When did our schools get so unsafe?

Last Updated: Mon, Apr 01, 2019 13:16 hrs
Crime Against Children: Shame: Three-year-old raped, murdered in Delhi

It was a short news item. The wire that had sent the same brief note to newspapers and websites across the country had hardly any details, and none appear to have emerged since.

It terrified parents and shocked everyone who read it.

A twelve-year-old child had been allegedly beaten to death by his seniors at school. The school authorities then buried his body on campus and did not inform either the police or his parents of the murder.

The incident occurred on March 10, and did not come to light until two weeks later.

This is what the report said: the school had organised an outing, during which someone had stolen biscuits. As collective punishment, the school locked its doors and stopped all students from leaving the campus. The Class 7 student, who was suspected of being the thief, was set upon by his seniors with cricket bats and stumps. He endured hours of the beating before the school authorities took him to hospital, where he was declared brought dead.

What was the school management doing leaving to their own devices a group of boys with access to cricket paraphernalia that could be used as weapons? Where was the physical training teacher, who ought to have kept these items under lock and key? How could students be so unsupervised that hours of thrashing and screaming could go unheard? Why did an elite boarding school not have CCTV cameras installed?

There are two crucial issues involved in such a crime – (a) How do we deal with child-on-child violence? (b) How do we guarantee physical safety in our schools?

Even as schools have begun to charge exorbitant fees for tuition and transport, even as they have become harder for students to get into, there has been a drastic rise in incidents of extreme bullying within schools.

Whether this was always the case and is only just being reported is a subject of debate. But bullying is one thing; rape and murder are another.

In the last few years, there have been several cases of children being molested on school buses as well as on campus.

Two years ago, a 7-year-old girl was drugged and molested regularly over a period of four months by two female seniors, studying in Class 8 and 9 of her school in Delhi. The Class 9 student was an adult.

Last year, the principal, hostel warden, and administrator of a co-educational boarding school in Uttarkhand were arrested after a Class 10 student accused them of hushing up her gang rape by four male students of Class 12. The victim also told police that a school official tried to give her emergency contraceptives to terminate a possible pregnancy.

Less than two years ago, the murder of 7-year-old Pradyuman Thakur of Ryan International School made headlines. The police initially arrested one of the bus drivers from the school. Eventually, the Central Bureau of Investigation took over the case and arrested a 16-year-old student of Class 11. In CCTV footage that played out on news television, Pradyuman is seen walking to the restroom, with an enormous school bag on his small shoulders. The video clip, which reportedly also shows the Class 11 student, apparently led the CBI to the alleged perpetrator. The CBI said he had searched the internet to find out how to remove fingerprints from a weapon as well as researched on various poisons. Other students called him “aggressive” and a “bully”. Initial reports said the Class 11 student confessed to killing Pradyuman Thakur in order to postpone the school examinations. Later, he reportedly retracted the confession. The investigation is still on.

Due to the gravity of the crime, the 16-year-old is set to face trial as an adult.

But nothing will bring back the 7-year-old child, whose final images will forever haunt his family.

Nothing will bring back the 12-year-old boy whose family was denied even the chance to perform his last rites.

And nothing will undo the sexual assaults girls and boys have suffered in their schools.

Before we look at punishment and redress, we ought to look at prevention.

With the sort of technology available today, and with the kind of fee structure most schools impose, why are they not able to supervise their students more carefully? Why is there no dedicated security team monitoring CCTV cameras in schools, as they do in malls? Why is no staff member stationed at the toilets, as they used to be a generation ago? Why isn’t there a camera inside every school bus and every school classroom?

When parents see their children off to school, they should know it will not be the last time they see them.

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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com