Indian Children in Jeopardy – the Ostrich Syndrome
During several recent interviews on School Bus and Child Safety in India, I was asked 5 common questions. While I’ve been an active proponent of school bus and child safety tools, technologies, systems, laws, processes and rules, it wasn’t until today that I had a chance to step back and look at the bigger picture. What I found was pathetic, alarming, disgusting and shameful. Collectively, as a nation, we’re infected by the “Ostrich Syndrome” (denying or refusing to acknowledge something that is blatantly obvious as if your head were in the sand like an ostrich), so here are my thoughts and responses to the 4 questions:
Your view of the safety situation on our roads (school buses), in schools and playground (play equipment/ first aid) overall?
India has an abysmal record of child safety in vehicles, as pedestrians, in schools and playgrounds and even in homes and hospitals.
In 2010, the government of India estimated that, out of the total deaths reported, 14.5% were infant deaths (<1 years), 3.9% were deaths of children 1-2 years, 18.4% were deaths of children of 3-4 years and 2.7% deaths were of children of 5-14 years. About half of child deaths worldwide occur in only five countries: India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan and China. India at 24% and Nigeria at 11% together account for more than a third of all child deaths worldwide. Almost 30 percent of neonatal deaths worldwide occur in India. Alarmingly, the crimes against children reported a 36% increase from the previous year (2011), which recorded a 24% increase from 2010. In its report titled “Children in India 2012 – A Statistical Appraisal”, the Social Statistics Division, Central Statistics Office, Ministry of statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India paints a grim and damning picture of child safety across the country. More depressingly morbid statistics are on my older blog post, here.
These are shamefully shocking statistics, and are a testimony to the callousness and lassitude that plague child safety in India. Few, if any of the stakeholders involved in child safety have tried to improve this condition.
Schools, that are meant to be a safe haven for children to learn and grow, are rife with risks, including molestation/rape by teachers, guards and caretakers, corporal punishment, lack of facilities, poor/unsafe/illegal building construction, nonexistent security, unsupervised activities on substandard equipment and a marked lack of medical and first aid knowledge and facilities. When confronted with these problems, most schools refuse to acknowledge them or cite lack of funds to implement safety measures.
Roads and road transport in India are magnets for child deaths. India leads the world in total traffic fatalities. A startling number of the victims are school children. Horrific school bus accidents occur with alarming regularity, yet neither schools not transporters – bus drivers and owners – are willing to take responsibility for these deaths. Experts attribute the accidents to a deadly combination of bad roads, chaotic traffic, poorly enforced safeguards, badly trained bus drivers, poorly maintained or illegal vehicles and a lack of political will to address the problem. Safety analysts also say that the Indian public has failed to demand safer services. There is no public anger and child deaths on Indian roads and in buses are accepted as part of India’s road crashes.
Parents, who are meant to be their children’s first and last line of safety, are largely ignorant, careless and lackadaisical. In the US, a visit to a local store, less than a few minutes away, is filled with safety measures. Children are placed in the back seat of the car and buckled up, often in child seats for additional safety. Drivers follow all the safety precautions including safety belts and safe driving. All of this is missing from India. Children are allowed to sit in the front seat, sometimes even in the lap of the driver. The trip to the market on a two-wheeler is often without a driver helmet, and always without a helmet for the child in the pillion seat. It is perfectly normal to see two-wheeler drivers with children in the back, make illegal turns, drive along the wrong direction of one-ways and over-speed. Female drivers are often seen speeding with their dupattas flying and kids perched behind them, holding on for dear life.
When parents themselves don’t seem to care about the safety of their children, why should schools, bus drivers, RTOs, police and the government?
2. Is safety a points parents often overlook while selecting a school? If yes, what do they need to look out for?
Parents, who should be the most concerned about their child’s safety, are the often the least concerned about it. There is a pervasive attitude that “someone else will ensure my child’s safety”. Consequently, they almost never ask about child safety measures in the school; those that do, treat child safety as an adjunct, rather than a necessity. For example:
- Very few school websites list “child safety” as a feature of the schools.
- Few, if any websites that list school selection criteria, include safety as a factor. Those that do, often gloss over the safety factors.
- When seeking admission for their children in schools, less than 1% of parents consider transportation safety as a criterion.
- On parent discussion forums, parents almost never ask about child safety measures in the schools that they’re discussing.
- Not a single parent I know has ever asked a school, transporter or driver about any child safety measures. Despite numerous incidents of child molestation in buses and schools, parents still do not think about asking for the bus driver’s license, the school bus’ fitness certificate, the attendant’s credentials, the presence of a fire extinguisher or first aid kit, whether the security guard (if any) has been verified by the police, etc.
When I attempted to start the “Child Safety Association” in Bangalore early last year, which required the active participation of parents of children from various schools, the response was lukewarm at best. Of the 200+ parents I spoke to, most had no time to discuss child safety risks and measures, and less than 3% were willing to spend 1-2 days every 3 months to meet and assess child safety problems and discuss potential solutions. It’s pretty evident that parents underestimate safety risks to their children, and therefore overlook safety measures in schools and buses.
Ideally, here’s what parents must demand and look for, from schools, vis-a-vis child safety:
- Does the school have trained and certified security guards at every school gate?
- From which agency have the guards been sourced and trained?
- Have the guards been verified and approved by the local police?
- Are the guards present at the school gates during school hours, and do they patrol the school premises?
- How do they screen visitors to the school?
- If the school provides bus transport, are the buses owned by the school or outsourced to a contractor? Typically, school-owned buses are safer than contractor-managed buses.
- How old are the buses? If they are more than 15 years old, have they been approved by the RTO?
- How many buses are used to transport the children? Is there enough seating in the buses for the new children? They cannot be made to stand or sit near the driver in the front.
- Do all the buses have valid, unexpired fitness certificates issued by the RTO?
- Are all the bus drivers experienced in driving school buses for at least 5 years, and do they all have current, valid licenses to transport children?
- Do all the buses have female attendants? Are the attendants certified and trained in child safety techniques?
- Are all the drivers and attendants verified and approved by the local police?
- Do all buses have working, currently certified fire extinguishers?
- Do all buses have full equipped first aid kits?
- Are the school buses painted yellow with the school name printed clearly on all sides?
- Do the buses have working pneumatic doors that are closed every time the bus is in motion?
- Do all the windows have grills/bars that prevent children from sticking their heads and arms out of the windows?
- Do the buses have working speed governors?
- Do the buses have working GPS tracking systems?
- Do the buses have working webcams?
- Are the buses monitored closely during school transport hours?
- Are there working CCTVs at the gates and across the school premises, and are they monitored?
- Are the children provided with smartcards that track their location both in the bus and inside the school premises?
- Does the school get alerted by SMS or phone in case of emergencies, break-downs, delays, calamities, etc?
- Does the school have the ability to send alerts by SMS or phone to parents in case of emergencies, break-downs, delays, calamities, etc?
- Does the school have qualified first aid or nursing staff?
- Is the staff – teachers, caretakers, cleaning staff, maintenance staff, cafeteria staff – screened by the principal and the local police?
- Are all the teachers trained on safety techniques?
- Are all the teachers aware of the ban on corporal punishment?
- Do the staff members regularly conduct safety training for children?
- When the children leave the classrooms to play or to go on field trips, are they watched over by a member of the staff?
- Does the school have a fully equipped medical room?
- What are the safety measures in place between the school gates and the vehicle parking/child pickup area?
- Are the school premises and buildings approved by the city corporation, police and the fire services?
- Is the school cafeteria certified by a health inspector?
While these are numerous, parents need to judge which of these are important to them and to their child’s safety, and look for those that they feel pose the greatest risks to their children.
3. We live in a world where the safety of kids seem to be compromised in every way, where even a driver or school teacher can become a predator, how do you ask your child to stay safe and at the same time teach them to take the calculated risks that are necessary in the process of growing up?
While parents are concerned about their children’s safety, unfortunately they are not always around to ensure it. But they can equip them with information and skills needed to build self-protective behavior.
How to protect them from sexual predators?
The most important factor for children’s protection is a strong self-esteem. Parents should let them know how important they are to them and that are they are available when they need to talk. Parents need to be honest and open with them when they ask difficult questions, and believe what their children tell them, no matter how unbelievable or difficult to believe it is. Talking about child sexual abuse, for example, with children may seem difficult, but the possible consequences of not talking them are even worse – that they may be sexually abused and not know where to turn for help.
Either parent can do the job well. Women are often seen as more trustworthy by kids so a mother or a female relative can do the job well. If the father participates in the session, it increases the authenticity, especially because children like involving the whole family. It improves their sense of confidence and safety.
Parents need to start as early as 4 years. There are 3 parts to educating children on sexual safety:
Part 1, teaching children to not talk to strangers. A child’s concept of a stranger is very different from adults’. Parents need to teach their children what exactly is meant by “stranger”.
Part 2, that there are three areas of body that are “no touch” areas- chest/breast, bottom/buttocks/bums and area between the legs. Do not refer to private parts as something that is shameful. Parents must tell their children that nobody is allowed to touch them in these three areas. Notice that there isn’t a talk of sexuality or abuse – just no touch.
Part 3, teach them the “NO-GO-TELL” approach. 1. Shout NO! and scream as loudly as possible, 2.GO away from that person as fast as possible, 3. TELL a safe adult about the bad touch they got.
Parents should repeat this talk with their children every six months as “vaccine booster effect” – it makes it very effective and long-lasting.
How to protect them during transport?
Taking children off the school bus and using private transport is not always the answer. Parents need to get more involved in their child’s safety. Parents can get involved in the PTA to discuss issues regarding security of the children on the school premises. Parents/ PTA members could:
- Pay surprise visits to the schools to check how the children are being supervised.
- Volunteer to be a bus-parent by rotation, to ensure that every child is dropped safe and sound to their destination.
- Enforce a rule that only adults with authorized “bearer cards” are allowed on the premises to pick up a child during dispersal time.
- Check the school buses, drivers and attendants for licenses and certificates issued by the RTO, police and school.
- Work with the school and transporter to ensure that the school buses are monitored for safe driving and a safe on-board environment.
The primary change will happen when we, as parents stop playing ostrich, and understand that our children’s safety is our own primary responsibility, and not someone else’s.
4. Has all the reporting on children being sexually harassed, lack of safety on the roads, etc., making parents paranoid? I agree that it’s necessary reporting but does it also instill a sense of paranoia and fear? Your thoughts on this.
Certainly. I publish a newsletter that goes to 50,000+ schools and parents every week, in addition to maintaining multiple Facebook, Google+ and Twitter accounts that report child safety issues. Based on feedback from the readers, I’ve concluded that the glut of bad news that inundates the media every day is generating negative and fatalist reactions. Rather than react positively by trying to fix the problems and change the system, parents are either meekly succumbing to the situation and hoping and praying that their children will not be victims of sexual predators and road accidents, or are withdrawing from the problems completely by sequestrating or isolating their children from risky influences, and becoming “helicopter parents”.
I’ve had parents write to me asking me to publish more “good news” rather than so much bad news. I’ve had parents who’ve unsubscribed from my posts and newsletters because they could not take the bad news. I’ve had schools write to me complaining that their parents had stopped using their buses after reading my posts and newsletters. I’ve had schools demand that I get my posts and newsletters “approved” by them before publishing them, because parents make “unreasonable” demands for safety after reading them. I’ve had transport contractors threaten me because their schools and parents were asking for safety measures that were too expensive or demanding. I’ve had a miniscule handful of parents who are supportive and want to help. But the latter are too few and far between (less than 0.05%).
Today, after fighting this war for 3 years, I’m an example of more of the latter. My daughter was in 2 schools in Bangalore, one of which refused to implement a school bus safety system, and the 2nd that was open to it, but was constrained by the demands of the transport owner. The second school, incidentally, did follow several other safety standards, which is why I let my daughter travel in that school’s buses.
Now that my family has moved to Chennai, I’ve seen in horror how school buses ply on the roads, and have experienced first-hand the reluctance, even callousness of the school managements in implementing safety measures.
For the past 3 years, I’ve read, recorded and analysed every news article published in India about school bus and child safety. If anyone does, I have the greatest reason for being paranoid, and my realization is that as a parent, I have to do whatever it takes to protect my child, even if it means cloistering her. Consequently, I decided not to use the school’s buses in Chennai, and one of my family members accompanies my daughter wherever she goes. I don’t even leave her along with my driver, who’s been with my family for 10 years.
Are you seeing a change in the mindset and thinking of schools towards school bus and child safety?
The picture isn’t as bleak as some would imagine. International schools are beginning to take the lead in enforcing and implementing school bus and child safety tools and guidelines. The so-called “new age” schools are progressive and agile; they are more open to school bus and child safety systems, and pay heed to the safety concerns of parents. While a part of their strategy is obviously to get more admissions by offering greater safety to students, they are also often genuinely concerned about the safety and welfare of the children under their care.
I’ve personally met many of the owners, principals, administrators and transport managers of these schools, and it’s a refreshing change talking to them. They understand what it takes to ensure child safety both within the school premises and on their buses, and they’ve often proactively – and vociferously – demanded better safety features from my school bus and child safety product, NorthStar. These are the folks who’ve logged the most bugs and feature requests, made the most number of suggestions to improve safety, [rightfully] demanded exceptional levels of quality of service and monitoring, and have been NorthStar’s fiercest proponents. Many of the parents of the children who go to these schools are actively involved in monitoring their children’s safety through NorthStar, and often call the NorthStar customer support team to report issues or express gratitude for the service.
Sadly, many of the older, more established schools have been recalcitrant and unreceptive to school bus and child safety. They’re content to disavow any responsibility for the safety of the children who attend their school, and prefer to offload that onus completely onto parents. They seem to languish in a permanent state of “yesteryear”, knowing that parents will continue to seek admissions into their schools based on their illustrious history. This attitude is a mirror to the attitude of most Indians, who prefer to invoke the past and rest on those laurels, rather than focus on their current performance.
“Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”