As playschools operate at will, is your child’s safety at threat?

CHILD SAFETY

Pic: Pixabay

In the third week of February, a horrifying incident of child sexual assault was reported from a playschool belonging to a popular franchise in Bengaluru. In this particular case, the parents of the child reported the incident with the police and the perpetrator was arrested, the playschool was shut down. The main accused in this case was the school supervisor.

Meanwhile, the parents of the victim alleged that the school management had also tried to cover up the matter when they were informed about the incident of sexual assault. A case under The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act was filed against the school management.

Cases of child sexual abuse or assault reported from playschools are alarmingly high. Six months ago, a similar incident was reported in Hyderabad. A three-year-old child was allegedly assaulted by her karate instructor in a playschool

In September 2014, an incident of a two-and-a-half year-old child repeatedly undergoing sexually abuse in a playschool was reported in Delhi. In this case too, the perpetrator was the school employee.

These cases have inevitably raised questions about how playschools hire staff and who controls them. In reality, playschools function outside the purview of the State government and there has been no law or guidelines governing playschools. Let alone Karnataka, there has been no legislation to regulate playschools in any of the states across India.

Unlike the formal schools which need to be registered with the Primary and Secondary Education Department (if it’s state board) and with the CBSE (for central board), playschools have so far remained uncharted territory – not falling within the control of the Education Department.

The schools that offer primary or secondary education along with pre-primary are naturally registered with the Education Department, but the issue lies with the mushrooming schools that cater only nursery education for children in the age group of two to six years.

The independently functioning playschools that we find in every nook and corner of our cities inviting the attention of parents, are of two categories. In the first category we have the franchise schools, which use the brand name of a well-known franchise like Kidzee or Bachpan and start their operations with minimum investment. The training material, services and concepts are offered by the parent company in this case.

The second category is comprised of voluntary individual or group enterprises that start a school without attaching itself to any of the big brand names. The entrepreneur is solely responsible for the investment and returns here. Curriculum and concepts are customised. Some of these even function from one-room apartments and independent houses in residential areas.

In the wake of a rising number of cases involving child sexual assault or abuse in schools, several laws and guidelines have been imposed on primary and secondary schools, but the states have left playschools out of their ambit despite the increasing incidence of cases in such schools in recent times.

Tamil Nadu was the first state to think about the need to regulate playschools and drafted a code of regulations in July 2015. The draft proposal defined a playschool as a place of informal education for children between 18 months to three and half years. It proposed to make the registration of existing and future playschools compulsory with the District Elementary Educational Officer. The approval once granted was supposed to be renewed in three years.

The draft notification, however, was not approved as the issue reached the High Court. The Madras High Court while passing an order on a PIL in October 2015, upheld the draft notification, but suggested a few key changes to be made in the final notification. The bench observed the highly unregulated environment under which the pre-schools or play-schools function.

Central action

Even though most of the states haven’t seriously thought about regulating playschools, the rising number of child sexual offence cases has prompted the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to issue regulatory guidelines for private playschools recently.

The guidelines issued last month are targeted at the playschools meant for children in the age group of three to six years. The guideline intends to bring inclusiveness and uniformity in all educational institutions providing pre-school education and to prevent violation of child rights.

The guidelines make it mandatory for playschools to be registered with the competent authority, implying the respective state Education Department. NCPCR has also pushed for making installation of CCTV cameras compulsory, maintaining admission/enrollment registers etc.

A crucial part of the guidelines focuses on making playschool managements accountable,  requiring them to submit an affidavit that none of the office-bearers of the applicant organisation have ever been convicted under the POCSO Act, the Juvenile Justice Act or the Child Labour Act. The recognition of the school can be withdrawn if it violates the provisions of the POCSO or JJ Act.

NCPCR guidelines offer the only ray of hope towards regulating pre-schools in the wake of increased child sexual offence cases reported in playschools. The State governments can either notify these guidelines as it is, or use the content of the guidelines to pass state-specific legislation.

NCPCR checklist for playschools to ensure security against sexual abuse

  • The school has a defined mechanism against child abuse and exploitation
  • The School has a senior and sensitized staff designated as Child Protection Officer – who has undergone training
  • All teaching, non-teaching, contractual and other staff is sensitized on the mechanism against child abuse and exploitation
  • All teaching and non-teaching staff is specifically trained to be alert to signs and indicators of child abuse
  • All parents and students have been sensitized on the mechanism against child abuse and exploitation
  • There is a recruitment and verification protocol and procedure in place for teaching, non-teaching, contractual, voluntary and other staff, before they are allowed to work with the children.
  • There is an active Parents Teachers Association in place and school actively consults and encourages participation of families in child protection issues.
  • The Child Safety Poster, e-Box details and ChildLine number is on display in prominent locations of the school
  • School has a qualified Child Counsellor/Psychologist – either part time or full time, or on call consultant one can access when there is a requirement or an emergency
  • All children are regularly oriented on safe and unsafe touch and behaviour, helped to understand her/his right over her/his body, and right to say No. Children also receive training in how to protect themselves from abuse and other safety measures. Parent training or awareness on the same is conducted
  • School conducts awareness programs to sensitise students on harms of substance abuse, mutual and peer respect, gender sensitivity, social responsibility; and consequences of behaviour or action
  • School has regular discussions to promote child participation and provides platform for them to discuss and share with the teachers and those in authority on safety, protection and other relevant issues.
  • In the event of serious sexual offence incidences, school authorities have taken immediate steps to restrict the access of the alleged offender to the children.

Recent media reports suggest that Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra are the only two states to have taken immediate note of the guidelines and are planning to bring in a law to regulate playschools. It is high time all states, including Karnataka, follow suit.

Akshatha M
About Akshatha M 8 Articles
Akshatha M is a Staff Journalist at Citizen Matters. She tweets at @akshata1.

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