Crimes against children in schools have created a sense of outrage in recent days. That children are vulnerable to crimes is an issue that I have raised repeatedly and loudly over several years. But the worst kind of crimes are when predators prey on children in the supposedly safe confines of a school.
The cold-blooded murder of a 7-yr-old boy on Friday in Ryan International School, a “premier” school in Gurugram was the second death of a child on the premises of the school. In 2016, the drowned body of another schoolboy was found in the water-tank on the premises of a Ryan International school in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. The accused in the present case confessed to sexually assaulting the child before murdering him. There have been reports of child being killed in a Delhi school as well. Questions are being asked as they have been in the past about the conduct and accountability of the school management. Why was a bus-conductor allowed inside the school, especially at a place like toilets where children were most vulnerable to sexual predators? Why didn’t the first case of death teach a lesson to the school management?
Questions that have been asked before and remain unanswered surface again – What is the oversight of the State governments department on Education on private schools.? What kind of guidelines exist that address safety and protection of children? What kind of enforcement and audits are conducted? Is Protecting our Children at all a priority of Governments? If Not, why not? Why do private school groups that have poor safety record continue to operate with impunity and no deterrence.
My fight to #ProtectOurChildren began way back in 2014, when the parents of an abused child contacted me for assistance. The child, a 2½ year old at an upscale school, had been molested by a school driver. I recall the response of the then Home Minister of my state of Karnataka “Who asked the parents to send the child to that school ?” It was my first exposure to the apathy and insensitivity that parents of child victims had to endure. But I have been inspired and driven to change this by the silent and stoic determination of the parents to seek justice for their daughter and to ensure that the criminal was not allowed to revisit this on other children - that day on, to join their battle and that of countless other parents to fight for justice for their kids.
While every such incident rightfully sparks outrage, a few months later, a similar incident will prompt another post script - an analysis of “what we could have done”. But the time has come for definitive change. After repetitive deaths, we cannot afford to go on in the hope that this will blow over and that there is no other criminal, in any other school, who will perpetrate and commit another crime, on another innocent child.
Crimes against children represent the worst forms of cruelty, especially because it violates the basic trust and care that a child expects from an adult. Crimes committed in schools are even worse because it violates the trust that parents and child repose in the school and teachers. And naturally, such crimes will severely traumatize other parents and will scare them from sending their children to school. Predictably the anger is at the school management who should have been also charged under POCSO and other statutes. So, it was shameful and shocking, that parents seeking accountability of School management would be instead targeted with a Lathi charge and attack by Police.
The Haryana Government must arrest and prosecute the School Management with maximum severity and levy punitive damages on the management. The deterrence effectmust be seen and felt. The fear of law must be deeply ingrained because clearly, the schools do not feel the need to take the safety of children seriously. If this is done, the message would go out to all the school managements about the seriousness of the Government and the subsequent crimes may be averted. The recent incident only reaffirms the need to make school managements responsible for children’s safety against this kind of crime in school premises.
I have characterized crimes against children rank as most heinous and a form of Terrorism, which requires urgent, deep and concerted efforts by Governments at the Centre and States. I have said this many times and will say this again and hope many more will join in saying this. Govts all over must make protecting children and Safe schools a priority. The regulation of private schools must change from a chalta hai cosy deal between politicians and school managements to one that makes child safety a matter of obligation. Licensing Private schools must be accompanied with strict guidelines and audits of schools. Guidelines should require schools to mandatorily verify the background of all staff that will be in proximity of Children. States and Center should have National Sexual offender’s registry etc.
There is much to do by way of improving Police capacity to register and investigate child crimes. More Child courts are required and effective prosecution of these cases to make sure more child predators are convicted instead of the current high acquittal rates because of ineffective prosecution or Parents just giving up. High acquittal rates are particularly dangerous with Child crimes because most criminals are repeat offenders. Government and Parliament must review the POCSO act itself and also discuss its amendments and improvements since it was passed more than half a decade ago and there’s a need to address some of its shortcomings. The list of things to do to Protect our children is a long one but a do-able one.
Every one of these crimes takes away the right of our children to a safe, happy and healthy childhood. I urge Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Ministers of all our states to wake up to this real threat to our future generations, to commit to a real national mission to make schools safer and to Protect our Children. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.
(Rajeev Chandrasekhar is MP, Rajya Sabha. He tweets @rajeev_mp)
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