class

It all began a few days ago, with Twitter users calling out the casteist statements made by standup comedians in their shows. The issue quickly gathered traction on the social media platform and soon, several well-known faces and influencers were called out for their casteist tweets, most of them made several years ago. The attention also turned to educational institutions that are known to be caste exclusive. Among these is Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB), a prominent school in Chennai. The discussions on the school, however, took a different turn after a barrage of allegations about child sexual abuse and sexual harassment by a teacher came to light through an Instagram handle. The allegations were made by students, former and current. By Monday, May 24, politicians, celebrity alumni and many others weighed in on the issue and demanded a strict investigation into the allegations.

Hours later, on the same day, the Chennai police arrested a teacher named G Rajagopalan, under several sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and remanded him to judicial custody. Kripali, the Instagram user who collated the students' allegations, first posted asking PSBB students to get in touch with her because she wished to verify something. However, after one student narrated their traumatic experience of sexual harassment and Kripali posted it in her stories, she was bombarded with several similar experiences from older and current students about the same teacher. The students also shared screenshots that prima facie supported their allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the concerned teacher.

Some also alleged that they had been subjected to inappropriate behaviour by teachers in other branches of the school. With the students opening the can of worms with PSBB, many more students from other prominent Chennai schools also made allegations on social media about inappropriate behaviour, child sexual abuse and harassment.

For instance, dozens of students of a prestigious private school in Chennai, Chettinad Vidyashram, opened up on Instagram about instances of sexual harassment and sexist behaviour, mainly involving three teachers. In particular, the students and alumni alleged that a sports coach's predatory behaviour has been an open secret within the school. Student accounts of other teachers in the school are trickling in, detailing more physical violations in the form of hitting, intimidation, and harassment within and outside the classroom.

Schools ignoring complaints

What is perhaps most worrying about the situation is that many of the students alleged that they had flagged the inappropriate behaviour of the staff to Chettinad Vidyashram authorities, but their complaints went unheard or they were invalidated. They were allegedly gaslighted and told that they were 'overreacting' and that this was a 'misunderstanding'. They were also made to feel guilty with alleged statements like the concerned staff member was the sole earning member of his family and did not deserve this. Students also alleged that the staff member was simply given a warning, and that he was still allowed in the vicinity of the students.

That many schools have not done everything in their power to prioritise the safety of the students is evident in the fact that many of the named teachers have been working in the institutions for decades. This pattern of dismissal and apathy towards student complaints has created a culture where several people become complicit in the actions of an individual over years. In many of the allegations made, the complaints go back all the way to students who attended the school in the 1990s and 2000s — who are now seeing that the situation remains unchanged for current students. Some of them, in fact, did try to change the existing culture of unaccountability.

Three former students — Sandya, Ghanapriya and Oli Arul — who graduated 19-20 years ago from Chettinad Vidyashram, gathered a group of alumni and attempted to speak with the management in late 2012 about implementing a child safety programme so that students did not have to go through similar ordeals. TNM spoke with the group about where that experience went: nowhere, in short.

They approached the management with high hopes. They came with what the school should have seen as a lifeboat — the group did not want to ‘out’ or blame the school; rather, they came with the intention of alerting the management and helping them create a safer environment for students. “We knew about such incidents from our friends and others who studied in the same school and we wanted to alert the management that something is happening, and here’s how to prevent it from happening in the future,” they told TNM. However, what they got in response was a dismissive “what do you want us to do?” attitude.

“These children are already exposed; do you know what they do behind buses?” is what the management said to the group, they alleged. Surprised at the reception, the trio offered to set up meetings with a local NGO working with victims of child sexual abuse to enact solutions for a supportive environment. “Prevention is the best bet we have,” they reportedly pointed out to the principal, but they were stonewalled.

As the meeting with the management went on, the trio recollect slowly learning that the management knew all along of the incidents — even guessing which teacher and which student were involved — and that they did not seem to be in a hurry to act. “They knew, and they didn’t care,” Oli alleged.

After the recent allegations on social media, the Chettinad Vidyashram management has asked current students and alumni to complete a form to file a formal complaint with the school’s sexual harassment committee.

The legal process

With Rajagopalan of PSBB being arrested by the Chennai police and remanded to judicial custody, TNM has understood from reliable sources that only one person has come forward to file a formal complaint with the police against him. An important question that has come up now is if a former student can file a complaint with the school’s Internal Committee (IC) or the police years after the incident allegedly took place. Are the IC and the police (under POCSO Act) empowered to take those complaints up, if the accused teachers are still working in the school?

“Since the sexual harassment here is on children below 18 years, the IC cannot deal with it,” said Geeta Ramaseshan, senior advocate in the Madras High Court. She added that POCSO will apply in such circumstances and that the Act requires mandatory reporting once a complaint is given to any authority. “An alumni who has information of such an act of abuse can set the law in motion and give a direct complaint to the police. Of course they must bring it to the knowledge of the school so that the school can take independent disciplinary action against the abuser apart from reporting to the police. As a matter of fact, as soon as it is brought to the knowledge of the school, they must immediately file a complaint in this regard,” she explained.

Referring to the allegations levelled by students from as early as 2002, Geeta Ramaseshan said that cases of abuse that happened before POCSO was enacted in 2012 cannot be filed. But any instances of harassment and abuse that happened in 2012 or later can be admitted, she clarified. “The Union Ministry of Law and Justice has clarified that no time limit will apply to POCSO cases. But the delay has to be explained clearly,” she said.

She added that this 2012 limitation does not apply to offences like rape, which can be tried as non-POCSO cases.

Prevention is better

The first thing that schools must do right now is to go into preventive mode, said Swarna Rajagopalan, the Founder of Prajnya, a Chennai-based non-profit working towards gender justice. “One of the things that we always do is that we address the problem that has been — and we don't prepare enough for things that could be. Now, not only will children be vulnerable to violence in traditional ways, they are also going to be vulnerable to all kinds of things from people taking photos of them etc.,” she said, adding that schools must sensitise teachers and must be proactive in conducting background checks on the candidates they hire.

Vidya Reddy, Founder of Tulir, an organisation that helps prevent child sexual abuse and assist those affected said that it is important to conduct ‘value interviews’ on candidates before hiring them. “During interviewing, give the candidates scenarios and ask them how they will handle it. Value interview is important when they work with human subjects,” she said.

Change in schools’ mindsets

Vidya Reddy also flagged that many schools consider the behaviour of such abusers a reflection of the school and that implied that it becomes a major reason for the cover ups. “Schools also have to get out of their belief that if there is an abuser, that is a reflection on the school. It is a reflection on that person alone. It becomes a reflection on the school if they behave like these private schools that have been named.”

Vidya Reddy also emphasised, “There has to be a culture of safety in schools, not just policy. I can download a document and call it a policy. But where is that inherent culture of safety? Where is the understanding of safety? Do any child-serving facilities even understand that where there is a congregation of children, there will soon be potential abusers following them? That’s why you have a category of people called ‘professional perpetrators’, where professions give them accessibility to children.”

Experts also suggested that schools should put in place a critical group of representatives from the administration, parents and the faculty who are aware of legal options if complaints of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment come up from students. “That group must be able to customise and undertake training and sensitisation across the school. Even as schools are reeling, they should get into prevention mode and think about the things to ensure that this culture of exploitation and violence is rooted out,” Swarna said.

A conspiracy of silence

Chinmayi Sripaada, a playback singer and a vocal advocate of Me Too, said that parents must be held responsible for children not coming forward to give a formal complaint. “Parents also don't want controversies and are not coming forward to file a complaint. They think that it is a shame for their daughters, which is why abusers go scot free. If a formal complaint doesn't come to the police, this man will walk out of jail after the initial remand period. Predators are emboldened by the fact that nobody will complain to the police against them,” she explained.

She pointed to the ‘conspiracy of silence’ in the society for most abusers escaping the law and continuing to abuse more children. “The child only knows what is happening to him/her and if parents themselves invalidate it, where will the child go? They train these kids to not talk about it. So if parents want to wash their hands off asking what the school was doing, I will also ask the parents what they were doing?” she said.

She also highlighted the importance of having the right people in the Internal Committee and the anti-sexual harassment committee in schools to ensure the safety of students. “Even if they constitute an IC or a POCSO unit in the school, I don't know how many of the complaints are taken seriously. They can cover up the complaints and keep retaining the teacher. There is another angle to this. If at all they decide to terminate the teacher, they won't call it a child sexual abuse case. They will just say that he was terminated because of performance problems and this will make him go and join another school, where he will be amidst children again,” she pointed out. 

We tried to contact the school multiple times but did not receive a response. This story will be updated if and when the school responds.  

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