A safe school is one that accepts sexual abuse may happen in its campus, says expert

By Express News Service
CHENNAI: As several incidents of child sexual abuse at school come to light in the wake of the arrest of a class 12 teacher in Chennai, The New Indian Express speaks to Vidya Reddy of Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse (CPHCSA). She speaks about how schools can implement a robust mechanism in order to prevent and deal with such incidents. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

Q. What is the first step schools should take in order to ensure safety against child sexual abuse?

Schools should understand that when they have an abuser at school, it’s not reflective of them. The school’s response to that abuse is what is important. A safe school is one that accepts that sexual abuse may happen anywhere including their own campus. Many child sexual abusers are professional perpetrators, who will pick an occupation that will give them access to students. But a safe school has a safeguarding mechanism to ensure abuse doesn’t happen at all and if and when they do, schools should ensure transparency and their robust response to it.

Q. Who should handle sexual abuse complaints in a school? And what mechanisms need to be laid out to address them?

It is worth noting that globally less than 15 percent of children and young adults disclose ongoing abuse. Every school should provide a congenial environment where students can speak about anything that troubles them. They should have an odd-number member POCSO committee; at least half the members being female, an external member from an NGO, a representative from the management, a teaching staff, a non teaching staff and preferably a parent as well. Parents may decide to first report the abuse to the police, but the school must have this system to address abuse. Schools should also ensure that students are aware of the committee and know how to reach out to its members. When dealing with children and young adults, the system should be enabling.

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Q. When a child is abused sexually, how should a teacher or parent report the incident to the school management? Especially when schools discourage or reject written complaints?

Teachers and parents can submit a written complaint and have signed duplicate to establish a proof for reporting the sexual abuse. If a school refuses to accept a complaint, parents should escalate it with the police. If they do not want to go to the police right away, they should post a registered letter to the school and forward the complaint to the District Child Protection Officer, Chief Education Officer and the Director of School Education. Past initiatives that the government has taken in this regard should be resurrected and implemented.

Q. In what ways could schools to prevent sexual abuse at schools?

Among the many ways, candidates applying to a school should be asked to fill a customised application based on questions that suit the organisation instead of simply receiving a CV or biodata. Use value-based interviewing and ask context-based questions about how they would handle real-life situations. Examples: As a teacher, what would you do if a student has a crush on you and sends you notes? How do you report a concern and to whom? Next, schools should always run a background and reference check with the previous employer on why the teacher left the job. I have seen many abusers getting fired only to work in another school within months. Government should also come up with protocols on what to do with those with abuse history.

Q. Once recruited, how does a school train teachers on child protection?

All staff including non-teaching staff in the school, should go through a basic 6-7 hour training on child protection, legislation and reporting mechanisms. This can be done online given how technology has progressed. This module should be refreshed each year to address new concerns like those that happen during online classes. B. Ed training should also improve training on Psychosocial development of students.