Saranya’s* sports coach had a stellar reputation. He was an important, well-respected figure at her school in Chennai. But when she was in Class VIII, travelling in a train with her team for a national tournament, the man assaulted her.
“It was around 2 a.m. and I was trying to sleep. That was when my coach groped me. He kept touching me until he heard a noise and stopped.” The incident filled Saranya with shock. “For the rest of the tournament, he behaved like nothing had happened; he even asked me why I was being aloof,” she says. The coach harassed her for years, until she left school. He would find her alone, intimidate her, attempt to touch her. Saranya told her friends, but felt she could not complain. “He was so sly and conniving that nobody else realised it was abuse,” says the now 29-year-old. She was afraid the school would not believe her.
But all that changed earlier this month. Following a storm of social media accusations against teachers, Saranya and other alumni wrote to the school and were called for a hearing; and the coach was sacked. “But the school’s attitude was disturbing,” says Saranya. “It felt like the school’s reputation took precedence over student safety.”
Over the past month, Chennai’s schools, famous for their academic reputations, have been rocked by allegations of sexual abuse and teacher misconduct. Students and alumni of at least six schools have gone public with complaints after the first allegations surfaced. It all began on May 23, when a Mumbai-based alumna of a famous city school asked her juniors if she could share screenshots on Instagram of their complaints of sexual abuse and harassment against commerce teacher G. Rajagopalan. It resulted in a shocking series of stories of bullying, body-shaming, sexual innuendo and more.
The post opened up a stream of similar complaints, cracking open the respectable veneer of many city schools. As it snowballed, former students from various schools began to post their own experiences on social media, asking others to share as well. With incidents sometimes going back years, stories poured in, about teachers touching students inappropriately, making derogatory remarks about students’ bodies and clothes and, in current allegations, of a teacher dressed inappropriately during an online class, contacting students on their personal mobile numbers for non-school related issues, and many other forms of predatory behaviour. A common thread was some alumni relating that their concerns had not been taken seriously by the schools then, and that this attitude continued.
Radha*, 25, talks of the systemic failures in one of the schools caught in the storm today. “The founder was portrayed to us as a father figure, someone who would help us. But when I was studying there, a friend of mine, a hostel student facing a family problem, was taken to the founder’s lounge for help. She was sexually assaulted there. She ran out in shock, crying, and told her hostel warden, who told her that he was like ‘a god’ and that anything he did was for her benefit,” says Radha. The school, she alleges, tried to cover up such incidents, and students who spoke out against the founder were labelled as ‘bad’ students to parents so that they would not be believed.
Not a new phenomenon
These incidents are only the tip of the iceberg, says Vidya Reddy, co-founder, Tulir — Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. “One of the biggest problems I have found is that many schools are still unwilling to accept the possibility of sexual abuse taking place in their premises. The fact is, this is a possibility in any child and youth-serving institution and so all such institutions need to be prepared. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to a few schools,” she says. “Schools also need to know and acknowledge that there are professional perpetrators — people who choose jobs that involve children in order to abuse them.”
Since the first allegations emerged, the city police have received over 200 complaints — online and through calls from students, alumni and others — about sexual abuse in day schools, residential schools, and sports coaching institutions. So far, six of those accused have been arrested — G. Rajagopalan, a teacher at one of Chennai’s most prestigious schools with several branches; J. Anand, a teacher at another school in the heart of the city; Siva Shankar Baba, self-styled godman and founder of a residential school on Chennai’s outskirts; and Sushmitha, a teacher associated with Baba. Two independent instructors have also been arrested: martial arts instructor E. Kebi Raj and sports coach P. Nagarajan.
Role of social media
The Tamil Nadu State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights has summoned the management and faculty of six schools from which incidents of sexual abuse have been reported. “We are carrying out an enquiry and will be submitting a report as well as recommendations to the State government,” says chairperson Saraswathi Rangasamy.
Social media became the outlet for complaints because parents, schools, and society failed the students, says Andrew Sesuraj, State convenor, Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch, a network of organisations working on child rights. “It was important for them to talk about what happened, to have their experiences acknowledged,” he says.
Sesuraj, who has been reaching out to survivors to help with police complaints, says that in some cases it’s the parents who don’t want to go forward with a complaint because they are wary of their child’s name coming out in public, and also because navigating the criminal judicial system is sometimes lengthy and difficult; the conviction rate in POCSO cases has hovered between 33% and 35% in the country between 2017 and 2019, while the number of pending cases has risen from 84,143 in 2017 to 1,33,068 in 2019.
Even as cases are being filed and investigations go on, what is the future course of action? Experts say there are a number of steps schools can take: a safety audit would give schools an insight into existing gaps, says Reddy; a code of conduct that lays down staff-student boundaries in real classrooms, virtual classrooms, and for the time spent outside school premises (such as on school buses and field trips); plus an online orientation module that every member of the school must take. “Everyone must be on the same page with regard to the rules. This will protect students, and also protect staff from allegations,” says Reddy.
Judith Sugirtha, a teacher and vice-principal at a private Chennai school, agrees, “Many teachers think a teacher-student relationship is like that of a parent-child, and may not respect boundaries. Schools should clearly outline what language and behaviour is acceptable and what isn’t.”
Child rights activist R. Vidyasagar said that in 2012, the State brought out a government order that said any teacher found to be involved in a sexual abuse case would be summarily dismissed. “However, this G.O. has not been implemented at all. And private schools have always maintained that it did not apply to them,” he says.
Child protection committees should be set up in schools, says Swarna Rajagopalan, founder of Prajnya, a non-profit that works in the area of gender equality. Managements need to have child-centric policies, says Sesuraj. The management of one school said it had not received any “written” complaints about the teacher against whom allegations were made. This suggests that verbal complaints had possibly been received and ignored. “When the police don’t expect children to give written complaints, why should schools? The law does not mandate written complaints,” says Sesuraj. However, Reddy cautions against knee-jerk reactions. “A due process of inquiry is crucial: suspension or termination of staff without this will become like a social media witch-hunt,” she says.
There are, however, gaps in the process that need to be addressed. What schools must understand, says Rajagopalan, is the power play at work: the ways in which inequality, privilege, and hierarchy can play a role in educator misconduct. “The absence of consent and the presence of power inequality is what leads to abuse, and both teachers and students need to be taught about consent,” she says.
Earlier this month, when Ananya* was browsing social media, she saw several students from her school sharing stories of sexual abuse. “When I saw this, I too shared my story. I realised that if the teacher had abused me, he had probably abused others too, and the fact that he still had access to children scared me,” says the 29-year-old survivor. Ananya recently discovered that the teacher who had abused her is now teaching elsewhere.
Indeed, even if schools suspend or sack a teacher, they could go on to find a job elsewhere. Says Vishnucharan Panneerselvam, correspondent, Shree Niketan Group of Schools: “We need a repository, maintained by the authorities, of faculty and non-faculty members and resource persons working with children who have had such complaints levelled against them, which the schools can access.”
Educational institutions should also refine the hiring process, says Panneerselvam, whose school is now planning to have a counsellor sit in during interviews with potential teachers and other staff. “Interviews are limited to academics and financials, and we need to consider and review behavioural tendencies and patterns as well,” he says.
Allegations about inappropriate texts and misconduct during online classes have highlighted other, fresh dangers. With classes and communications having gone entirely virtual, schools have to take digital safety seriously. Teachers, external resource persons, and other students are privy to a lot of student information, including phone numbers and addresses, and this data needs safeguarding policies. In the wake of the reports of sexual abuse, the Tamil Nadu government has mandated the recording of all online classes.
POCSO Act orientation
On June 21, the State government’s School Education Department released guidance for all schools on student safety and a protocol for online classes. This includes, among other measures, the formation of a student safeguarding advisory committee; a State-level central complaints centre with a hotline and an email address; the recording of online classes; orientation programmes on the POCSO Act for all stakeholders; a safety audit tool the department will develop for all schools to complete annually; and complaint boxes in every school.
There are no figures specifically on the number of complaints of sexual abuse in schools: “It is important, however, for the police and the School Education Department to compile this data, both going forward and retrospectively, and these figures must reflect not just educator misconduct but all sexual offences in schools including abuse by other students,” says Reddy.
To make the process of complaining easier, the police have shared the phone number of the Deputy Commissioner, Crime against Women and Children, asking students to call the number directly. On June 21, the CB-CID police, who are investigating the Siva Shankar Baba case, also announced a telephone number and email address where survivors can register complaints.
Shankar Jiwal, Commissioner of Police, Chennai, says complainants are being contacted as per the provisions of POCSO Act. “We send a team of women officers in mufti to their residence or other convenient place, and start our inquiries. We are recording every complaint.”
Schools need to be safe spaces for children. They need to be, if necessary, spaces where students can talk about issues at home, including abuse, especially during the lockdowns. “One of the problems is that when we were students, we were never really encouraged to talk about these issues,” says Ananya. “I hope that will change now.”
(*Names changed to protect privacy.)