How safe are our children at school?

A parent’s account of how even the best of schools take a lackadaisical approach to issues of children’s safety

anju

Anju Yadav | July 23, 2014 | New Delhi


Parents at a rally to protest the rape of a 6-year old schoolgirl in Bangalore: Is it not the responsibility of the school then to set some ‘zero-tolerance’ zones?
Parents at a rally to protest the rape of a 6-year old schoolgirl in Bangalore: Is it not the responsibility of the school then to set some ‘zero-tolerance’ zones?

Mornings for me are almost always rushed – the half-an-hour waking up session with the daughter, packing her lunch box, filling the water bottle and helping her get ready before rushing out to make it in time for the school bus.

Today was even more rushed. Husband and I had to be in time for her assembly. We made it in record time – beating even her school bus to the school.

A king and his queen were looking for a suitable match for the princess, and while many suitors brought beautiful flowers, one came with an empty pot. The king chose him for the princess after he told him how he tried very hard but could not get the seeds to grow as per the condition. His honesty swayed the king’s decision in his favour.

It was heartwarming to see children of class III extolling the virtues of honesty. But…

Last week, there was a scare in the school bus. Its radiator caught fire or burst or something -- we still do not know what exactly – and smoke filled the vehicle. Teachers in the bus hustled the children out to safety. Daughter was breathless on the phone, wanting to recount all that happened at once. She obviously reported only what she heard and saw – a loud noise, sudden burst of smoke inside the air-conditioned bus and then the teachers helping them out. Next morning, I asked the ‘didi’ (attendant) while she helped my daughter into the bus. She was dismissive. Understandably, she can’t be recounting the tale to every concerned parent at bus stops.

Still clueless about the incident, I wrote a note in the diary. The class teacher wrote back, but did not say much. So, I wrote another note requesting a meeting with the principal. The class teacher called back, saying the principal was out for some work the whole say and that she would fix up a time and tell the next day.

The next day again I got a call from the school saying the principal was away and that I should check with them the next morning after the assembly. I told this person what we wanted to talk about and that it would barely take 5-10 minutes of the principal. We wanted to apprise the principal about similar incidents of the same school bus breaking down several times during the past one year. One can understand an odd puncture stalling the bus, but the vehicle running out of fuel midway and ferrying a baraat in blatant violation of rules?

As we reached much before time for the assembly, I went up to the receptionist to ask her about the proposed meeting with the principal. She told us the principal was on her way and that she would check with her and tell us after the assembly. We came back after the half-hour assembly, taking away a lesson in honesty. The principal, we were told, was stuck in a jam and her phone was out of reach. “No problem, please see if we could meet the vice-principal (whom we had seen walking in minutes ago) for five minutes,” I told the receptionist.

Meanwhile, we went to the administration office to check something, and we also spoke to the bus coordinator about the incident. He did not know about the previous incidents of breakdowns and neither was he aware of the driver changing the route on the day there was no teacher in the bus. We wanted an assurance from the principal all the more.

As we walked back towards the reception, we saw the principal walking in. But then the receptionist rushed to tell us the principal was very busy and she could not see us. What about the vice-principal? She was also “very busy”. Helpfully, she directed us towards the, till now unknown, administration head. We registered our concerns with him. Frankly, however, even though he said the right things, he wasn’t quite able to put the parents of a 7-year-old at ease about her safety in the school bus.

Now, I don’t think the school was practicing ‘honesty is the best policy’. Heads of schools these days are a lot busier than when we were in school – so many activities to plan and so much more to manage – but surely sparing five minutes, at three days’ notice, to assure a child’s parents about her safety at their school is important enough to warrant their attention.

Just last week, a six-year-old Bangalore child was scarred for life when the school skating instructor raped her. Parents were outraged after the incident and took siege of the school authorities for failing to verify the antecedents of the instructor who was, earlier, thrown out of another school after complaints of similar nature.

Is it not the responsibility of the school then to set some ‘zero-tolerance’ zones? A hands-off policy for teachers and other staff dealing with children is one so that children don’t get caught in the ‘good touch, bad touch’ dilemma.

A school bus running out of fuel or caught ferrying a baraat should also be in the same category. Certainly, we do not want a full-fledged fire to snuff out some little lives before we sort out those maintenance issues.

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