The past few months have been quite a disturbing period for everyone associated with schools – managements, teachers, support staff, children and parents. Not to mention the larger community and society within which schools function. It seems as though reports of such events have multiplied in the recent past – or, maybe it’s just the effect of the media being more sensitive to these issues. While it is certainly a good thing that we are paying more attention to the wide range of problems that plague our education system, it is (to say the least) extremely depressing to note the scale and pervasiveness of these problems.
The most sensational event of course was the murder of a child in a prominent school in the National Capital Region. The gruesome incident raised a number of questions regarding safety in schools, screening of staff, and the culpability of managements. When something like this happens, the first response is to fix blame, to pin the badge of villain on one entity or one person. Naturally, then, the defense of the school system is to quickly find that fissure and seal it. The calls for a more sustained introspection are short-lived and soon things go back to business as usual.
Schools are part of a larger eco-system and anything that happens within the walls of that institution tends to reflect attitudes, beliefs and practices – and power dynamics – that characterize that larger socio-cultural space. So while it is important to find and address individual points of culpability in any crime, we also need to constantly look for the underlying mechanisms that contribute to the eco-system in which such crimes happen…repeatedly. What are the expectations that we, as parents and caregivers, and members of society, place on schools and teachers? Do these expectations privilege a way of functioning that forces certain power dynamics to be perpetuated in schools? Does it create a hierarchy of actions and behaviours that lead to us ignoring nuances that might come from diverse backgrounds and experiences of all the people who make up the school system? In the NCR school case, as we have also seen in cases from Bangalore and elsewhere, the alleged perpetrators were not from the teaching staff but from among the support staff. Does the school recognize these constituencies, who make up an important part of the care circle for children, as crucial to the functioning of the school – in a way that is more than purely instrumental? Do school systems train and sensitize – and otherwise address the needs of – these important functionaries in the same way they attend to the training needs of the academic staff?
If we are to build a caring society, one in which violence toward each other at any level is minimized, if not eradicated, then we need to build an eco-system within the school that mimics that ideal. Not replicate the flawed eco-system that exists outside the walls of the school. If we think about all members of the school community as intrinsic to this eco-system, both those who provide education directly and indirectly – those who care for our grounds, classrooms, bathrooms, and buses – maybe we can generate a sensibility that leads to a more caring and safer space.