A representational image of students in primary school. 

Protect Children by Giving Them Safe, Law-Abiding Schools

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 one where predators prey on children in the supposedly safe confines of a school.

Why Are Schools Operating with Impunity?

The cold-blooded murder of a seven-year-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 a 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 a 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 the toilets, where children were most vulnerable to sexual predators? Why didn’t the first death case teach the school management a lesson? 

Questions that have been asked before, and remain unanswered, surface again – where is the oversight of the state government’s department on education in 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 the government? If not, then why not?

Why do private school groups, that have a poor safety record, continue to operate with impunity and no deterrence?

Also Read: Ryan Murder Case Live: Mumbai HQ Fortified, 2 Officials Arrested

Time for Definitive Change

My fight to #ProtectOurChildren began way back in 2014, when the parents of an abused child contacted me for assistance. The child, a two-and-a-half-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 have 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 — from 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 postscript — an analysis of “what we could have been 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.

Also Read: Sorry Ryan Pinto, 7-Year-Old Pradyumn is the Victim, Not You!

Management Must Fear Law

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 traumatise other parents, and will scare them from sending their children to school. Predictably, the anger is at the school management, who should have also been charged under POCSO and other statutes. 

So, it was shameful and shocking that parents seeking accountability of the School management would be, instead, targeted with a lathi charge and attacked by Police.

The Haryana Government must arrest and prosecute the school management with maximum severity and levy punitive damages on the management. The deterrence effect must 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.

Also Read: Ryan Murder Case: Read List of Demands from Boy’s Parents to SC

Time for a National Sexual Offenders Registry

I have characterised 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 — Governments 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 the staff that will be in proximity of the children. States and Center should have National Sexual offenders’ registry etc.

Also Read: Ryan Murder Case: Read List of Demands from Boy’s Parents to SC

We Owe Children a Life Free of Violence

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. 

There is scope for the law itself to be amended and updated since it was passed more than a decade ago, and to incorporate the experiences since then. The list to protect our children is a long one, but a doable 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 a Member of Parliament. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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