Questions raised over response of schools to sexual harassment complaints

‘Appointment of additional counsellors and other steps will be considered in the next academic year’

The recent arrest of a 50-year-old teacher of a government school near Annur on charges of sexually assaulting a Class VI student has raised questions on how schools and education officials deal with complaints of sexual harassment.

On February 1, the Thudiyalur All Women Police arrested the teacher under sections 7 (Sexual assault) and 8 (Punishment for sexual assault) of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act based on the complaint filed by the victim's parent. However, the victim was sexually assaulted as early as December 2019 and was allegedly threatened by the teacher on January 30 not to raise any complaints, according to the police. The accused was remanded in judicial custody.

While the police ensured punitive action in the above case, many such cases of inappropriate sexual behaviour towards students are at the risk of being unreported in schools.

T. Arulanandam, State body member of Tamil Nadu High Higher Secondary School Graduate Teachers Association, said that the Department of School Education must consider appointing counsellors for every block similar to block resource teachers (BRTs) appointed under Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). “Many children consider their teachers as equivalent to parents,” he said, adding that the counsellors must attend to students as well as the teachers. Regarding the redressal process in government schools, Mr. Arulanandam said that the schools have installed complaint boxes, which will be checked once a week by the headmasters and members of Parents Teachers Association of the respective schools. “The schools should encourage students to use the complaint box through announcements at the morning assemblies,” he suggested .and added that the schools must ensure that anonymous complaints must be considered seriously and suitable action taken.

An official with the SSA, which is the Central Government’s overarching programme for school education, said that training programmes are being organised for teachers regarding the handling of complaints related to sexual harassment. “We conducted a ‘safety and security training’ for teachers in January,” the official said. SSA also organises awareness programmes for students pertaining to “good touch” and “bad touch”, including essay writing competitions, the official claimed.

According to the SSA official, any complaints from students regarding sexual harassment will be scrutinised. “Once the school headmaster receives the complaint, it will be transferred to higher authorities and a departmental inquiry will be initiated,” he said.

R. Visalakshi, president, Tamil Nadu Private Schools Association, said that most private schools train the class teachers to counsel the students who have faced sexual harassment. “The students should never think that they are guilty,” she said Teaching or non-teaching staff, who have been charged with accusations of sexual harassment must be “dismissed” by the Department of School Education, Ms. Visalakshi said.

With just one counsellor appointed by Department for School Education for the 1,206 government schools in Coimbatore district, reaching out to concerns in all the schools poses a challenge.

Psychologist S. Arulvadivu, the counsellor for Coimbatore district, said that she also looks after government schools in the Nilgiris and that she would visit schools in Coimbatore in a given month and schools in Nilgiris district the next month. The District Child Protection Office, 1098 Childline helpline service along with the Department of School Education must work together to counsel “students, teachers and parents” regarding sexual harassment in schools, Ms. Arulvadivu suggested.

The District Child Protection Office does not have adequate staff members, which prevents it from reaching out to all government schools for conducting individual awareness programmes, said R. Sundar, District Child Protection Officer. “We conducted an awareness programme in December 2019 where 200 teachers from across the district participated,” he said, noting the programme discussed aspects of child safety and POCSO Act. The staff would visit schools depending on feasibility to conduct awareness programmes for students, Mr. Sundar said. “During our programmes, if any student comes forward with a complaint, we will register a case under the POCSO Act,” he said.

Coimbatore Chief Educational Officer P. Ayyanan said that the teacher, who was accused of sexually assaulting the Class VI student was suspended. “This is a rare case,” he said. Appointment of additional counsellors and other steps against sexual harassment in schools will be considered in the next academic year, Mr. Ayyanan said.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 6:43:40 PM |

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