The Telegraph
Thursday , September 14 , 2017

Schools plug gaps in student safety

Sept. 13: Schools in Calcutta are ramping up security and seeking ways to evaluate and monitor employee behaviour in a bid to assuage growing concern among parents about the safety of their children within the campus.

The increased vigilance comes in the wake of the murder of two boys in Gurgaon and Faridabad, the first one inside the campus of a reputable institute.

A south Calcutta boys' school has deployed two ayahs outside the washroom while another institute has decided to deploy an extra guard to go around the campus and ensure that no unauthorised person is loitering.

Some schools are speaking to their bus contractors to ensure that drivers and conductors do not roam the campuses. A girls' school has forbidden children of all classes from entering an empty classroom alone. They are allowed to do so only in a group and never before the scheduled time.

A few schools are trying to devise ways to restrict the entry of pool car drivers beyond a point despite carrying escort cards authorising them to pick up children after classes give over.

The steps are apparently a response to parents raising questions about outsiders having access to campuses, which many of them feel makes their children vulnerable to attacks even on a walled campus.

The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations has already asked all affiliated institutes to furnish details of steps taken for the security of students on their campuses.

The CBSE today asked 19,500 affiliated schools to put all their employees, including teachers, through a psychometric evaluation. If implemented, around 10 lakh employees in more than 26 countries would need to be evaluated.

Psychometric tests are used to measure an individual's mental capabilities and record behavioural patterns.

The question is whether these constitute a knee-jerk reaction to the incidents in Gurgaon and Faridabad or systemic changes meant to minimise the risk of accidents on a campus.

Parents have objected to construction or renovation on any campus during school hours because masons then have permission to enter what should be a restricted area.

"Workers from outside must not be allowed into a campus during school hours because often children might not be mature enough to know how to avoid a stranger," said a father whose daughter is in Class IV.

Schools argue that workers are given identity cards, but the question is how do they know the intention of the person who is entering the campus on the pretext of work.

In August, a mason had entered a girls' school in central Calcutta and allegedly made indecent gestures at some students. He fell to his death from a mango tree while trying to flee.

The man had entered the school apparently to visit a renovation site. He allegedly harassed some girls during the lunch break.

Many schools have outsourced their security to agencies and parents fear that the authorities are often not in the know about the credibility of the people working on the campus. But schools insist that their security agencies provide them with detailed information about guards and supervisers, including verification certificates from the local police station.

"We have hired a security agency because the level of service is more professional than what we would get by employing guards of our own. Whenever we find a security guard lax and ask for a replacement, it is done immediately. This would not be possible if we engaged permanent staff," said the principal of an ICSE school in central Calcutta.

Experts feel that more than the police doing a background check, it is important for schools to independently know the people working for them.

Many schools are reviewing security measures already in place and trying to fill the gaps without causing much alarm. "We do not want to build a fortress around our children. We are taking the necessary precautions, but simultaneously we have to strike a balance so that our children are not frightened," said the head of a school in south Calcutta.

Psychiatrists warn against "mass hysteria", saying that children should not be made to believe they are constantly under threat. They also need to be reassured that what happened at Ryan International in Gurgaon is not the norm.

"Child abuse is common and we have to be absolutely certain about the infrastructural and procedural issues.... We also need to acknowledge the fact that we live in a real world; so howsoever harsh it may sound, we cannot make a child's environment completely risk-free," said psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram.

Ram recommends raising awareness and peer-to-peer interaction to educate children about potential threats.

"It is more effective when a student of Class VIII or IX is speaking to children in the junior section and quoting real examples rather than a 60-year-old. Children are more accepting of each other," Ram said.

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