Child abuse charge exposes loopholes - School draws flak for delay in alerting cops

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By JHINUK MAZUMDAR AND ZEESHAN JAWED
  • Published 11.11.14
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Calcutta, Nov. 10: Hundreds of parents protested today outside the GD Birla Centre for Education in Ranikuthi, a 41-year-old school, demanding more women staff on the premises and in the school bus following allegations that a child had been abused.

A complaint written by the parents of the girl, who is aged three years and eight months, on November 3 about the alleged incident on October 31 says the girl fell asleep on the bus while playing with an “uncle”. An “aunt” was helping her put on her dress when she woke up, the complaint added.

The school confined itself to conducting an internal inquiry — until word spread and other parents threatened a larger agitation.

On Friday, some parents had said they would lay a siege on Monday. Either on Saturday or Sunday — several days after the complaint was lodged — the school forwarded it to police. Based on that letter from the parents, the Jadavpur police station has started a case under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. The act deals with various forms of sexual assault on children.

The school blamed the delay on the parents’ reluctance to go to the police and their appeal for privacy.

The protesting parents accused the school — girls-only till Class X and co-ed after that — of trying to hush up the incident using the call for privacy as an excuse. (See Metro)

After the daylong protests, the school issued a release saying it “took the complaint seriously and started internal enquiry immediately”.

The controversy brings to the fore the lack of a mechanism in schools to deal with such complaints. The following are the allegations and the initial response from the school:

Denial

Last week, the school had denied altogether the existence of a complaint. Principal Sharmila Nath had told this newspaper on Saturday: “No such incident has happened.”

“Even on Monday morning, they were unwilling to discuss with us what had happened and what could be done to prevent a replay,” said a parent.

Later on Monday, the school claimed it had conducted an internal inquiry and suspended a male staff member. He was apparently identified after the child seemed to recoil at the sight of him in a red T-shirt.

The initial denial suggests the school is compromising on the relationship of trust that it has with other parents who have entrusted their children to the institution, said psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram. “One, it is negligence which has led to the abuse. Second, if the school is denying it, you are denying a sense of safety and justice to the parents also,” he added.

Denial has become the common response to child sexual abuse, especially in so-called “good schools”, felt many educators.

“The durwans, drivers and attendants come into the extended network of the child. When the authorities try to deny the incident, the child loses trust in the adults to whom it must have gone for redress,” said Ram.

Denial leads to delay in identifying the guilty.

Delay

According to some sources, GD Birla had come to know of the alleged incident as far back as on October 31.

Even by the school’s admission, it received the complaint on November 3. On November 8, the school “brought (the incident) to the notice of the police”. According to the police, the parents’ complaint to the school was forwarded to them on November 9.

If all it had to do was forward the parents’ complaint, it is not clear why the school waited for five to nine days.

“Any cognisable offence should immediately be brought to the notice of the police,” said Santosh Pandey, deputy commissioner, south-suburban division.

Delay can destroy crucial evidence. In this case, the reported reluctance of the parents and the school’s denial ensured that no medical test was conducted on the girl. “The parents are even now not ready to produce the child for a medical examination,” said Pandey.

Any delay in arresting the accused also gives the impression that it is possible to get away after such a crime, something that can encourage habitual offenders and deter would-be complainants.

Internal inquiry

“On the basis of the girl’s statement and description, the school also arranged a parade of suspected persons for a possible identification in the presence of the parents,” says the GD Birla release.

The release quotes the parents as saying that “three ayahs who were on duty on the date of abuse” and “two sweepers” were called to the identification parade.

Police officers and teachers questioned a school’s ability to probe internally what is clearly a criminal case. “Just like the police do not have the expertise to teach schoolchildren, the management of a school does not possess the expertise to identify an offender,” said a police officer not connected with the case.

“The girl is in such a traumatic state that any stranger will induce fear in her. After seeing a strange man, the girl may have got scared and the school concluded that he is the culprit. They may be right but parading a possible criminal before a child is not the best way to do it,” the officer added.

GD Birla girls have been rehearsing with students from two other schools from the Ashok Hall Group of Schools for a fest scheduled at Netaji Indoor Stadium on January 17 and 18. For that, rehearsals are being held every day across several venues such as the Geetanjali Stadium, Vivekananda Park and the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium.

Students are ferried to these venues and brought back every day. Some of the protesting parents said on Monday that the event should be scrapped.

Trauma twice over

Psychiatrists and school counsellors said that asking a child to identify the offender amounted to making her “revisit the trauma”.

“The child is already traumatised by the incident and asking her to go through the process of identifying the culprit or exposing her to the people who could have been the perpetrators can’t be accepted,” said a counsellor.

“Ideally, the child should have been spoken to in a comfortable environment in the presence of a counsellor rather than made to identify the assaulter,” added Ram.

The school said the child had attended classes all through last week but did not turn up on Monday.

Professional help

Authorities of other schools feel that schools most often are not competent to deal with such incidents on their own and need the police’s help.

“If the school knows that such an offence has happened, the police should have been immediately informed because the primary concern of the school should be to get the offender arrested and the school cannot do that by itself,” said a principal of a south Calcutta school.

She said the school couldn’t let that person carry on and risk the “safety and security of other children in the campus”.

“But schools most often try to hide it because they are apprehensive of the negative publicity that it brings along,” she added.