Safety in Schools – Meeta Sengupta.

Schools are not just places to study – they are places where we learn to work in social groups in a safe environment. A school therefore is a place we can make mistakes, because this is where we are safe from the horrible consequences of mistakes made in the real world.

(A poor score in an annual appraisal can make you lose your livelihood – a poor grade in a test, or losing a class match can make you miserable but little else. It doesn’t feel like that of course, since often our competitive instincts are heightened and everything feels so very very important at a tender age. School is about dealing with our intense feelings, about socialising to work productively in teams and most importantly – to learn to deal with our failures and from our failures.)

Whether you see it as childcare, or a place to learn, or about meeting friends – the entire premise of schools revolves around safety. We send our children to school to learn all this because we know they will be safe there.

Sadly, we know that this has not always been so – children have been hurt and abused at school. Whether it was an explicit MMS sent out by school bullies or a child being abused by the caretaker and bus attendant. These were sexual – there are other kinds of abuse that our children face from classmates, teachers and even school heads. Often we forget that our harsh behaviour can have serious consequences for young minds – take the example of the poor young girls who committed suicide in Bangalore after they were punished for playing Holi.  They clearly felt unable to deal with the consequences of the humiliation meted out to them and the school failed in providing them a safe place to learn from incidents. The school failed them thrice – once in not providing them a safe place for self expression, two -in giving them disproportionate punishment, thus becoming an aggressor (even if they thought it was okay, and had precedence), and three, in not providing them a safe place to deal with their feelings.

Why do I speak of this when writing for Child Sex Abuse Awareness month? This incident has nothing to do with sexual abuse. Yes, true. But safety is an attitude. A safe school builds a culture of safety where there is both awareness and alertness with sensitivity. This is signalled in many ways, not just in watching out for sexual abuse. It is the task of a school to provide a safe, caring, nurturing atmosphere.

It is not easy at all. Especially for large schools the challenges are immense. There are distant nooks and crannies in large schools where anything can happen. There are times when all children cannot be supervised – for example – as they go from a specialized classroom to another, or from a sports complex to, say, the library. Children have always found ways of bunking out of school. Unless one establishes a police state within the school there is only a limited degree of control that a school can have over every moment for every child.

Some places have resorted to that. There are metal detectors outside some schools in the UK. Some schools have cameras everywhere. Other schools insist on specific routines to be maintained that restrict the freedom of students.

They are not wrong in setting up routines. It is these routines that will ensure that the school becomes a safer, more caring place. Here are some things schools do to ensure that schools are safer places:

 

  1. Ensure that every part of the school is supervised by a teacher especially during break and sports. Corridor, Break and Sports grounds duties to be assigned separate from teaching duties (a teacher cannot be in a classroom and be teaching at the same time)
  2. Create a buddy system where children are paired up, or are in groups of three. They are responsible for knowing where their buddies are at any point of time, and preferably staying with them. Another version of the buddy system that has seen a reduction in school bullying is assigning an older child to look out for a younger child in the playground. If the younger child feels any danger they have a person to approach who is responsible for helping them. The choice of the system and the specific design depends upon the needs and circumstances of the school, and the details must be designed with care. The idea is to create a watchful, caring safety net for children.
  3. Awareness. Educate children and make them aware of their own rights over their bodies. Nobody can command them to do what is not right. (It often bothers me that when we train our children in unquestioning obedience we put them at risk. Anyone in a position of authority then must be obeyed, regardless of what they ask children to do.) Teach children about good touch and bad touch. Tell them that they have the right to say no. Teach them that their ‘no’ must be respected. Show them what to say and do to save themselves.
  4. Include parents in the safety community. Share their tools of keeping children safe. Help them understand that often sexual abuse comes from known people. Share the statistics and the stories. Engage experts to run the communication and workshops with parents – because these are issues that are about fears, vulnerability and hurdles – and must be handled with sensitivity.
  5. Create an atmosphere of open communication within the school. Let children chatter freely with teachers, with head teachers and each other, sharing their fears and hopes. This is no guarantee that there will be no abuse in the school but healthy and open conversations can often identify potential flash points and early action can be taken to save children from harm.

There are more lists available for school leaders that will help them keep their school safe. Some of them are linked below. Even with the best of care, and the best of intentions there is no guarantee that something bad will not happen. Even so, with care, with vigilance and with supervision the school can be made a safe space. It takes effort, and this effort must be put in by the schools. At the end of the day, for a school leader – there is no substitute to management by walking around.

Useful Links:

https://www.childwelfare.gov/preventing/programs/types/schoolbased.cfm

https://www.childwelfare.gov/preventing/programs/types/sexualabuse.cfm

http://dcf.vermont.gov/stepup/act_one_schools

 

Schools Speak:

http://www.theindependent.com/news/local/high-school-administrator-talks-about-protecting-children-from-sexual-abuse/article_6683b986-a35c-11e3-83f6-001a4bcf887a.html

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/04/02/27erinslaw_ep.h33.html (excellent article)

http://www.childrensadvocacycenter.org/article_20WaysToPreventChildAbuse.cfm

 

Meeta Sengupta is a writer on Education. She can be contacted via twitter and her handle is @meetasengupta.

She is collating a document on best practices in school safety. If you wish to contribute to this document, please send her an email at meetasengupta@gmail.com

 

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