One would think that, with schools closed for the best part of a year and classes being held over videoconference, schoolchildren would be safe from sexual harassment. But, in May this year, a commerce teacher from PSBB school was accused by several of his female students of this very crime and has now been arrested under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. Among other things, his female students have posted screenshots of him asking them to movies, making personal remarks about their attire, and taking class wearing only a towel. This set off a slew of complaints from several of his former students, who have been taught in person, and said they had been repeatedly harassed. What started as a complaint against one teacher from one branch of a school quickly spread to include other branches of the school, other schools across Tamil Nadu, and eventually other states.
The complaints against various teachers ranged from inappropriate texting to actual sexual intercourse, which counts as statutory rape given that the act involved a minor girl. And it wasn’t just the girls. Boys have come out with stories about being groped by male teachers or assistants. Some years ago, there were several cases of kindergarten children being molested on school buses. We had to come to terms with the horrific idea that children as young as five could be raped in the purported safety of their school campuses.
Although we live in an age when technology has allowed the world to adopt a “new normal”, and find ways to function through a pandemic, it appears there is little to no monitoring of schoolchildren’s safety. Why, one wonders, are videoconference sessions not recorded? Why are students and teachers not expected to maintain the same dress code in virtual school as in live school? And why are classrooms and school buses not equipped with CCTV cameras?
It is a widely accepted theory that child sexual predators gravitate towards professions that will allow them to spend time prospective prey, from day care to teaching to just working in places that are teeming with children—like schools and orphanages.
There are some advocates for the other side too. The very teacher who was arrested, Rajagopal, was the subject of a letter of support from a particular batch of alumni. A class of students, who passed out in 2007, said he was no predator and that he had taken pains to hold extra classes to help out students, and that it was all a misunderstanding—a clash between his outmoded ideas of camaraderie and the boundaries millennial students had drawn. Another common defence is “It never happened to me” or “It never happened to my children”.
Yes, there are nuances involved. Yes, there is outright sexual harassment and then there is unintended offence caused by a generational conflict. And to ascertain which of these is in play, the investigation needs to be as nuanced. In some cases, systems of monitoring and screenshots and digital footprints have served as proof. In most cases, systems of monitoring would at the very least act as a deterrent for possible predators.
But it is not simply a question of interpretation. Prepubescent and teenage children are at a delicate age, when they are coming to terms with the changes in their bodies and the changes in the way they are perceived by the world. A girl realises she is no longer a child when someone whistles at her or tries to grope her on the street. It is at this awkward age that they are nearly always targeted by habitual sex offenders on the streets.
Schools typically place the onus on children to be “modestly dressed”. Girls who appear to take pride in their appearance or figures, who might in fact simply be trying to fit into their bodies, are often “slut-shamed”. In addition to imposing uniforms that ensure the girls are as unattractive as possible, schools often treat their male students as offenders-in-waiting. Boys are beaten for so much as talking to girls. In trying to keep students “safe”, school authorities make it all but impossible for any kind of rapport or natural relationship to exist between the two sexes. However, it appears male schoolteachers are exempt from the suspicion directed at male students.
One of the major hurdles to solving sexual harassment of any kind in schools is that we believe it cannot happen under a given set of circumstances. Parents believe speaking to their children about “good touch” and “bad touch” and assuring them that channels of communication are open is most of the job done. Schools believe decades of service is character certificate enough for a teacher. The world believes that girls who are “modestly dressed” are safe, and that boys are always safe; the world also believes that women cannot be sex offenders, and one wonders how long it will be before male students speak of inappropriate behaviour from female teachers and other school staff.
Another problem is the deification of teachers—they are “gurus”, we say, and therefore elevate them to something beyond human beings, flawed like everyone else. And that is why students hesitate to speak about harassment not only from schoolteachers, but also music and dance tutors.
Yet another problem is that, just like bullying, sexual harassment is considered a rite of passage. Perhaps not in schools, but no one expects a girl to get through her teen years without being harassed on public transport or in public places. We are no longer surprised when women speak about being sexually abused in childhood by family friends and even family members.
Clearly, we need to re-evaluate the safeguards we have in place. Most schools have Sexual Harassment Committees and Safety and Security Committees, but they are constituted by staff. Their focus is most often on ensuring the media does not get hold of the story, and solving it “internally”.
But sexual harassment is not an “internal matter” of the school. One possible solution would be to circulate a list of professional counsellors whom schoolchildren can contact on a regular basis, and who will be required to report any suspected harassment to the law-and-order authorities. The education ministry should ideally have Sexual Harassment Committees and Safety and Security Committees constituted by non-staff members, and answerable only to the board or the Department of Education. India is overdue for a publicly available registry of sex offenders.
Most importantly, it must be ensured any means of monitoring the safety of schoolchildren is free from the influence of the political party in power at the state or centre.
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