NEW DELHI: The gruesome murder of a seven year child in a school in Gurgaon has triggered a great amount of public outrage and media attention recently. Such has been the public pressure sustained by media coverage that a plethora of things are being ‘discovered’ by different concerned agencies and people. The locals found a liquor shop near the school. Press discovered that the school administration had BJP link and blessings. Police found out that the bus conductor did not have a verified identity. Parents came to know that the non-teaching staff including bus drivers did not have separate toilet and they used the same as the one meant for students. An inquiry committee found serious safety lapses in the school. Subsequently, a CBI inquiry has been instituted. This incident has certainly brought the issue of school safety to the centre of public debate. In the din of protests and media spotlight, however, some important aspects have been lost sight of.

One of the angles being fore fronted appears to make it a case of private schools. Parents are complaining that private schools fleece money and don’t provide adequate safety and services. While this could be true or false, none of these schools forced the parents to get their children admitted there. They could have opted for nearby government school but they don’t. Why? Because ‘educational standard’ of these government schools are not good, they may say. But how did they know that? Parents in general have scanty idea of what constitutes ‘educational standards’ beyond board results. Schools are simply status symbol for the middle class. They opt for such ‘high class’ schools not because they have any clear evidence of the quality of education or other services they provide. They get their child admitted by any means just going by the name, fame, building and the ‘status’ of school. In such a case, complaining about them is like a drunkard diagnosed with liver cirrhosis blaming the nearby wine shop.

The issue of safety in school should have been flagged as a major concern even before this heinous crime.Numerous such cases are reporter regularly. The very day when Pradyumn was found murdered in the school bathroom, the news of sexual assault on a five year girl in a government school in Delhi had also been reported. But we did not hear a murmur after that in newspaper. No public debate or outrage was noticed. There was no protest by the parents of that government school. Because, perhaps the parents of government school children can’t afford to spare that much time or they have no voice. Media did not care to follow up because this is not the class who would buy or savour such news or watch those television channels. They are not the right consumers. Simple! But the widespread anger on the murder in this high profile school continues to haunt and find space in newspapers and media. It has, however, brought the issue of school safety in the public discourse.

The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is India’s largest education board, has issued an advisory about safety and security in schools on September 12. The circular has asked schools to carry out a security audit and report back on its website within two months. Interestingly, a similar circular was issued on 23rd February, 2017 focusing on ‘Safety of school children in the school bus’. The February circular fixed the responsibility on the school management in following CBSE guidelines, adhering to by-laws and other circulars issued by them from time to time. The February circular also exhorts parents and says, ‘parents are equally responsible for the safety of their children during school journeys’. One wonders if the responsibilities of a body like CBSE ends by issuing such circulars and advisories and fix responsibilities for others? Don’t regulatory bodies have mechanisms of regular checking or inspections to ensure that those who don’t comply with such norms may be punished? Or else it is like police pasting the IPC regulation for theft or other crimes in each mohalla telling them about the provision of punishment and fixing everyone to be responsible for their own safety and rest in peace!

The CBSE directive had asked the schools to install CCTV cameras at all vulnerable points within the school premises and ensure that the cameras are functional. It is important to note that the bathroom where the child was killed had the CCTV installed, albeit it was not working. But who will look into all the CCTV camera feed all the time? What will happen to the huge amount of data generated every day? Who will decide which are vulnerable areas? Is a classroom vulnerable? Some say each of the classes too will have CCTV cameras. This will transform the school into a space of indiscriminate surveillance and tracking where everyone is seen as a potential criminal. It will no longer remain a school but a dragnet. Christopher Slobogin, a Vanderbilt University law professor, argues that surveillance dragnets are inherently unfair. By definition, they capture the innocent and the guilty indiscriminately. In doing so, they create a culture of fear. Schools, thus, will become a prototype of ‘Panopticon’, a prison design proposed by Jeremy Bentham in 1787 and popularized by Michel Foucault where inmates would be living under ‘ever anxious awareness of being observed’. Is that what we want our schools to be?

Another CBSE directive wants schools to get ‘…the police verification and psychometric evaluation done for all the staff employed. Such verification and evaluation for non-teaching staff such as, bus drivers, conductors, peon and other support staff may be done very carefully and in a detailed manner.’

Psychometric evaluation is another technological device which has no proven validity. Without going into much detail, suffice it to quote from the book ‘The Cult of Personality Testing’ by Annie Murphy Paul, an acclaimed psychology writer. She says, ‘the sheer number of tests administered obscures a simple fact: they don't work. Most personality tests are seriously flawed, and sometimes unequivocally wrong. They fail the field's own standards of validity and reliability. They ask intrusive questions. They produce descriptions of people that are nothing like human beings as they actually are: complicated, contradictory, changeable across time and place.’Incidentally a number of private schools in Delhi went on strike on 25 September to protest against the CBSE circular on psychometric testing of the staff of the schools which is neither standardized nor fool proof.

Such testing advice fail to understand that given the composition of ‘school community’ which constitutes mostly ‘contractual staff’ it is not even feasible unless there is a proper institutional set up within the school. And, once again the class bias is so obvious. The advisory suggests schools to be careful with non-teaching staff such as ‘bus drivers, conductors, peon and other support staff’. Why? Because they are greater suspects because of their economic situation or ‘lower’ profession they follow. This is discriminatory to say the least. It also strengthens the culture of suspicion and provokes greater likelihood of crime or deviant behaviour.

The responses of CBSE seem to be knee jerk reaction without much thought given to the larger context of the safety in school. Looking at the safety as a law and order issue which can be ameliorated by technical interventions is deeply flawed and fails to acknowledge the greater crisis. The unfortunate reality is that the school is now sees as nothing more than a factory where most of the people work without any sense of belonging. School does not care for them as their own either. Most of the staff including the teachers are contractual staff who can be hired and fired at will. Why should they have any special love for a place which cares nothing except the service that they give? Their chief allegiance is to the agency which places them in the school. For teachers or students other staffs do not matter. Hardly a teacher or studentfeels the need to know the name of a guard or a cleaner at school. There is no larger community at school that exists. School is a soulless machine to churn out students getting certain percentage of marks.

If we look at school as a space for preparing students for life, learning ways of knowing, getting the basics of moral anchoring in life based on trust and faith, truth and forgiveness, discovering ones inner calling and aspiring for rightful living and contributing to the society at large, the responsibility of safety is a collective one. It is the school community as a whole that must ensure safety for all. But where is such a school community?

(Vagish is Asst. Vice President with IL&FS Education. Views expressed here are his personal ones)