Protect Children by Giving Them Safe, Law-Abiding Schools

Why do we allow private schools, that have poor safety records, to continue to operate with impunity?

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
A representational image of students in primary school. 
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Crimes against children in schools have created a sense of outrage in recent days. That children are vulnerable to crimes is an issue that I have raised repeatedly and loudly over several years. But the worst kind of crimes are when predators prey on children in the supposedly safe confines of a school.

Why Are Schools Operating with Impunity?

The cold-blooded murder of a 7-year-old boy in Ryan International School, a “premier” school in Gurugram, on 8 September, was the second death of a child on the premises of the school. The accused confessed to sexually assaulting the child before murdering him.

In 2016, the drowned body of another schoolboy was found in the water tank on the premises of a Ryan International school in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. There have been reports of a child being killed in a Delhi school as well.

Questions are being asked, as they have been in the past, about the conduct and accountability of the school management.

Why was a bus-conductor allowed inside the school, especially into a place like the toilet where children are most vulnerable to sexual predators? Why didn’t the first case of death teach the school management a lesson?

Questions that have been asked before, and remain unanswered, surface yet again – about the oversight on the part of the state governments’ education department when it comes to private schools.

What kind of guidelines exist that address safety and protection of children? What kind of enforcement and audits are conducted? Is protecting our children a priority of governments at all? If not, why not?

Why do private school groups, that have a poor safety record, continue to operate with impunity and no deterrence?

Time for Definitive Change

My fight to #ProtectOurChildren began way back in 2014, when the parents of an abused child contacted me for assistance. The child had been molested by a driver at an upscale school. I recall the response of the then Home Minister of my state of Karnataka: “Who asked the parents to send the child to that school?”

It was my first exposure to the apathy and insensitivity that parents of child victims had to endure. 

But I have been inspired and driven to change this by the silent and stoic determination of the parents to seek justice for their child, and to ensure that the criminal was not allowed to inflict this on other children. I was inspired to join their battle and that of countless other parents to fight for justice for their kids.

While every such incident rightfully sparks outrage, a few months later, a similar incident will prompt another post script – an analysis of “what we could have been done”. But the time has come for definitive change.

After repetitive deaths, we cannot afford to go on in the hope that this will blow over and that there is no other criminal, in any other school, who will perpetrate and commit another crime, on another innocent child. 

Management Must Fear Law

Crimes against children represent the worst forms of cruelty, especially because it violates the basic trust and care that a child expects from an adult. Crimes committed in schools are even worse because it violates the trust that parents and children repose in the school and its teachers.

Such crimes may traumatise some parents and may even keep them from sending their children to school. Predictably, the anger is directed at the school management, who should have also been charged under POCSO and other statutes.

It was shameful and shocking to watch police lathi-charge the parents, who were only seeking accountability from the school management.

The Haryana government must arrest and prosecute the school management with maximum severity and levy punitive damages on the school authorities. The deterrence effect must be seen and felt. The fear of law must be deeply ingrained because clearly, schools do not feel the need to take the safety of children seriously. If this is done, the message would go out to all school managements about the seriousness of the government, subsequent crimes may also be averted.

The recent incident only reaffirms the need to make school managements responsible for children’s safety against this kind of crime in school premises. 

Time for a National Sexual Offenders Registry

I characterise crimes against children as the most heinous of all criminal activity. These crimes are a form of terrorism, and they require urgent, deep, and concerted efforts by governments at the Centre and states. Governments all over must make protecting children and safe schools a priority. I have said this many times, I will say this again, and I hope many more will join me in saying this.

The regulation of private schools must change from a “chalta hai” cosy deal between politicians and school managements to one that makes child safety a matter of obligation. Licensing private schools must be accompanied with strict guidelines and audits of schools.

Guidelines should require schools to mandatorily verify the background of all staff that will be in proximity to the children. The states and the Centre should have a National Sexual offenders registry, etc.

We Owe Children a Violence-Free Life

There is much to do by way of improving police capacity to register and investigate child crimes. More child courts and more effective prosecution of these cases are required in order to ensure that those who prey on children are convicted, instead of the current high acquittal rates that are a result of ineffective prosecution, or parents simply giving up.

High acquittal rates are particularly dangerous when it comes to crimes against children, because most criminals are repeat offenders. 

The government and the Parliament must review the POCSO Act itself. The amendments and improvements of the Act must be discussed since it was passed over half a decade ago and there is an urgent need to address some of its shortcomings. The list of things to do to protect our children is a long one, but a doable one.

Every one of these crimes takes away our children’s right to a safe, happy and healthy childhood. I urge Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chief Ministers of all our states to wake up to this real threat to our future generations, to commit to a real national mission to make schools safer and to protect our children.

We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life that is free of violence and fear.

(Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a Member of Parliament. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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