The University Grants Commission’s directive to institutes of higher education to review security arrangements for women has raised hopes of action in that area. However, structured mechanisms to deal with sexual abuse are needed in most city schools.
In 2004, a CBSE circular prescribed measures to prevent sexual harassment of female employees. They included informing all employees of the definition of sexual harassment as laid down by the Supreme Court, setting up a complaint mechanism, and a committee for redressal. In May 2012, the school education department issued a G.O. stating any teacher indulging in child sexual abuse will be punished with compulsory retirement, removal or instant dismissal. However, compliance with these guidelines remains lax, said experts.
Last year, the Minister of State for Human Resource Development told the Rajya Sabha that the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights had received 115 complaints related to child abuse from schools in Tamil Nadu. Activists said that this did not necessarily indicate higher incidence but could be a sign of awareness and willingness to complain. But much remains to be done on this issue.
Few schools have a committee in place to expressly deal with peer-to-peer abuse, employee/teacher-student abuse, and abuse of women employees by male staff. A Corporation official said that institutional mechanisms were not in place. “We are in the process of drafting guidelines,” the official said.
Management officials in both CBSE and matriculation schools pointed to a variety of strictures in place to deal with cases of sexual abuse. For instance, the former have to constitute a School Management committee to handle such cases, noted J. Ajeeth Prasath Jain, Secretary, Chennai Sahodaya School Complex, and Senior Principal, Bhavan's Rajaji Vidyashram. However, in practice, most schools just ask students to approach teachers when they need to complain.
Instead of this ad-hoc system, what is needed is “a clear-cut mechanism starting from a code of conduct, informing staff members about it, handling disclosure when an abuse occurs, confidentiality and proper management by the school,” said Vidya Reddy, Tulir - Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse.
Often, there is no surety of a fair enquiry when harassment is reported. S. Lakshmi (name changed), a government school teacher, said while her school had installed a complaint box in the Headmaster’s room, not all complaints were resolved. “Last week, a class VIII girl dropped a letter in the complaint box about a class IX boy who had been giving her love letters, following her outside school, and even catching hold of her forcefully. She was asked to complain to the class teacher of that boy, who in turn did nothing. In, fact, she looked down upon the girl for openly confronting the boy,” she said.
“An ‘unsafe’ school will keep parroting that all is fine, and go into either an ostrich or reactive mode when there is a case. A safe school, on the other hand, will take pre-emptive measures,” said Ms. Vidya.