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For safety of students

The recent allegations against certain teachers in some schools in Chennai are deeply disturbing as they indicate that harassment of students, both boys and girls, is prevalent in these institutions.

While the Tamil Nadu government’s prompt response in directing public authorities to take action is commendable, it is just the first step. The allegations deserve to be investigated in a fair and transparent manner. The politics of religion or party, which are overshadowing the main issue currently, should not hinder efforts to protect the rights of schoolchildren.

Apart from a case-by-case investigation, a systemic change is required to move beyond sensationalising one case while doing nothing to ensure that such instances do not recur and if they do happen, they are promptly addressed.

The Supreme Court, in Avinash Mehrotra v Union of India, has specified that the right to education includes the right to the provision of a safe environment in schools. In the Manual on safety and security of children in schools developed by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), a safe environment has been defined as one free of psycho-social issues.

School-level policy

The government should ensure that every school publishes a child protection policy i and it is easily accessible by students, parents and teachers. Schools should have an internal investigation committee to go into allegations raised by the students, independent of criminal action that may be taken by the state. This committee should have external members such as social workers who work in this area and are well-versed with the nuances of such cases. The details of this committee must be easily accessible to all stakeholders.

The teachers, students and staff of every school should undergo periodic mandatory sensitisation training sessions for appropriate behaviour. Steps should be put in place to deal with inappropriate behaviour, and punishment for such acts should be publicised as a deterrent.

Schools should have qualified counsellors whom the students can approach confidentially. Additionally, with the recent allegations against coaches of certain sports academies by women players, such steps at the school level alone are insufficient. It is important that a State-level policy is drafted and an investigation committee set up to deal with such situations effectively and promptly.

The government should publicise the e-box initiative of the NCPCR, an easy and direct reporting system for lodging a complaint of child abuse.

Given that the pandemic has forced teaching to shift online, additional measures need to be taken to safeguard the interests of the students.

The school administration needs to conduct additional sensitisation training regarding interaction over the Internet and set certain basic guidelines such as dress code. Further, contact details of students need not be provided to all teachers, and as much as possible, communication outside the classroom should be through the school administration to prevent instances of teachers sending inappropriate messages. The school administration should monitor online classes to ensure that no untoward activity happens during classes.

Further, there have been multiple instances of students coming forward with allegations which do not strictly fall under sexual harassment but involve physical harm, mental harassment or discrimination. All these actions come under child abuse, according to the Handbook on Implementation of POCSO Act, 2012 for School Management and Staff issued by the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development. These actions also go against the guidelines mentioned in the Manual on Safety and Security of Children in Schools, which the CBSE requires schools to follow, and will be in violation of the Supreme Court’s requirement of a safe environment. Thus, these allegations should be taken equally seriously and appropriate action taken.

There is a power imbalance in the relationship between a teacher and student and it should be ensured that this is not taken advantage of. A teacher occupies a position of trust and plays a very important role in moulding a student.

Any kind of harassment can cause students deep emotional trauma which may affect them for years, as evidenced by multiple alumni who have graduated years ago coming forward with their stories of harassment now. We need to act now to ensure that no other student goes through this and work towards building a safe and inclusive society for the next generation.

Those who have come forward deserve praise for sharing their experience and giving a voice to those who are suffering silently. Your courage has been instrumental in starting a conversation on this issue and will help lead to a meaningful change which can protect children in the future.

(Arshita Aggarwal is an advocate practising in the Madras High Court)

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 4:43:34 AM |

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