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Apology & angst of city shamed
Schools speak out on safety

I am sorry it happened in Calcutta.

A school principal apologised to the French consul general on Thursday for a crime committed by a fellow-Calcuttan, echoing the sentiments of a city shamed by it.

Fabrice Etienne was visiting South City International School for the first time and would have least expected principal John Bagul to spring an apology on him soon after the customary bouquet.

“I apologised to him as an Indian and as a citizen of Calcutta. I said that I am sorry it happened in Calcutta,” Bagul told Metro later of his apology for the incident in which five young men had chased a Frenchwoman through the lanes of Jodhpur Park and Lake Gardens — a five-minute drive from South City International School — on Saturday night.

“The consul general replied that one would expect something like this to happen in a city like Delhi but not Calcutta,” the principal said.

Etienne spent two hours interacting with teachers and students of the school where the authorities are trying to gently teach the children to be “cautious” about the threats that seem to lurk in every corner.

Several other schools in town have raised the topic in classrooms over the past two days, signalling a shift among educators who would not long ago try to shield children from news of any such violence.

While South City International has made it part of the school assembly in the morning, Modern High and Apeejay School Park Street are doing it in an informal manner. Saturday’s episode has been part of discussions between teachers and high school students ever since it came to light.

Amita Prasad of Modern High feels that the idea of “hushing it up” is passé and that teachers not just “welcome such discussions but also encourage them”.

“What happened to the Frenchwoman might have been an extreme case but lewd or obscene remarks have become a recurrent reality in the city and every high school student is subject to it, irrespective of neighbourhoods. This happens not just in the dark alleys but also the so-called safe residential areas,” said Sharmila Bose, principal of Sushila Birla Girls’ School.

Bose’s school had made karate compulsory for its students after the gang rape of a young woman aboard a bus in Delhi last year.

At Modern High, the discussions that started on Wednesday have focused on how unsafe the city has become. “What happened last weekend was in a residential neighbourhood and since it’s so near, the threat is real. We are a girls’ school and very upbeat about women and their achievements but a feeling of defeat sets in when such incidents occur,” principal Kaveri Dutt said.

Students of classes VIII to XI at South City International have been advised to be generally cautious, keep their mobile phones always charged and be in touch with their parents or other family members whenever they step out.

Students have also been asked not to accept beverages from strangers at parties.

At Apeejay School Park Street, a teacher raised the topic in the Project Citizen Club for a group of 30 from classes VIII to XII. “One of the girls said that Calcutta used to be a women-friendly city and how her mother and grandmother’s generation never felt unsafe. Today’s project was that the students would carry forward the discussion, involving friends and others at home. They will bring small interviews to school tomorrow to discuss with the legal literacy club of the school,” said Chitrita Roy, who is in charge of the Project Citizen Club.

La Martiniere for Boys has not had a “specific discussion” yet but a cultural programme on the theme of women’s empowerment is slated for the beginning of August. “Boys need to be aware of their responsibility,” said physics teacher Abja Adhikari.

Gender sensitisation is already a part of the curriculum at La Martiniere. “Laws cannot change anything, the mindset has to change. The idea of taking women for granted or treating them as chattels has to change,” said Sunirmal Chakravarthi, principal of La Martiniere for Boys.

Psychologists stress the need for “dialogue” to make children mentally tougher. “When children hear about such things, it creates anxiety and a feeling of insecurity. Everything should be discussed clearly with the focus on how to protect themselves,” said Zena Deb, a consultant clinical psychologist who counsels adolescents and adults.