"This School Killed Me…"
Those were the last words of Arvey Malhotra (16), who was bullied in school
"This school killed me..." Those were the last words of Arvey Malhotra, an ambitious, creative boy who loved art and music, and had much to look forward to in life. The 16-year-old student of Delhi Public School, Faridabad died by suicide. Four months later, his mother Aarti Malhotra, his best friend and confidant is desperately fighting for justice. Arvey Malhotra was a victim of bullying, and was allegedly bullied for his sexuality. He was a victim of the alleged inaction of school authorities. He was let down by the ones who were supposed to stand up for him.
His grieving mother, who was also a teacher in the same school, recalled that her son had been facing prolonged bullying. She told The Citizen, "it began when he was in class VI. His friends used to call him gay since then. But he started talking to me about it only when he was in class IX. He told me about how his classmates would taunt and bully him. They would also spread the word about him that he was gay, sometimes they would say he was a transgender. They did all this to stop others from being his friend. They wanted to alienate him."
Later, things started getting worse, she said she couldn't imagine how bad it could get, "one evening, he came back from school breathing heavily. That was his first panic attack. There was a chapter on bullying in the CBSE syllabus. The teacher was teaching it and suddenly, it triggered a panic attack in him because he felt like it was his story. He had suppressed all those feelings for very long and now it had erupted like a volcano. He lost control of his mind and body. That's when he opened up to me completely and told me that he was sexually harassed by his bullies. He was blindfolded and asked to strip in the washroom in his school."
According to her, this was in 2021. "Soon after his first panic attack, I started taking him for treatment. After the treatment started, he started opening up about all that happened. So I informed the school authorities and requested them to take action. But nothing was done. But I couldn't waste my time running behind them. I was a single mom and I had a lot of responsibilities to run the family. Apart from that, I had to fulfil my responsibilities as a teacher" she said, adding "I had been working at DPS for ten years. I had no problem with anyone. I also had hope that the organisation I was working in for so many years would support me when I most needed it. But then again, not everyone knows about panic attacks. So once I recorded my son having a panic attack just so that the teachers and staff would understand what it is like to go through that and why my son needed their support and cooperation. But to no avail."
She recalled that "it was during COVID, and although physical classes hadn't started for students, we teachers had to go to school. When I told them about my son's mental health, their only reaction was that they would allow me to continue working from home so that I could look after my son. It's probably because of these little considerations, I felt like I was obliged, and didn't have the courage to fight against them for not taking any action against the bullies. My priority was my son's health. When his health was so critical, I didn't want to spend time going to the police station, or standing up to the teachers or confronting the bullies. I wanted to concentrate on getting my son the right treatment and improving his health."
"If he had healed, then I would have fought against the school. We were waiting for a good time. When you're in a war, and you get badly injured, you have to make sure you can stand up on your feet first before you start fighting again. But people still ask me today why I didn't report it on time, why I didn't stand up to the authorities when I should have. My priorities were different then. But now I have nothing to lose. I will keep fighting for justice," she added.
Aarti recalled Arvey as "a lovely boy, very loving and innocent and brought joy to everyone. He was great at drawing, poetry and singing and he would always be complimented by everyone for it. He was handsome too. The others were probably jealous and started bullying him. But all this affected him so much that he even started showing signs of dyslexia. He was diagnosed with depression. He started dreading going to school. He didn't even want to go to write his exams.
"I would keep asking him what he wanted and I would convey it to the Principal of the school. Arvey always told me that he just wanted the authorities to call those who bullied and sexually harassed them and warn them. He didn't want to report them to the police or anything of that sort. He just wanted to see that the school was standing with him and that the children would be taught a lesson. If they had just apologised to him, he would have been happy. But they couldn't seem to care less.
"The school authorities have stooped so low in trying to cover up this whole thing. They cared more about their reputation than the life of my son. Now I've come to know that the school authorities got some kids to write fake apology letters as a formality, have kept the letter with them and are telling the police that I, the mother, was satisfied with these letters. They are making things up to build their defence. In fact, now these kids are not students of the school anymore. They've disappeared. So there's no information as to where they are now. The school is still trying to protect them.
"In September 2021, I had written a complaint letter talking about the bullying that my son faced and naming the nine kids my son mentioned, showing them voice notes of my son talking about it. I even told them about the sexual assault and how it had happened multiple times in the washroom during breaks. I got a reply a month later saying that five of the kids who were named had left the school and there was no evidence against the other three and they were denying the crime, so the school wouldn't be able to take any action. Do I have to bear the burden of showing evidence? How do I get evidence from the washroom? What bigger proof was there than the very visible trauma that my child was going through. What's worse, I was even threatened that if I would keep pursuing the matter, I would be forced to admit my child to another school.
"And what if those kids left the school? Haven't they still committed a crime? Wasn't it this school's responsibility to let the schools they are joining next know about their past? They did absolutely nothing about it. How do we stop this happening to anyone else if authorities don't do anything about it?
"In fact, they've been so smart about covering this whole thing up. In my complaint to the police, after my son's suicide, I had mentioned the date and month of the incidents that took place. The March 21 incident where he was sexually harassed was the major one. Now what the school has done is that in the school's dossier, they have manipulated the information to show that these kids left the school before that date. That's the extent they have gone to manipulate information to build their defence. I know all this because I still have friends there who tell me what's happening. Even the police are to be blamed. The longer they wait, the more time the school gets to manipulate evidence," she said.
Not only did the school take no action with regard to Arvey's suicide, they even relieved Arti from her services. "Arvey died by suicide in February. In March, I got a letter from the school saying that they were relieving me from all my services on a sympathetic note because the case was going on in court. But I didn't ask to be relieved. When I asked them to specify what they meant by relieving me, they didn't respond. They haven't responded to that to date. I was even removed from all the official whatsapp groups, my official email id was blocked. If they were not in the wrong, why am I removed from official school whatsapp groups?," she asked.
According to Arti, they mentioned that they will give her the full salary, but she said "who knows what adjustments will be made later? How can I be sure that they won't make any deductions on my gratuity or PF? The school didn't even have the courtesy to hold a special prayer for my son or put out a statement of solidarity on the school website. On Arvey's birthday, I told them through a friend that I would send flowers and chocolates for his classmates, so that in some way he would receive their love, or if anyone wanted to apologise to him, they could use that opportunity. But I wasn't even allowed to do that.
"Even when Arvey was sick, I had written to the Principal requesting the school to just send a card to him saying they were with him and they were expecting him back at school soon. I know that that little gesture would have meant the world to him. My son would have probably been alive today. But they couldn't even do that simple thing. How inhumane can one be?" asked the grieving mother.
Talking about Arvey's sexuality, Aarti said, "he was called gay from a very young age. It was the boys who would tease him, giving him labels. During his childhood, there was no sign he showed of being gay. I didn't notice anything. But when the bullying started happening, and after the sexual assault happened, he told me that everyone always called him gay, so maybe he is. He asked me if I could take him to a doctor to find out. He was so disturbed that he didn't know who he was. He started believing what the bullies said about him.
"I asked him which gender he was attracted to and he said he hasn't felt anything yet. So I asked him why he thought he was gay and he said that everyone called him so, so he must be. We had a very open relationship. I told him I would support him whatever he decided.
"I also feel being a teacher's kid played a role. Teacher's kids are always targeted for everything they do. I don't think the school authorities would be so insensitive in dealing with other kids. They probably thought I wouldn't go against the school as I was working there. Arvey was tagged or labelled all the time. And once you label a child, that carries forward. Arvey couldn't cope with that pressure. The tag stays for a lifetime. Teachers should be sensitised to analyse a child for themselves and not based on the labels they receive from previous teachers."
After Arvey's death, one of the teachers identified as Mamta Gupta was arrested under IPC 306 for abetment to suicide, after she was named in his suicide note. She had allegedly ambushed him for asking a question during an exam. Gupta was later released on bail, and is expected to be reinstated in the school soon, while grieving Aarti was terminated.
However, Aarti is doing everything she can to gather support. She has started an Instagram handle to post updates about Arvey's case and has received love and support from across the country. "My world and Arvey's world was limited to the school. I expected them to stand with us and support us. I didn't get that. But little did I realise that the world was much bigger than that and that there are people who care, there are people who feel my pain, there are people who grieve with me. It's made me realise that there are good people in the world. The LGBTQ community, in particular, has supported me a lot. I hope this campaign for justice brings about a change. I hope children who bully will learn from this how harmful bullying can be. I hope schools will understand their role and responsibility in safeguarding the mental health of students.
"Currently, there's no strict legal provision against bullying. In my opinion, bullying can only be taken seriously if children understand that there could be consequences. They do it because they know they can get away with it. Schools need to be given directions on how to deal with it. The truth is that if a parent complains more than twice or thrice, the authorities would simply tell them that if they are having problems, they should just take their child to another school. One or two counsellors for a school with thousands of students is simply not enough.
"How can one expect the counsellor to do the job properly? The counsellor in Arvey's school was so busy, her calendar was always booked. Moreover, she didn't have the authority to take any action, she had to first report to the Principal, and only if the Principal approved, she would be able to get the necessary help for the child. Nothing is in the hands of the counsellors. That's one reason they often fail.The government should bring about rules for a proper student-counsellor ratio. There needs to be a separate cell for bullying where children can talk about it openly."
Richa, a psychologist weighed in, "there's a dire need in the country for conversations around sex, sexuality and gender. Along with that children need to have good role models as well as values of equality, kindness and fairness to be inculcated. Having school programmes that foster empathy and emotional intelligence is also really important. When kids are bullied it has a huge impact on their mental and emotional well-being. Words can cut deep and even words said in jest can have a long lasting impact on kids. Bullying is never okay irrespective of the reason.
"For LGBTQ kids, life is already challenging because they receive negative messages from adults around them, the media, etc about their orientation being unnatural or taboo. When kids get this message from their peers as well it can become internalised. It can lead to mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, aggression and self harm."
"Bullying is real. We have lost people due to bullying. We need justice for Arvey. We need justice for every child going through this. We need to question the school and find out if they're inclusive before admitting our children," added Ankita Mehra, an LGBTQ rights activist.