School Safety– Need For A Holistic Approach

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G. Balasubramanian
Editor-in-Chief, The Progressive School, New Delhi

With several lakhs of schools spread across the country, managed both by the State and the Private sector, it appears that the time is ripe to reconsider the existing concepts of School Safety in the best interests of our children.

The rules and regulations that govern the schools as envisaged in several of the rulebooks of the state governments are archaic and have been designed many decades ago, when the schools were considered as temples of learning and the entire infrastructure including the human, was considered as representations of certain nobility. Over the years, thanks to the changing social dynamics and its impact on the thought architecture of the people, the schools have come under a number of external pressures and threats.

Managing a school body today is indeed a Herculean task, given the multi-dimensional skills of management the people involved would require. Let us examine a few important challenges the schools face with regard to the issues of Safety.

The infrastructure

Though the schools have adopted themselves to the modern styles and concepts of infrastructure development, several of these concrete structures, be it government or the private, are far from fool-proof safety provisions. Broadly they can be classified under:

  • Sites not conducive to the construction of schools.
  • Quality of the materials used for the construction.
  • Absence of coordination in designing safe eco-systems required for the school.
  • Over-crowding of the students in the schools due to absence of logistics in school admissions.
  • Poor designs for mobility of student population in the school space.
  • Unsafe designs in terms of fittings like doors, windows, staircases, etc.
  • Absence of logistics in designs to manage challenges arising out of disasters and inclement weather conditions.
  • Poor management of playgrounds and unsafe places for play and games.

One could list many other issues. Though there are rules stipulated to monitor many of these challenges, but they are scarcely taken note of or compromised in several cases due to various considerations. When accidents occur, we lament and become an “Ouph” generation and then the issues continue to exist, no matter what are the follow-ups of such accidents.

Transport

A number of accidents are reported across the country relating to transports either managed or contracted by the schools. Several of these incidents occur due to bad maintenance of the transport and lack of periodic checks about the fitness of these vehicles to transport the school students. Compromises made with fitness conditions at the time of the issue of licenses and fitness certificates often become the root cause of these incidents. Despite stringent directions issued by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, many cases of accidents have come to light due to non-compliance of these directions or violations of the guidelines. One could hardly imagine of a student traveling in a bus falling from the inside of the bus while traveling!

Use of qualified or untrained drivers, absence of support staff, speeding buses, overtakes on roads, over-crowding on the buses are some key issues which are still causing grave concerns. School authorities, on their part, take a casual view of some of these concerns as these transports are contracted from time to time and hence the entire process appears to be out of their control or interests!

In several countries abroad, there are strict procedures relating to the operation of these buses on road and overtaking of the buses ferrying school students is totally forbidden and the license dismissed!

Apart from the buses, use of local vehicles which are absolutely unsafe ferrying nearly double or triple the number of students is indeed a grave concern. These are usually managed by the private operators and contracted directly by the parents or local communities. The unimaginable threat to safety in these vehicles is ignored by the parents until it becomes a debatable issue. It is time that local authorities have stricter views on the use and management of these vehicles in the larger interest of the younger generation.

Health concerns

Schools are places where continuous personal interactions take place among several hundreds of the learners. Hence there is a strong possibility of viral and epidemic impact on health of these people. It is therefore important that there is a periodic check on the school environment as to the threats posed both on the individual and the community of students.

Some general issues that draw our attention are:

  • School toilets: The issue of non-availability of adequate toilets in schools proportionate to the number of students has drawn the attention of the governments both at the State and the Center. The absence of toilet facilities to girl children has been the cause for school dropout as revealed by reports and this is more specific in rural areas. The initiative taken by the Government in this regard is commendable, but it does warrant greater momentum. However, even where the facilities exist, the standard of maintenance of these facilities is far below the basic requirements thus giving scope for health concerns. The issue is not exclusive to government schools, but such standards far below normal exist even in some privately managed schools. Absence of adequate water facilities, sanitary kits and service personnel are some of the challenges the schools face, which need to be overcome.
  • Drinking water: Drinking water, being one of the basic sources for possible health hazards, needs to be provided with absolute purity. It is the exclusive responsibility of the school managements to sort out the issues if any, with the local authorities to ensure safe drinking water. Parent bodies, need to keep a vigil, in coordination with the school management. Places of sources of water, their upkeep and the supply routes have all to be examined periodically by the local health authorities and continuous update taken.
  • Food safety: Students in several schools do bring their own food cooked at home. However, long storage of food under hot weather conditions lead to their decay and sometimes by the lunch time, they become unpalatable. In a number of cases, the schools have a mid-day meal scheme supported by the government and several reports have come to public attention with regard to the hygiene of the places where these are cooked or their modes of supply to the students. Questions have also been raised about the poor nutrient quality of such foods, in spite of the expenditure incurred on these facilitations, thanks to the intervening corrupt practices at various stages. School canteens, in a number of schools do sell food items beyond the prescribed storage periods and they go unnoticed. The sale of fast foods and their consumption by the younger generation depriving them of the valued nutrients required for the body, has generated health concerns.In many schools, initiatives have been taken to ban the sale of these foods in the school campus. Safe maintenance of food in the canteens, protected from access to rodents and insects is an important safety requisite. Periodic inspection of the premises needs to be done to ensure a safe environment.
  • First aid &medical attendance: In a school community with a few hundred stakeholders, it is important to have an active first aid center to meet the emerging needs of the young children. However, these facilities rarely meet the required basic standards in many schools and even where they exist, access and speed of availability of these procedures by the skilled personnel is largely absent. The need for a trained nursing assistant to each of the schools along with the basic supportive infrastructure cannot be ruled out.

As a community, schools also need supportive emergency management procedures as students are susceptible to injuries, fractures, food poisoning, digestive problems, breathing problems and other concerns in respect of female children. In most schools, even stretchers are not available to move the affected students from one place to another. It is important to put in place, a qualified medical management system in each school and to impart basic management training procedures on time-to-time basis to the staff of the school. The local health departments of the government need to have an eagle’s eye in such matters.

Further, there are no stipulated guidelines, and wherever they exist, there are no supervisory mechanisms about handling of cases relating to viral infections and epidemics. The issues are dealt more on fire-fighting mode whenever crises occur. Absence of standard operating procedures or lack of information to the people who matter about these SOPs, needs attention.

Mental and emotional health

The changing social dynamics and the ever- increasing competitive urges for performance has put the school going children under limitless stress. The parental expectations for performance and the fast-paced curricular designs have deprived the children of the age-appropriate joys, time for play, freedom for communication and self-paced learning. Issues of Pre-maturation both at the cognitive and affective domains have made children to continuously evaluate themselves and proving their worth. Inability to sieve age-appropriate information, and process the required information has created both mental and emotional pressures. The increasing number of cases of mental depression and emotional blackouts has desired the need for counseling at all levels of the growth profile of the learners. Excessive exposure to romantic and sex related information through media based inputs have led to emotional imbalances which need correction of the course from time to time. The Government and educational agencies have started special focus to address these issues through appropriate life skills and value education programs. Issues relating to gender sensitivity, gender equity and gender neutrality are being incorporated as a part of the hidden curricular agenda to enrich the mental health.

Aggression, violence, bullying and display of vulgarity in public domains have made educationists to reset their strategies of pedagogy to effectively address and educate the young. Peer influences do play a significant role in creating newer models of role play and thus creating a need for effective conflict resolution techniques. The Government is ceased of issues relating to Child abuses in school campus and have initiated several regulatory procedures to deal with this social disease.

Technological interventions into life-styles have generated a new younger generation who spend more time with the machines than with the people. Use, abuse and misuse of technology is a matter of serious discussion in several fora. Speed of information is creating newer styles of dealing with them, thus creating intolerance, immediacy in gratification and restlessness. The emergence of virtual worlds calls for renewed modes of handling fantasies, with emphasis on re-articulating our approach to the virtual environment.

Accidents and natural disasters

Fire accident in one of the schools in Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu led to loss of several lives. So was the fire caused due to a short circuit in the shamiana of a school day function in Rohtak. Schools were washed away due to Tsunami in Andaman &Nicobar Islands. World over, reports have come of school’s buses being tossed by Tornadoes, building falling because of land slide, school roofs crumbling due to heavy snow falls and collapse of buildings due to cyclones. Thus, schools are susceptible to accidents and natural disasters like earthquake.

Organizations across the globe have been involved in reaching out communities to forewarn the schools of the possibilities and the need for appropriate prevention mechanisms. Unfortunately, such mechanisms are not adequately built into the procedures of school management systems. It is high time, some of the prevention mechanisms are made mandatory to limit the exposure of students to possible unsafe situations.

Social aggression and safe environments

Issues relating to kidnapping of children from school campuses, mob attacks on schools, possible terrorist attacks call for school readiness in meeting emergent situations. So, schools need a well-conceived plan for action and implementation to meet any crisis or emergency.

Cases of terror attacks, violence, shoot-outs have been reported in many schools in United States periodically. Though such acts of violence in school in the Indian context are far and few, ‘preparedness’ for any eventuality is the call of the day. It is always advisable to foresee situations and chalk out a plan of action to meet the crises.

Schools, possibly, need to work in cooperation with several other governmental and non-governmental agencies. Thus “Safe Schools” becomes a broader based concept with the involvement of several stakeholders.

Training of the school personnel, both academic and administrative to manage specific challenges needs to be incorporated as an on-going faculty improvement program in all schools. Joint exercises with governmental organisations involved in such prevention mechanisms could be done by the school both for creating awareness as well as to trim the preparedness levels.

It may be an excellent idea for each school to have a school-safety council that is in continuous communication and partnership with other well-meaning social stakeholders. The Future of School Safety is a very challenging idea and might call for both commitment and conviction to deal with.

G. Balasubramanian is Editor-in-Chief of The Progressive School. He is author of the book Safety Issues in Schools published by NABET (National Accreditation Board for Education & Training), under Quality Council of India.He is known for his innovations in curriculum development and interactive pedagogy.


Book Available
Safety Issues in School
Author: G. Balasubramanian
Publisher: Quality Council of India

Bringing awareness among school management and stakeholders about the possible implementation of safety measures in schools and helping them to take preventive steps, Safety Issues in School is a guide book full of ‘observations’ and ‘suggestions’ that the author gathered through his innumerable school visits for inspections and other engagements and continued interactions with shareholders in the school community. Order a copy at: 011-23379621or nabet@qcin.org