Siddaramaiah's order to implement child protection policy in Karnataka schools is too little too late
It has taken the horror of reportedly seven cases of child sexual abuse in a private pre-school for the chief minister of Karnataka to realise the magnitude of the problem.
It has taken the horror of reportedly seven cases of child sexual abuse in a private pre-school for the chief minister of Karnataka to realise the magnitude of the problem. Siddaramaiah has now asked Education and Women and Child Development departments to ensure strict implementation of child protection policy in schools. The pity is this directive comes three years too late. Civil society had demanded that this policy instead of being only on paper, be enforced strictly after a similar case of abuse at a prestigious school rocked Bengaluru in 2014.
On 17 February, the first case of abuse was reported at the pre-school, with a three-year-old complaining of pain in her private parts. When asked, she pointed to an attendant and said he had hurt her after taking her to the toilet. The school reportedly tried to hush up the matter but that one complaint opened the floodgates. When every little one, including boys were questioned by their worried parents, they narrated their ordeal. It exposed the horrified parents to the fact that the educational institution was a den of sexual abuse on a daily basis. The attendant, the teacher who brushed away complaints made by parents earlier and the principal have now been booked under POCSO.
On the face of it, the school claimed to have the necessary safeguards in place. There are CCTV cameras installed throughout the school but ironically the accused was in charge of the machines. The school also claimed that a background verification had been done on the attendant before he was appointed eight years ago to the school, that has 160 students on its rolls now.
To ensure that the children are safe during the time they are in school, CCTV surveillance and background checks of all school employees is considered a must. But most managements are reluctant to invest in it unless the expenditure is passed on to the parents. Since that increases the monthly school fee, many parents are then unwilling to take on the extra financial burden.
But even with cases where schools claim the background checks have been done, the quality of the verification is far from satisfactory. In any city, private detective agencies charge between Rs 400 and Rs 600 for a background check to be done on a potential employee and that includes the police verification as well. Given that the agency would want to make money on every verification, it is highly unlikely that a thorough check is possible in this amount. In most cases it is a sham, reduced to just ticking the boxes after merely checking there is no police case registered against the candidate.
Experts also point out that merely installing CCTV cameras is not enough. Quality monitoring of the footage is what makes the difference. The ideal situation, which is practised in some schools in the country, would be to ensure that live streaming from all the centres, in case of a big set-up, is fed into a master control room, with one person in charge of looking at the footage during the working hours, non-stop. Every hour, he has to take a snapshot of the output from every camera and report to his superior for feedback.
It is this extra investment that ensures that there are two other persons outside the school premises who are keeping an eye on any child left unattended or whether there is a case of corporal punishment. These two personnel who monitor and give feedback are in fact, trained to detect abnormalities. For instance, a dark classroom during working hours ought to send the alarm bells ringing. In some kindergarten schools, even parents through an app can log into the CCTV output from their ward's classroom so that they too can keep a watch over what is happening.
Not that problems do not arise even with schools that invest in foolproof mechanisms and more than one layer of surveillance. The internet playing truant or power supply through UPS giving trouble are usual hiccups. But in institutions where those on the ground know big brother is alert and watching, the margin of mischief is less.
The institution in question in Bengaluru runs a chain of nursery schools across India and has its hand in multiple businesses. That again is an issue because big ticket and high profile brands allow any mom and pop outlet to start a playschool by paying a fee to the franchise. Since the overheads are many, in most cases, these outlets eager to cash in on the brand name, compromise on the quality of manpower they hire. As a result, everything gets discounted and low skilled labour gets co-opted into the system.
Also the brands issue only generic guidelines on academic standards and there is little or no control over hiring of staff and security stipulations. Any interference also is not usually appreciated by the person who has taken the license.
Which is why India's education ministry along with women and child development department need to look at this franchise model and how it is working on the ground. Especially when it is doing little to keep children safe.
There is also a lack of sensitivity with handling cases of child sex abuse without realising that such incidents scar a young one for life. For instance, the chief minister's twitter handle gave out the identity of the school and the location, even when guidelines stipulate that any information that reveal the identity of the victim should not be put out in the public domain.
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