Ryan student murder: Why installing more CCTVs cannot protect our children
Every time a sordid story comes out of a school, the administration rushes to get more CCTVs installed. Technological solutions currently enjoy favour in every aspect of social policy. Looking at the evolution of governance practices over the last two decades, we can see the emergence of two salient tendencies. One is to isolate a problem before attacking it; the other is to look for a technical solution. Both these tendencies can be witnessed in the post-Ryan rush to ‘fix’ the problem of children’s safety at school.
The Ryan incident offers a peep-hole into the hazy normalcy that envelops the routine of school management. It is pointless to distinguish between private and government schools on the question of safety. Instances of children’s vulnerability to accidents and crimes in both kinds of schools are reported frequently. These reports mostly come from urban centres, but the content they cover is just as common in rural schools.
Children’s vulnerability in schools needs to be read and understood in the wider social context. The term ‘safety’ does not allow us to acknowledge the role of this wider context in shaping our children’s life. When we say that schools have become unsafe, we conflate material conditions that might cause an accident with crime. Poorly maintained electrical fittings, poor quality cement, broken windows can cause injury or death. These shortcomings can be overcome by improving supervision of the school plant. This remedy, however, is useful mainly in private schools where maintenance is the school’s own business. The principal of a government school has little choice in matters pertaining to the quality of the infrastructure, and often has no maintenance staff worth talking about.
Infrastructure has a role to play in the Ryan incident too, and perhaps the horror could have been averted if the school had followed the example of many other private schools where children’s toilets are used exclusively used by children. However, this is not the core of the Ryan story. It is about a child’s encounter with crime in the school premises. Can we call this a case where the school was neither ‘safe’ nor ‘secure’? To the extent we know, the culprit at Ryan is not someone entirely external to the school. His presence reflects the new governance principle under which a school hires a number of necessary services from commercial providers. In common parlance, we recognise this segment of the staff as ‘contractual’. Their loyalty and sense of belonging to the institution are not part of their so-called contract. If our discussion of school safety is to include protection from crime, we cannot avoid this wider context. A technological solution, like installation of more CCTVs, cannot protect our children from this vacuum of institutional loyalty that the new governance ethos creates.
Referring to this wider context is often perceived as lack of interest in finding solutions. Demand for suggestions to ‘fix’ the problem is so popular that it is seen as something natural. On the other hand, the call for deeper reflection or analysis of the wider context is seen as a sign of unwillingness to face the situation. Ironically, it is the techno-romantics who are unwilling to face the situation, but their perception and solutions have far greater weight in the current environment than a call for reflection has. There is hardly any possibility of a dialogue between those who advocate quick technical solutions and others who want to talk about a larger reality shaping children’s life at school.
Technophiliacs claim to have both immediate and long-term solutions to offer. So, while more CCTVs is being offered as an immediate step to improve children’s safety and security at school, a long-term policy is also being pushed. It consists of police verification of all school staff—including guards, peons, ayahs, even teachers. We might think that inclusion of teachers in this list will help because there are news stories where teachers have been found guilty of sexual exploitation of the students they teach. But getting teachers verified by the police can hardly compensate for the wholesale commercialisation of teacher education we have actively encouraged. Verification of other staff may also create some short-term confidence in the public mind, but this solution will not address the larger flaw in the new culture of school administration. Contractual staff can’t be expected to have a personal sense of responsibility to the school. This limitation helps us imagine how someone who served the school can murder a small boy.
Krishna Kumar is a former director of NCERT
The views expressed are personal