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How Can The Structures Of School Safety In Chennai’s Private Schools Be Rewired?

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*Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment of Students*

On 24 May, 2021, a series of damning screenshots began circulating online on Instagram. These screenshots started with a minor studying in a well-reputed private school in Chennai reaching out to an alumna for help. More and more students began coming forward with their stories, most of them disturbing and all of them dismissed by their school. As the details piled up, so did the evidence.

The screenshots went on to show Whatsapp exchanges where the adult party persisted in crossing the limits of his profession with suggestive comments, sexual innuendos, and movie invitations extended towards his minor students. It progressed to students’ accounts of inappropriate touching, pornographic links shared on class groups and the image of a man in an online class wearing nothing but a towel.

Source: YKA

On 25 May, based on all the evidence compiled, Mr G Rajagopalan, an Accountancy and Business Studies teacher at Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan Senior Secondary School (PSBB) in KK Nagar, Chennai and part of its faculty for over two decades, was arrested under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, the Indian Penal Code and the IT Act, with charges of sexual harassment of children and transmitting obscene material in electronic form.

As the outpour of student complaints against him became increasingly visible on social media, the PSBB School administration was forced to acknowledge the allegations against him. But they claimed not to have known about the ongoing harassment before the internet outrage. Mr Rajagopalan was arrested after hours of questioning and suspended from his educational duties on 27 May.

Less than a week later, another teacher from PSBB was arrested under the POCSO Act. The police took in Mr Kevin Raj, PSBB’s Karate teacher, and two of his friends following two complaints of sexual harassment registered by students.

Sexual harassment of students is emerging as a national-level concern across schools in India. Following the PSBB incident, several reports of sexual assault and various forms of discrimination across schools in Chennai have surfaced.

Students are finally gaining the courage to speak out, mostly under the veil of online anonymity, and in more cases than not, telling their stories while fighting their fears about being identified. One can’t help but wonder: What or who stopped them from speaking out before?

Where were the school authorities during these incidents? And when will they stop denying the shadow of danger that follows students in institutions where they spend most of their early lives, acknowledge their faults and begin to prioritise student safety over reputation?

The illusion of Justice

Girl Child
Representative Image.

Schools are ripe grounds for persistent harassment and grooming of minors. In a student-teacher relationship, there is a dangerous tilt in power, making it difficult for students to report sexual harassment, and as a result, making it easy for faculty to get away with being abusers. In Rajagopalan’s case, he had abused his position of power as a teacher and threatened students against reporting his behaviour.

When students came out to report to school authorities at schools such as Chettinad Vidyashram and Sushil Hari International, their allegations were repudiated, and in some cases, even labelled as “overreacting” and “misinterpreting intentions”. The accused have also received a lot of support not just from school authorities but also from alumni, defending their actions.

This act of shutting down and gaslighting the harrassed creates another obstacle for students to come forward. Trapped in a cocoon of dismissive attitudes and victim-blaming, the students are still in danger.

Even when students do come forward and their complaints are taken on board, forms of punishment like suspension from work or arresting the perpetrator creates the illusion of justice served promptly and adequately — but is that true?

Strict action against perpetrators is necessary and mandatory. But beyond that, true justice can only be delivered when we can assure the students vulnerable to harassment that similar incidents will not repeat.

We need a system that is more preventive than punitive. Justice would be more effective when it is oriented towards improving educational spaces for students rather than solely punishing the offender. Rigorous regulations need to be established and school management must be held accountable, without any room to deflect blame. Only a change at a foundational level can counter the existing system of victim-blaming and gaslighting.

PSBB is not the only school: Chennai’s #MeToo movement and the need for long-term Solutions

school girls
Representative Image.

As we look through some of the disturbing testimonies that students have come forward with, we can notice a recurring pattern in the harassment and discrimination that has taken place.

Most schools, especially private schools, adhere to a particular set of rules or “moral systems”, where non-male students and students from marginalised communities and castes become the system’s targets. Some of these testimonies stretch back to more than a decade ago, indicating that this culture of harassment and discrimination is not new and has persisted for a long time.

Therefore, the current arrest of teachers does not immediately annihilate the ongoing harassment and discrimination in schools. The schools claiming to be “unaware” of assaults does not negate the reality that these instances occurred and will continue to occur. Living in a victim-blaming society inherently grants aggressors enormous impunity due to a lack of faith in survivors.

Addressing the present situation and working on urgent action is merely one step, if not the first, towards a longer journey of a safer and more inclusive educational environment — without which the minor students will remain vulnerable to harm — physically, mentally and emotionally.

Caught in a vicious cycle: The need for long-term Solutions

It is critical to recognise that children are moulded and impacted by their systems: social, cultural, economic or political. Children spend most of their time at school, where particular prejudicial systems based on caste, gender and class dominate and replicate themselves, creating a vicious cycle that traps them.

From this train of thought, if such systems of harassment and discrimination shape the child’s early life, these are the views that they will eventually carry out into the world. If this cycle is to be brought to an end, only a change in the existing system can do so. Therefore, we urge schools and concerned authorities to explore structural strategies that can address these issues in the long run.

What are some of the long-term actions that schools can Implement?

  • Sensitisation sessions for the teachers as well as the students must be mandatory.
  • We propose that sex education lessons focusing on consent and bodily autonomy are conducted, eliminating the stigma surrounding sex and helping students engage in meaningful conversations that will allow them to make informed, responsible choices.
  • Sessions focusing on POCSO and child rights are necessary because children must understand that they are not alone and that there are ways in which they can seek redressal.
  • Sensitisation lessons, both within the classroom and outside of it, on all caste, gender and class-based issues can also play a crucial role in breaking existing harmful belief systems.
  • Establishing an active Internal Complaints Committee in compliance with the guidelines mentioned in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 should be mandatory in all schools.
  • To increase transparency in case of any incident, the school management must make their existing (or) modified Child Protection Policy against all kinds of harassment available to the public.
  • With the above measures at hand, the school management must be held accountable if they fail to prioritise their students’ safety and if they do not take the initiative with serious internal allegations of harassment to conduct unbiased and transparent investigations.

Conclusion

After assessing the numerous testimonies received, we have noticed very little awareness and sensitivity on the above topics among students and, even more so, among teachers. These sensitisation courses must take place to establish a safe, educational environment for all students.

You can take a step towards ensuring long-term student safety. Sign our petition urging PSBB KK Nagar to take accountability and implement long-term structural plans in their school.

If you would like to report incidents of any form of discrimination or harassment you have faced in school, you can head to this Google form or visit the @student_testimonies Instagram page to talk about your experience.

We urge schools to take long-term action and ensure that this cycle of violation is not perpetuated in the future.

This article was written in collaboration with Malavika, Akshara and Riya from Student Testimonies.

Featured Image via flickr

If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at dial1098@childlineindia.org.in. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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