Apathy in the Face of Child Abuse: How Prepared Are Schools?
Teachers are neither sensitised nor equipped to handle situations where the child is being victimised.
Seven-year-old Pradyumn’s distraught mother holds her son’s marksheet, wailing at the sight of the 20/20 he scored in his subjects. Pradyumn Thakur was murdered on Friday by a bus conductor in his school, after he allegedly refused the latter’s sexual advances.
Facing the camera, his weeping mother asks:
The teacher who till yesterday praised my son for being excellent, how can she pin his death to the Blue Whale Challenge? My son never played with the phone, he would either cycle or play cricket.
Click here for live updates on the developing case around Pradyumn’s murder.
The Blue Whale Challenge – that was the teacher’s alleged response when Pradyumn’s parents questioned her regarding their son’s murder. Her response indicates a two-fold ignorance on the matter. The first being that the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ cannot be played by children as young as seven, and the second being that the child had been slit across the throat, which clearly indicated murder.
Following closely on the heels of the Pradyumn’s murder was the alleged rape of a five-year-old girl by a peon in Delhi’s Tagore International School on Saturday. According to the young girl’s mother, her teacher had initially dismissed the issue when she complained of the peon’s inappropriate behaviour, merely brushing it off with non-committal platitudes about reprimanding the perpetrator. The teacher also allegedly did not report the matter to authorities higher up the rung.
Where is this apathy in teachers stemming from?
“It arises from the need to acknowledge the obvious reality, which is child sexual abuse, and/or physical abuse within school premises. Schools need to adopt a proactive approach towards the issue, and denial needs to go,” asserts Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman, a child sexual abuse survivor who is now heralding a campaign which aims to spread awareness on child sexual abuse.
The five-year-old girl’s plight was brought to the police’s notice after she was admitted in the hospital following complaints of a stomach ache. Upon medical examination, it was found that she had been raped, calling for a police complaint and investigation.
This raises the question: Why did the teacher not raise alarm if the student had already complained to her earlier about the assault?
“If she did not bring the matter to the notice of the police, then she is culpable”, exclaims Pervin Malhotra, a leading educational expert and career consultant. “Strict guidelines need to be in place, and she should be punished.”
The ‘Save-Face’ Attitude
When the five-year-old girl told her teacher about the rape, she reportedly attempted to stifle the matter, by placating the child with chocolates to protect the school’s reputation.
Condemning schools’ general cover-up attitude when a case of sexual assault is brought to their notice, Devburman slams teachers for turning a blind eye to their students’ complaints. “Teachers should listen, instead they shut the child up to save their institution’s name.”
So, are these rapidly mushrooming brand-conscious private schools to be held accountable?
Malhotra points to the failing standards of government schools as the root cause. “Why are lower-income families forced to send their children to such shady private schools? It is because the government schools have failed to deliver”, she argues.
Further, teaching is a default option for many, she adds. “Repeated inspection has shown that many teachers do not have even the basic qualifications to teach. Their credentials exist merely on paper. The education department needs to pull up its socks and ensure there is no compromise on a child’s education and safety.”
Despite a growing need, teachers are neither sensitised nor equipped to handle situations where the child is victimised.
“Sensitising teachers towards child sexual and physical abuse is not a one-off program that can be completed through a module. It is an ongoing process that needs to be revisited regularly,” says Rashmi Singh, principal and administrator of Hand-in-Hand, a city-based preschool.
Concurring with Singh’s sentiments, Malhotra says:
Child sexual abuse awareness has become some sort of a check-box that schools tend to tick off, but that is not the case. Mere sensitisation is not enough, it needs to be reinforced. A clear hierarchy and structure must be imposed regarding information and complaints.
“Knowing how to look out for signs is as important as basic teacher-training,” she adds, likening awareness about child abuse to basic disaster-management training.
Devburman insists on taking a ‘more forceful’ route, by including ‘Personal Safety Education’ as a separate module in schools. “There is a clear knowledge gap, and nothing is being done to better the situation. It is a dismal scene, with constant roadblocks at every stage,” she rues.
What’s the Right Approach?
Apart from acknowledging the existence of child sexual and physical abuse, a teacher should lend a listening ear when a student complains of abuse.
“If a child wants to talk, hear them out. Calm, comfort and ease them, after which seek medical relief,” advises Dr Priyanka Halwasiya, a child psychiatrist at the city’s Gangaram Hospital.
This immediately needs to be followed up with a complaint to higher authorities within the school. “Even if the school administration refuses to approach the police, the onus is on the teacher to go ahead and register a complaint,” elaborates Dr Halwasiya.
While empathising with the student, a teacher should also constantly stay aware of their behaviour and process any changes when spotted, says Rashmi Singh.
“Always listen to what the child has to say, and don’t reject or negate what they tell you,” she says.
As for logistical and security lapses, Singh insists on constant checks, particularly in the wake of the recent incidents. “Nothing can be taken lightly – it is important to verify every bit of information regarding the teaching and non-teaching staff.”
Her school is equipped with CCTVs all around, and enables live-streaming for parents who wish to keep an eye on their children.
Take it as an alarm. If it is happening in Gurugram and East Delhi, then how far are we?
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