The school education system in Chennai appeared fractured when it failed to protect students from abuses of all kinds, by their teachers. The recent #MeToo allegations against several teachers on sexual harassment opened a can of worms.
The incident led to widespread outcry, including citizen locked down using Instagram ‘lives’ to discuss the legal aspects and remedies of child sexual abuse cases in schools and Clubhouse rooms conducting discussions on ‘Sexism in schools’.

From sexual harassment, moral policing, shaming, caste-based discrimination to partiality among students by teachers have led to an alarming response from civil society. While survivors took to Instagram and Twitter sharing their experiences and naming the abusers, the incident triggered ill-memories and flashbacks among those who left school years ago.

Working professionals Rhea and Meghana (names changed) who were neighbours and studied in the same school had a mental breakdown at Rhea’s house. They broke down recollecting the insults and abuses thrown at them by teachers. The victimisation was mostly suffered by average and below average students of a class and unfortunately, Rhea was one such pupil. With some hesitation and trauma, she recalls some of the bad experiences, which she now
recognises as bullying and shaming.

‘It was a co-ed CBSE syllabus school. The interaction between boys and girls was restricted. I was once caught and scolded by a teacher. It was embarrassing because the teacher said I had time to put on makeup, but not finish the record. Teachers discussed about students in the staff room. Another time, I was asked if I came to school to entertain boys. I was treated this way because I was not exceptionally bright in academics,’ Rhea said.

Dr Shashi Swaran Singh, who has won both the Dr Radhakrishnan award from State government and the President Award said such behaviour from teachers was uncalled for.

‘I was shocked and pained reading about the allegations through social media posts. It must be addressed very seriously and appropriate action must be taken, there is no second opinion about it’, she said.

Harassment is not just sexual advances, a teacher’s gestures, tone and language also can amount to the same. Shashi says in her 26-and-a-half-year career working in four schools, she has warned few teachers for being harsh on students.

‘I have never used a stick or a ruler to punish or threaten students. We can teach them without being rude or inducing fear in them. Such teachers must be pointed out and there is no compromise on it. One can recover from physical pain, but this kind of trauma takes a lifetime,’ she said.

The series of allegations led the Tamilnadu Teachers Association calling for stringent action. ‘It is a shameful incident which has affected the entire teaching community. We had written to the State government to take action against perpetrators and have their credentials and certificates recalled or cancelled. The teachers must be dismissed and must not be allowed to join any other school,’ P K Ilamaran, president of the association said.

Let down by parents
Why have we come to this level where students have taken to social media instead of turning to parents or the school vocalising their problems?
Rhea says: One of the reasons why the behaviour of teachers went unchecked for long was the naiveness of parents. The tone used by parents have mostly been accusatory of their children. If I was unfairly treated by a teacher for speaking to a boy, at home I was pelted with questions such as, ‘Why were you talking to that boy?’, ‘Why were you at that place?’, ‘Why are you not getting marks?’, I eventually stopped telling my parents about it because the control and responsibility was subsequently handed back to the teachers.

Another student who does not wish to be identified said, ‘It was also evident that such attitude and dominance is not thrown at students who excel in academics. The students good in studies were allowed to attend ‘kutcheris’ while others were slut shamed. This is how a teacher bullied a student who cut her hair in fringes: ‘This hair cut shows what kind of a person you are, how will you study?
Why can’t you tie your hair or wear a clip?’. The teacher called the girl by a particular name for the next three years. Four years later when her sister joined the school, the teachers would ask in a sarcastic and rude way, if she was the sister of the girl with the fringes.’

Predator and prey
Assistant professor in a city college, Michael Valan who is pursuing his Ph.D in Child Victimology says, ‘This is an impact of the #Metoo movement. In 2019, we conducted a micro level research on abuse in school environment. We found, 35 per cent students reported various forms of abuse within school, either from teachers or from other students. But only 11 per cent students have reported the incidents. The study also showed that victimisation was higher in private schools as the school try and solve such issues amicably fearing disrepute to the institution.’ The research showed that the private schools failed in creating a conducive environment. ‘They focus on academic results and clearing entrance exams. The students were constantly under pressure. These factors were utilised by perpetrators to exploit children. Parents too were unwilling to listen to children, maybe they felt the students were unfairly blaming schools and teachers’, Michael said.

Another factor that fuelled victimisation of students was lack of a proper mechanism to lodge complaints and students being afraid of the stigma attached to harassment. Michael explains,

‘Perpetrators choose victims carefully. It is not a momentary act. If the violation is committed momentarily, it gets reported. They take between three months to a year to exploit a victim, even trying to gain the trust of a victim. They observe the student’s family and capacity to lodge a complaint. In many cases, if a student who is an easy-going, extrovert and weak in studies lodges a complaint, the school responds coldly. Indirectly pinning the blame on the student for attempting to tarnish the image of a ‘good teacher’.’

The institution further creates a negative rapport between the parents by questioning the poor academic status of the child. This gives a leeway to the perpetrator to establish a clean image before the parents.

So what would be the way forward?
Michael says, ‘The situation cannot be solved immediately. But the system can prevent such incidents from happening. A strong punishment can deter other teachers from misusing power. An Internal Complaints Cell must be constituted as per Vishaka Guidelines. The committee must have members from outside including one government nominated person such as a member of Child Welfare Committee. There must be periodical orientation for girls and boys and an intervention programme for teachers.’

Power Play and call for democratic spaces
Many activists say they knew that the issue persisted in schools but were waiting for it to be discussed openly as they have always been warning schools and the education system about such behaviour. Andrew Sesuraj, State convenor of Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch (TNCRW) says, ‘What the students face in schools is not new. It is being discussed because they have a platform to speak about it. In educational institutions, what we need is more transparency and participation so that students will be able to speak out.’

‘Incidents of abuse can happen in any place where there is power-relation. Here its students versus marks in hand held by the teacher. When there is power relation, violence, abuse and discrimination can happen. But it should not happen in a school, because in a school, child is at the centre. They are sent to be empowered, to remain happy and to learn. What has happened is very wrong. Sadly, as a society we have the tendency to blame victims, it’s a way of life.’

He said he was disappointed to see comments against students such as ‘What they were wearing, why did they go there and that they are not children anymore as they watch Netflix and so on.
Somehow the focus shifted to accusing victims. Parents have failed, they did not give confidence to the students to confide in them. We need to create democratic spaces for students to speak out.’