Safe at School?

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by Zubair Lone

The recent deaths of two schoolchildren in Gurugram have evoked a massive response in the form of a justified mix of shock, anger, resentment and disquiet across all sections of society. Such tragedies (reported and unreported) are not merely a local and isolated phenomenon, characteristic of a particular state or region. In fact, these highlight a horrible malady of our educational system, present universally, in the form of an either unsound or often completely absent school safety.

In response to the two dreadful crimes against children, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has issued new safety and security guidelines for all schools.

The CBSE underlines two important aspects regarding school safety in these new guidelines. First, it asserts that it is a fundamental right of a child to engage and study in an environment where he/she feels safe. Second, the responsibility for the safety and security of children in schools “shall solely lie” with the school authorities.

No doubt, the new guidelines will ensure some sort of safety and security at schools as the schools shall face de-recognition if they fail to follow them but the CBSE notification is a stop-gap response issued against the backdrop of the recent deaths.

Majority of school owners have rightfully understood that parents are more likely to raise questions over curricular feats, deluxe buses, air-conditioned and ‘smart’ classrooms, lush green lawns and swimming pools. Hence safety and security go largely overlooked.

Therefore, instead of “fire-fighting mode” responses, there is a serious need for a holistic and more measured response to address the critical issues and concerns of school safety. Such a response has to begin from building a thorough understanding of school safety.

The term “school safety” refers to the overall crucial environment that facilitates effective teaching and learning by creating and promoting a physically, emotionally, socially, and academically secure climate for students, staff, and visitors.

Broadly speaking, school safety issues can be classified into general and specific ones. General issues include building safety, health and sanitation concerns, negative or risky student behaviours, general emergency and disaster preparedness, etc. More specific school safety issues may include harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB), digital/internet safety and security, region-specific natural disasters and weather-related issues, lockdowns and conflict-related issues, specific medical emergencies, etc.
Having laid down the broad rubric, it becomes necessary to understand the underlying causes that lead to dysfunctional school safety. Such causes go back to the peculiar ways in which the educational system (government and private) operates.

Of all the disabilities that ail our government schools, inadequate infrastructure tops the list. They often suffer from official negligence and deep-rooted disorganization. Above all, they are too starved for funds to overcome an already endless list of disabilities to make safety a priority.
Speaking of private sector, imparting education is rarely the driving force. What largely drives this steaming bandwagon of private schools is pursuit of the returns on capital invested. In this blind pursuit, cost cutting becomes necessary. Safety and security, being soft targets, are often neglected.

Majority of school owners have rightfully understood that parents are more likely to raise questions over curricular feats, deluxe buses, air-conditioned and ‘smart’ classrooms, lush green lawns and swimming pools. Hence safety and security go largely overlooked.

With this in mind, there remains an urgent need to address this unnoticed dysfunction. In the short-run, the state board of school education should immediately issue safety and security guidelines on the lines of CBSE, ensuring minimal safety and security.

In the long-run, the board should come up with an overarching school safety and security policy by involving all key stakeholders. A corresponding comprehensive safety and security manual should be prepared and made mandatory for all schools. On one hand, schools should be encouraged to gain the requisite expertise to ensure conformity; on the other, parents should be made more aware.

Zubair Lone

To ensure sustainability, the policy should include a provision for mandatory annual safety audit. Its results should be made public, especially for parents to learn how not to overlook the safety and security at schools.

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