Without profound change in society our schools will never be safe

Following the killing of seven-year old Pradyuman at a private School in early September[1] last year and the public outcry, local authorities in Gurgaon, the central educational board, and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights have issued new guidelines[2] to improve the safety of our children at school, setting out requirements for CCTV, school buses and school safety committees etc. Does this put our minds at ease? Absolutely yes. Will it make schools a safe place for our children? Absolutely no. 

CCTV won’t make our schools safe

New guidelines and safety commissions demonstrate goodwill, but will run dry without enforcement, as they have done in the past. The latest provisions are not substantively new, they more or less reinforce requirements that have been in place for a while. The enduring large scale of violent incidents in schools makes it obvious that guidelines and regulations have not been working in the past – so why would now be any different?  Just four weeks after the boy being killed in Ryan International School I saw a school bus belonging to the very same school driving on the road with its doors wide open, despite the guidelines prescribing that they must be closed. Little Pradyuman wasn’t dead for a month and the guidelines were already being ignored. The problem with school safety is not the lack of regulations but the inability to implement them. As long as we keep treating symptoms instead of addressing the root cause of such violent incidents, guidelines will continue to be in vain. While CCTV may help to facilitate prosecution and put parents’ minds at ease for now, it will not help to prevent crimes from happening in the first place. 

The reason why schools are not a safe place

Instead of pointless activism and excessive bureaucracy, we must ask ourselves why our schools need CCTV, why they need female only bathroom attendants, or why school bus drivers need to be trained not to assault our children? The answer is: because violence against children in our country is pervasive and commonly accepted – and to the surprise of some of us, it does not stop at the school gate. Schools are a mirror reflection of our values as a society. The fact that schools dedicate more and more resources to fancy technology and facilities cannot cover up that they fail at the most fundamental task to keep our children safe. And how could they? If violence against children is accepted almost everywhere by everyone, how do we expect our schools to be any different? The unsettling truth is that they are just as dangerous. While the most horrific crimes that spark the headlines every now and then make this undeniable, we can find even more compelling evidence when we look at the baseline level of violence that our children have to suffer almost on a daily basis and which goes mostly unreported. 

Corporal punishment needs to stop

Corporal punishment is the most pervasive form of violence in our society, particularly in schools. It includes not only physical abuse but also mental harassment such as scolding, berating or ridiculing children. The large majority of children in India is being physically or mentally abused by their school teachers – the numbers of children affected ranging between 65% and 99.9%[3], whereas children from low-income and migrant backgrounds are more affected than children from more affluent families. You probably wonder how “harmless little smacks” are related to incidents such as in Ryan International School and whether we shouldn’t worry more about murder and more severe forms of violence? In fact, it is the other way around. We must look at the bottom of the iceberg in order to understand how its tip is built. Serious crimes can only be prevented if the lowest level of violence is considered unacceptable. But if we allow teachers to abuse their students, our youth learn that violence is okay. It doesn’t make any sense at all – children are permanently beaten and harassed at school, but at the same time expected to manage their conflicts and frustration in a peaceful way. Children replicate behaviours that we teach them, and the people who have authority over them – particularly parents and teachers – are responsible to teach them well. Unfortunately, we are doing the opposite – and therefore are to be blamed for the violence, especially against children, that is plaguing our society at large. If we want our kids to be safe at school, we need to stop the abuse that happens there every single day. While improving CCTV and reinforcing safety regulations is necessary, it is even more necessary to rid schools of the daily baseline violence that is inflicted on our children in the form of corporal punishment. Otherwise our schools will never be safe. 

[1] Livemint, Hindustan Times, Times of India [2] Haryana Government School Education Directorate School Education: Regulations on School Safety 8/193-2017-PS(4) 15. September 2017 and Central Board of Secondary Education: Safety of Children in Schools Regulation 12. September 2017 and Annexures[3] Ministry of Women and Child Development Government of India: Study on Child Abuse: India 2007 (available at Save the Children’s Resource Centre)