In 2014, a Bengaluru-based private school came in the news when a nursery student was sexually abused by the office assistant.
A four-year-old boy was headed in a human sacrifice ritual in Andhra Pradesh in October 2015. The boy was kidnapped as he was returning home from his nursery.
In November 2015, a three-year-old nursery student was crushed to death in the school elevator at Dilsukhnagar in Andhra Pradesh.
The Greater Noida police arrested a lifeguard at the swimming pool of a reputed private school in July 2018 as he raped a three-year-old girl in the school premises. The lifeguard was working at the school for 13 years.
In August 2019 in Delhi, a private school sweeper was arrested for sexually assaulting a five-year-old nursery girl on multiple occasions.
In February 2020, a school van caught fire in Sangrur, burning four children alive. The risks of mishaps are higher with vehicles that do not comply with norms especially in smaller schools in residential areas.
The above mentioned incidents have sent shockwaves across the country because such brutal offences have happened even in schools of international repute apparently ‘regulated by statutory guidelines.’
Children in pre-primary education centres are at a higher risk as in the absence of a regulatory framework the chances of irregularities are more. There are several instances to show how children’s safety and wellbeing are being compromised in nurseries/schools.
Apart from sexual abuse, children face physical harm due to accidents and mishaps that cause physical injuries. Bullying, corporal punishment, physical and psychological harm, mental harassment and discrimination are now quite common leaving little boys and girls scarred for life.
Threats and abuse during childhood
Children spend a major part of their childhood years in schools. If they are not in schools already, they are either in a crèche, a playschool or in a school nursery, working their way up to enrol in a primary school. At all these places, the safety and security of children in the premises should be given utmost importance.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) defines ‘school safety’ as ‘creating a safe environment for children, starting from their homes to their schools and back. This includes safety from any kind of abuse, violence, psycho-social issue, disaster: natural and manmade, fire and transportation’. The children, however, are extremely vulnerable and prone to abuse – physical, sexual and mental from the same people who are supposed to care for their well-being in these places.
A child needs a healthy, protected and supportive environment for proper growth and development. This is a fundamental right of a child guaranteed by the Constitution of India under the Right to Life and Dignity, Right to Education, Right to protection from abuse, right to opportunities to develop as able adults. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 (and the amendments) and Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 have strict provisions to deal with offences against children.
The discussion on safety of children in pre-primary education sector has gained momentum in recent years following the increase in cases of violence, abuse, even murders in schools. The rise of sexual crimes against children – of both genders – and that of violence, murder, etc. has shocked the nation. Playschools and nurseries are considered second homes for children and but rising instances of abuse and crime have caused fear, panic and mistrust in parents and children alike.
Sexual abuse is one of the most rampant offences perpetrated against school children. In most cases, children are not even aware of the kind of physical and mental harm done to them nor do they have an understanding of the gravity of the situation. Given the rising instances of children being sexually abused in pre-primary schools the worries of parents are growing. Often, children do not even tell their parents about such incidents because of shame and ‘humiliation’, and for the fear of being judged. So who does the child face threat from? The answer is, from anyone and everyone – teachers, principal, peons, janitors, maids, cleaners, drivers, guards, other students, etc.
The school staff has the responsibility to ensure protection and wellbeing of every child who is studying in their school. In most instances, it is the protector who turns out to be the predator and commits the crimes against children. So, a background check of everyone who works in the school and comes in contact with the children is of utmost importance.
Transportation and associated risks
Safety of children while commuting to school and back should be ensured. Parents and schools opt for multiple transport options for school children. The vehicles and the vendors need to comply with the safety rules and guidelines as laid down by authorities from time to time. The responsibility of doing a background check of the staff employed at the school lies with the school authorities. Parents too need to be vigilant. A background check of the drivers, cleaners and other attendants who come in contact with the child should be thoroughly done.
The safety of children in the school premises is of utmost importance and often neglected by the school management. Dilapidated buildings, under construction areas, haphazardly placed rubble, hazardous material in the premises can cause injuries and even death. All precautionary measures for the safety of the children should be taken seriously by the schools.
The Supreme Court in an order dated April 2018 had directed ‘framing of guidelines for fixing accountability of the school management in the matter of safety of the children studying in private and government schools within six months.’ The Union Ministry of Human Resources Development, Department of School Education and Literacy issued draft guidelines in August 2018 ‘fixing accountability of school management towards safety and security of children in schools’.
The guidelines were drafted for primary, secondary and higher secondary schools. They aimed to fix responsibilities of the school management towards safety and security of children in schools. The NCPCR developed a comprehensive Manual on Safety and Security of Children in Schools – a compilation of various existing guidelines, circulars, notifications and Government Orders on safety and security related issues in schools.
These guidelines must also be implemented for pre-primary schools – playschools, crèche and nurseries to ensure safety of young children. Following some of the guidelines such as handing the child only to parents or authorised person, installing CCTV cameras in the campus, mandatory police verification of candidates while appointing or hiring teachers, physical instructors, lab technicians, drivers, janitors and other support staff including the security, involving parents in decision-making, ensuring safety compliance in school buses and vehicles such as presence of first-aid box, fire extinguisher, windows with horizontal grills, doors with reliable locks and proper space to keep school bags, proper screening of the driver and attendant, formation of a grievance committee for child sexual abuse (CSA) to address cases of child sexual abuse should be formed by the school, etc., are some of the important guidelines that can safely be implemented for pre-primary schools and centres.
The way ahead
It is important that the government, schools and parents work in close tandem to address the situation. Whenever there is a case of child abuse or an accident, a blame game starts between the executive, polity, administration, school management and stakeholders i.e. parents, etc. There is a need to fix accountability on schools and bring in regulations that can ensure safety of the children. Being vigilant in schools and better co-ordination between parents and school authorities will also help in preventing such crimes and ensuring children`s safety.