In what can be called as a student’s #metoo movement, a number of Chennai schools came under the radar recently after students from a leading school complained of sexual harassment. Soon many students from across various schools in Chennai have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment at the hands of the staff.
What began as a call out on twitter for casteist statements made by standup comedians in their shows, gathered traction on the social media platform. This escalated quickly with attention turning to educational institutions that are known to be caste exclusive. One of them, Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB), a well known school in Chennai, was being mentioned for its casteist nature when the conversation suddenly took a turn with allegations of child sexual abuse and sexual harassment by a teacher came to light through an Instagram handle. These were made by both former and present students.
This resulted in the arrest of the accused teacher G Rajagopalan, under several sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act by the Chennai police.
A revelation and outpour like this gave courage to many other students (old and current) to come out with their experiences of similar stories in their educational institutions. Students of Chettinad Vidyashram, opened up on Instagram about instances of sexual harassment and sexist behaviour, mainly involving three teachers. Student accounts of other physical violations like hitting, intimidation, and harassment within and outside the classroom also were being spoken about.
The alumni of Kendriya Vidyalaya, CLRI, also complained about a language teacher who had sexually abused and misbehaved with them.
Another horrifying incident of a school named Sushil Hari International Residential School, which was being run by a self-styled Godman Siva Shankar Baba also made news this week. The allegations range from molestation, sexual abuse, intoxicating minors with alcohol, showing pornography to minors and even rape. He had declared himself as saying he was “Lord Krishna” and the girl students were his Gopikas. The Baba, bunked the Tamil Nadu Commission for Protection of Child Rights (TNCPCR) hearing saying he had suffered a heart attack. The case has been transferred to Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID).
The Tamil Nadu Commission for Protection of Child Rights (TNCPCR) has summoned representatives from various schools regarding all allegations and the investigations are ongoing. Six schools in the city including three private CBSE schools, one Central government school, one Anglo-Indian school and one international school, are currently under the radar.
How did it come so far?
How did these incidents go unreported you may ask? The most worrying fact is that many students had raised complaints about the staff on several incidents about the inappropriate behavior but their complaints were either ignored or invalidated.
They were told to be ‘overreacting’ and that they misunderstood and made to feel guilty instead. In some incidents the staff member was let off with a warning and continued to teach.
Why is it a matter of shame for schools?
The fact that the schools have not been proactive on the complaints of students brings to light the importance such incidents have on the priority list of the management and school authorities.
The fact that students’ well-being and safety was not the utmost priority and that they have been exposed to such brutality time and again over the decades shows how we as a society have failed to create safe spaces for our children at home or at school.
The fact that there is a lack of apathy towards the suffrage and the effect on long term mental health of the students reflects how we are willing to sabotage the students well being for the sake of reputation and better name of the school.
While we wish more power to the students for finding the courage to speak up even after years of these incidents, we also need now a better system in place in educational institutions and even the society at large where our children are protected and safe from such perpetrators, where they are able to differentiate and call out the wrong doers and a space free of judgment where they can heal.
What are the steps that need to be taken?
Educational institutions must have an inclusive harassment prevention policy. The solution to students #MeToo pandemic lies within the premises of educational institutions which can be achieved by addressing it from the root, says AWARE India an NGO, working on Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. Recently they came up with a 6-point strategy which should be mandated in the inclusive policy.
The proposal of “Inclusive Harassment Prevention Policy” demands:
STEP 1: Formulate an inclusive policy for children, teaching and non-teaching staff bringing together
STEP 2: Set up an independent, effective Internal Committee Board (ICB)
STEP 3: Appoint a CPP sensitized child counselor effective immediately and failure to do so must amount to punishable offence by law.
STEP 4: Monitoring & audit by child welfare officers or child protection agencies every quarterly
STEP 5: Existing staff or recruitment of any faculty member into an educational institution must be subjected to rigorous background investigation
STEP 6: Mandate child abuse prevention and gender sensitization sessions in all educational institutions.
These 6 points are the basic framework around which a comprehensive policy will be drafted after gathering extensive feedback and suggestions from all stakeholders. You can read the detailed mandate and sign the petition here.
The NGO further states that the issue can be solved by addressing 2 systemic problems, which are:
(a) Change MUST originate from redefining ‘School Culture’ where student safety is paramount. As directed by the Protection Of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, every educational institution must sanction Child Protection Policy (CPP). Members of the organization should include the institute’s board, administrators, teachers, other school board employees, school volunteers, parents, state agencies, law enforcement, and Students.
(b) Institutions should look beyond Good touch-bad touch and inculcate a comprehensive understanding of child sexual abuse. Institutions as a workplace formulate new channels to identify and address patterns and behaviors often associated with adult misconduct. Therefore, necessitating the implementation of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at workplace (POSH) Act, 2013.
Having said that, as parents we need to create a safe environment and non-judgmental spaces for our children at home where they feel free to discuss any small or big issues with us without any hesitation or fear.
Unless we openly discuss topics of sex and make our children feel comfortable in their bodies and help them set boundaries, we cannot expect others to be proactive. The first step has to be taken as parents where we believe and trust our children’s experiences, question abusers and bring them to task and help the children to deal and heal from their traumas so that it does not affect them mentally and do damage to their self-esteem.