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Sane Ideas for Safer Schools!

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Sane Ideas for Safer Schools
A School Leaders' Collective
organised by The Teacher Foundation in collaboration with Times Foundation

These past couple of months, a cacophony of voices and views have been heard in Bangalore city and on national TV Channels about schools being unsafe spaces for students. Steps have also been suggested by the Police and Education Departments, most of which are centred around vigilance against entry of strangers into schools and installation of CCTV cameras in the campus. This of course has huge cost implications for institutions. Schools therefore, have been in a state of confusion about how best to ensure that children are safe from abuse and that atrocities like the rape of a 6-year old girl within a school won't happen again. The School Leaders' Collective organised by The Teacher Foundation in collaboration with Times Foundation on 21st August 2014, provided a platform to share ideas for sustainable steps towards safe schools. Aptly called Sane Ideas for Safer Schools, the Collective had over 120 attendees from a range of schools both from Bangalore as well as other towns in Karnataka.

 


The objective of the collective was to provide voice to key stakeholders of schools who had practical and thoughtful ideas regarding the safety of schools. The invited speakers included students, a counsellor, a head teacher from the UK, a parent and all the attending heads and teachers.

 

The 3 hour session began with a welcome address by Maya Menon, Director, The Teacher Foundation. (TTF) She mentioned that while the trigger for the Collective was the criminal incident that took place within a school premises, the problem however is much bigger. It is a symptom of a deeper malaise in all our schools – indifference to children, despite being the reason why schools exist. Educators are largely indifferent to children's views, fears, worries and indeed their safety! She emphasised the need for educators, who know and understand schools, to lead the initiative towards safer schools instead of the police, parents or the public at large. She said, “ We need to regularly reach out and talk, support and draw strength from each other.”


This was followed by a panel discussion by 6 high school students from 3 city schools – Ayushman and Vallari from Army Public School, Maleeha and Hibah from Oasis International School and Parth and Manvi from Sishu Griha. They were invited to give their views on what a safe school means to them. The students' ideas of a safe school included:

 

  • A place where we feel comfortable both physically and emotionally. Such a school understands
    children.
  • Where there is a strong bond between every student and teacher, where students can talk to
    teachers about not only their problems but also their feelings and what makes them happy.
  • A school is safe where students are free and they understand that with freedom comes responsibility
  • A school is safe where teachers are understanding, affectionate and listen to us.
  • Where the school understands children and the connection between teachers and students is close and there is no fear; teachers understand their feelings, problems and hardships
  • Where we feel protected, where we trust the teacher and they trust us, where there is open communication

Another question posed to the student panel was “Do you think things have changed in the past few weeks?” The panel's spontaneous responses were :

  • There have been drastic changes over the past few weeks, teachers are becoming more stressed and are not able to focus on teaching, it's not fair on teachers!
  • There is now a difference between teachers and student relationships... such situations can be taken care of by making sure that the teacher selection procedure is stricter, and there are written norms that are followed.
  • Before the schools were more open, we never thought of safety, safety was taken for granted. Now we notice that teachers are more scared of students, students get angry very
    easily. It's very difficult for teachers now, the future of our country is getting 'degraded' (sic)!
  • Full knowledge of the incident is not given so that teachers and students are able to talk to each other freely. A key aspect here is approachability.
  • The guidelines given by the government are silly.
  • Sometimes with some teachers students are too free. Both cross borders that they are not supposed to do. Students then lose respect for such teachers. This is evident by the way
    they argue with them.
  • If you are talking of a student – teacher bond, a teacher being open does not diminish our respect for her. We all have favourite teachers... When we know that that teacher will
    support us, that they will back us up, then we feel safe and we are able to share everything with them.
  • Every teacher has a different way of handling students. But wouldn't you rather have a teacher who listens and understands you? Being approachable is imperative for a teacher !
  • If a teacher is approachable, that teacher gets more respect than a teacher who is unapproachable.

The panel discussion by students helped lend a young person's perspective to the theme. They were spontaneous and articulate in expressing their views. The key points emerging from their session was a concern over not just physical safety of schools, but also emotional safety. They also highlighted the role of the teacher, who by being approachable and pleasant contributes to making a safe school environment.

 

This was followed by a lucid talk by the experienced Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Neena David. She spoke about the “need for understanding the multi-dimensional aspect of safety.” As an
aside, she wondered “How many people would have turned up (at the collective) if the situation did not warrant legal requirements?” She narrated an incident at a school where was conducting a workshop on safety with 6 and 7 graders. “I asked them: “How many of you feel safe in school “ – Nearly all said 'yes'. Then I asked “How many are bullied or disrespected regularly in school? Nearly 80% of hands went up. So,in reflection, the sense I got was that safety is being understood as only absence of physical danger. Statistics say that abuse happens from within, little more than half of all perpetrators are persons known to the victim.“

 

Dr. David urged the participants to consider “What is unsafe about schools?”. She said for children, being unsafe would be getting into fights, high levels of bullying orsarcasm. She went on to cite neuroscience and that children's perception of threat is very different from an adult's and that when children are constantly under perceived threat, one could be setting the stage for a life time of dysfunction. The body releases high levels of cortisone, which could damage the brain and impede learning. When children feel unsafe and not 'in control' they experience a sense of hopelessness, which could affect immunity, memory and the learning process. It could
also result in external manifestations such as vandalising or aggressive behaviour, eating disorders, low participation. She emphasised that learning does not happen in a vacuum and
safety in schools is not about CCTV cameras, vigilance officers and control. Safety is determined by the conditions that allow students to feel safe, to learn and thrive. To meet the criteria of safe schools recognition, positive school climate and culture are big requisites. Safe schools are those that celebrate being positive, treating staff and students alike with respect and sensitivity. Dr. David reiterated that respect and regard need to be built into the curriculum, so that all children are given opportunities to develop socially and emotionally. Clear boundaries and responses on behaviour, clear response plans and procedures need to be laid out for both staff and students .

 

The next speaker was Gina Menon, Deputy Headteacher of Raynham Primary School, London who shared practices and policies that are prevalent in UK schools to ensure pupil safety.

 

 

Gina listed out the following prerequisites for safe schools in the UK :

  1. A calm and respectful environment, for children to learn - The implications here are for teachers and school managements to ensure clean, orderly, cheerful and conducive environments for children to learn in. There also need to be on-going precautionary daily measures not only in case of crisis. All teaching staff members as well as anyone given the care of children are duly vetted through the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) to ascertain that they are suitable for working with young children and that they have no criminal history especially in case of paedophiles.
  2. Speedy and appropriate response to Child abuse : Child abuse could be physical or emotional and must be reported immediately. The child in question has to be cared for, specially if any medical attention is needed. It is the legal responsibility of teachers to report any concerns in and out school to the designated Child Protection Officer in the school. The Pastoral Care Officer ensures that children know who they are and that they can be approached if there's anything that bothers or upsets them, whether silly or serious. Children are also encouraged to speak to the class teacher, to their parent, or another child. Gina revealed that sometimes pupils go up to teachers saying that their friend has big problem and teachers are trained to always listen to them.
  3. Restricted entry to visitors. Any one visiting the school is given a badge that states who they are and what their purpose is in visiting the school.
  4. Rigorous and regular training of Teaching and non teaching Staff -Teachers are trained in children protection at  start of their employment. Subsequently every two years a half day refresher course is conducted on child safety in schools. These trainings ensure that all teachers and staff are aware of safety procedures.
  5. Detailed reference checks of new teachers – to confirm that they are dependable enough to be working with children. One question that is asked is “Will you employ this person again?”. The answer needs to be just a yes or no.
  6. Precautions to be taken by staff - All staff are alert to sudden changes in behaviour of children and they are required to fill a form to state their concerns. Staff are advised never to be alone with a student with the door shut. Teachers do not touch or hit children. No kind of familiar touch is acceptable and staff are required to be vigilant, when children change clothes for Physical Education but they may not look at them. Teachers are alert for any evidence of self harm by children, changes in behaviour, use of inappropriate  or demonstration of anger or crying.
  7. Respecting a pupil's word – If children make an allegation against a teacher – teachers are required to stay away from school till the local educational authority investigates the issue and clears the teacher's name.
  8. Special programmes for Pupils – to sensitise them to domestic violence, cyber-bullying, handling of stress using theatre workshops

Gina emphasised that during a crisis, everyone in the school should be aware of their respective role . Ultimately, it is the moral obligation of the School Head and the senior leadership team to
effectively manage alleviate the situation.

 

Gina's valuable and insightful session was followed by Mr. Bala, who spoke as a parent of two school-goers. He stated that the issue of children's safety is the equal responsibility of parents and teachers. He remarked that schools today tend to outsource many of their routine curricular and co-curricular activities to external people and agencies and that could make the school vulnerable in terms of its overall safety. Schools must have an open door policy to enable free expression of views. Schools and the home need to inculcate in  safety habits especially with regard to substance abuse, online abuse and the various forms of abuse that they may be susceptible to.

 

The collated responses of the groups that brainstormed on each aspect are given below:

Steps a school needs to take to be safe:

  1. Establish a Student Council to discuss everything that concerns students' well-being and learning
  2. Establish a clear set of rules and guidelines with inputs from the student council and parents.
  3. This needs to be disseminated to the wider school community to ensure awareness.
  4. Have a Child Protection Committee in school – with clear charter of roles and responsibilities – involving both female and male staff members.
  5. Do a thorough background check of every adult before hiring – both teaching and nonteaching staff.
  6. Train teachers in do's and don'ts with regard to interacting with students and measures to be taken by the school to ensure child safety. They need to be sensitised and receptive towards children. They also need to know how to respond in a crisis.
  7. Acquaint and sensitise children to what's sexual abuse - what's a 'good touch' and what's a 'bad touch'. Children need to know whom to approach if they are upset or sad. This can be done by putting up the name of the person they could reach out to along with the designated timings and contact telephone number/s.
  8. Have open discussions with students on a scheduled and regular basis. Teachers need to create space and time to listen to each child with empathy.
  9. Use a variety of modes to inculcate life skills and moral values – cinema, theatre etc
  10. Have ID cards for every one in the school – children and adults
  11. Have CCTV cameras in closed spaces and large open spaces – however everyone needs to be alert. As one Principal put it “ our eyes need to be our cameras”.
  12. Have periodic parent teacher interactions to check children's well-being and growth as learners.

Steps a school needs to take to be seen to be safe:

  1. Install Suggestion/ Complaint boxes in schools – and genuinely address the concerns and complaints regularly – either weekly or monthly
  2. The existence of the Student Council demonstrates the empowered role that students can take to contribute to overall school well-being. However the Student Council must regularly meet and discuss student concerns and take action which is within their purview and ask for help from teachers and school management for aspects that need adult intervention.
  3. Have regular Parent-Teacher Meetings to gather parental concerns or queries regarding any aspect of the school.
  4. Be proactive whenever there's a complaint or concern shared by parents or teachers or students, with the help of the Student Council and Child Protection Committee.

Steps a school needs to take when in a crisis :

 

  1. Set up a Crisis Committee (which is separate from the Child Protection Committee) who know how to handle issues that get 'blown up'. Clear steps need to be taken such as - assess and comprehend the situation and try to ascertain all the facts and allegations without getting defensive; inform concerned people – including the police (if necessary), lawyer, parents, whole staff, students regarding course of action.
  2. Appoint a Public Relations Officer / School Relations Coordinator who will work in tandem with the Crisis Committee to honestly, calmly and transparently communicate to the public, including parents and media. It's vital that no attempt is made to cover up the truth.
  3. Mete out consequences to the guilty in a prompt and rational manner after consultation with a lawyer.
  4. Scrupulously protect the identity of the ' victim'. Listen to him/her and arrive at a solution after consultation with the management. Attend to her/his emotional and physical needs immediately.
  5. Have team immediately set up to manage the crisis and have a therapeutic team of trained professionals to offer counselling sessions – one-on-one or in a group to students and other relevant stakeholders
  6. Be non-judgemental and respectful, especially when the parent or the child is from a lower socio-economic strata.
  7. The integrity of the school and its Management must not be undermined or compromised in any communication or interaction.

Once these eminently sane ideas for safer schools were shared with the whole group, The Teacher Foundation presented the Safe and Sensitive Schools (SASS) idea using Jenny Mosley's Whole School
Ecosystemic Model of Quality Circle Time. TTF's SASS Project  encapsulates all of the above points and trains and supports schools to become more safe and caring by setting up listening systems and clear behaviour policies for all – staff and students.

Whole School Ecosystemic Model(WSE) provides the essential framework for support, clear expectations, and guidance and establishes a sound base for fostering healthy and happy student development. The core idea of the WSE model is its 3 listening systems – Quality Circle Time, Think Books and Bubble Time. A safe school is one that listens to its people – teachers listening to students, students listening to each other and head listening to the teachers. Quality Circle Time or the group listening system promotes a collaborative atmosphere which encourages the children to experience doing things together and accept others as they are. The circle format is critical, as it has always been a symbol of unity, healing and power. The circle is also a non-hierarchical structure promoting active group-work, cooperation, where in each participant has an equal opportunity to participate. The circle is deeply embedded in the history of mankind because of its problem solving, goal achieving potential (Mosley, 1999).

 

Besides Circle Time, Bubble Time (one-on-one listening) and Think Books (non-verbal listening) provide a nurturing umbrella for learning within the school. These listening systems are held in place by the 'Golden Rules' that forms the backbone of the WSE model. These rules are the moral values of gentleness, kindness, honesty, respect for each other and for property and work ethic – all necessary ingredients for a safe and sensitive school.

The vote of thanks was given by Shweta Harshwal of Times Foundation who maintained that the work needs to continue beyond the day's discussion. “We have to be more proactive and less reactive”.

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