Sushma Thakur speaks breathlessly. She is in charge when the words gush out, but the pauses discomfit her. In those quiet moments, the veneer of stoicism wears off and she appears strangely vulnerable. Her voice breaks, eyes threaten to well up. But she quickly collects herself. Since September 8, conversations in her household have swirled around her seven-year-old son Pradyuman Thakur. Sushma doesn’t mention his name without the possessive ‘my’ before it. “ Mera Pradyum”, she says, as she recounts his keyboard-playing skills and remembers the playful child he was.
The young family came apart on that September morning, after Pradyuman was found dead, his throat slit, in the washroom of Ryan International School in Bhondsi. The father had just returned home after dropping the kids off. Sushma was attending to chores when the phone rang and their lives toppled. Much has happened since. The bus conductor who was falsely implicated for the murder has been acquitted, the Central Bureau of Investigation has taken over the case, and Pradyuman’s senior in school has been charged with the murder. Eight months later, the Thakurs are struggling to piece their lives back together without Pradyuman. The husband is at work, the daughter in school, and the mother-in-law keeps Sushma company. Yet, nothing is the same.
The murder of a child allegedly by another within the “safe” environs of a school did not just tear apart a family, but rattled the community. The everyday act of sending children off to school ceased to be simple. Young children are taught to be battle-ready, and seen off with a prayer. There are no allies, only potential attackers, parents warn children as young as four and five in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Pradyuman’s murder snapped a tie — of trust between home and school.
“After home, parents consider school to be the safest place for a child. I would think since my children are in school, let me tend to housework so that I can be with them when they are back. That trust has disappeared,” says Sushma. The school is not far from Sushma’s home in Bhondsi, a dusty neighbourhood of independent houses and barren plots, in the National Capital Region. One passes it on the way to Sushma’s home. She would have been there on her Scooty every afternoon to pick up the children — a routine that neither she nor her daughter wanted after Pradyuman’s death. The Thakurs have moved their daughter to a new school. “She could not stay there any more. She heard the same story repeated around her, every space reminded her of Pradyum.”
Sushma is troubled by the school’s apathy following Pradyuman’s killing. “I find it shocking that till now the school has not spoken to me on any matter relating to my children,” she says. She frets that the teachers who had spent months with her son never bothered to reach out. Pradyuman was a typical seven-year-old who believed his teacher could never be wrong. When Sushma pointed out errors in his notes, he would not accept it if it had a red tick mark from the teacher.
The fiasco in the murder investigation alienated more parents. The bus conductor arrested for the murder was acquitted after the case was handed over to the CBI on the family’s insistence. Further probe led to the arrest of a Std 11 boy, who, according to the CBI chargesheet, allegedly committed the murder in a bid to get exams postponed.
Sushma holds the school responsible for not keeping tabs on the accused student, who reportedly had a history of troublesome behaviour in school. But she does not overlook the fact that the accused, a juvenile, is also a child in need of help. “Whose responsibility is such an incident if not the school’s? There are children who need help. Why do you want to turn your eyes away from them? Today it was Pradyum; tomorrow, if it is somebody related to the school authorities, will they act the same way?” she queries. She blames the system for the pressure it puts on children, and parents who remain unmindful of a child’s limitations. “Think of the child who had such fear of studies and exams that he went this far to avert it,” says Sushma.
The juvenile, she points out, was good in music, and he and Pradyuman met in music class. “That boy used to play the keyboard at functions. My Pradyum also played the keyboard well. I don’t know how well they knew each other. But I know that Pradyum wouldn’t have gone with him if he hadn’t known him.”
“Tell me something,” Sushma says, leaning back, “Isn’t there scope in music? Why put such pressure on children? Look at what he has done.”
The incident has sparked debates on security within schools. More closed circuit televisions (CCTV) have made their way into campuses. Washrooms have become the most guarded zones. Sushma remains wary, “The school might have cameras in the washroom and gallery. But how many of those work? Parents are under the belief that the child is safe. If a school is charging so much, they should take care of the facilities too.” The anxiety spurred the Thakurs to file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court on safety guidelines for schools.
Sushma gets ready to fetch her daughter from school. Over the past few months, the parents have been constantly talking to the daughter. She too makes it a point to recount everything to the parents. There are things Sushma still would rather not tell her. “I can’t bring myself to tell her to walk away if someone asks for help. I lost my son, but still I can’t teach my daughter not to help anyone.”
The day she lost Pradyuman, the accused and the victim were in school, wearing the same uniform, with no scope for distrust between them. “It is possible that the accused asked for help and Pradyum complied. How can we teach children to do otherwise?”
In the months following Pradyuman’s killing, there have been reports of violence from several other schools. Five months later, at a private school in Delhi’s Karawar Nagar, a 14-year-old was allegedly beaten to death by three classmates. In a copycat incident in Lucknow, a senior girl allegedly stabbed a Std 1 boy in the school toilet. In January, a Std 11 student in Yamunanagar allegedly shot dead the principal in her office. As schools emerge as sites of violence, the stakeholders are realising the need to put their heads together and come up with reactions that are not knee-jerk. Securing school spaces with CCTVs and other stringent safety measures, to begin with.
At Shiv Nadar School, situated away from the chaos of the Capital, on Noida Expressway, external safety measures are in place. Visitors are registered and handed passes, images from CCTVs are beamed on the screen in principal Shashi Banerjee’s room. But the school intends to ensure that the physical infrastructure works in tandem with deeper and long-term processes that are aimed at the wellness of children as well as caregivers — a kind of mindful education.
Its internal safety audit system is run as an administrative unit with safety officers, engineer and doctor. There are checking systems for transport and other infrastructure. Additionally, each day, a teacher is tasked to be ‘ guardian angel’, discreetly watching over the workings of each department. Then there are a host of committees, including one for campus safety that has parents on board.
Through it all, Banerjee is keen to keep her eyes glued to the core issue — the mental wellness of the child. There are counsellors on campus and the wellness tracking goes by the lesson plan. “There is an observation time, conversation time, counselling time, group and individual guidance.” If the caregivers feel the need for support, it is extended. “Sometimes it is just emotional support, at other times more than that.”
In a healthy school milieu, the child is at the centre. That is the guiding principle for Bharti Batra, childcare service professional at Prakriti, Noida. Violence in school manifests the neglect of a child’s emotional intelligence, she says. “We are so focused on academic development that we miss out on nurturing the emotional.” Education has a crucial purpose — to enable self-reflection, she adds.
Batra offers no short-term solutions, because there aren’t any, she insists. Instead, schools need to grow into an ecosystem where the education and learning are expansive ideas that are not restricted to children. “It should be an ecosystem where nobody, including adults, are untouched by learning,” she says. If violence is to disappear from schools, it should have no place in the home, community and society either, she points out. She believes that children are agents who can bring about that change. And the first step involves building trust.
At Prakriti School, where Batra works with primary schoolchildren, she encourages forging a kinship in the school community. Every adult is ‘bhayya’ or ‘didi’ (brother, sister) and the children are encouraged to speak up. “We have circle time where children are simply encouraged to talk about anything. We don’t judge them for what they say, but listen unbiased. The fact that they can talk takes away their fear.” The school invests in a minimal level of physical security, and prefers instead to build a strong trust between the parents and the school. “Parents are our eyes and ears and we can act on their complaints quickly.” She doesn’t believe in knee-jerk reactions to instances of violence. “Don’t dig a well when the fire is raging.”
If Prakriti is on one end, among a handful of well-to-do private schools, on the other end are Delhi’s government schools. Many of them, such as the Government Boys Senior Secondary School, Shakti Nagar 1, cater to children from the neighbourhood resettlement colonies. At the assembly, a day after the Ryan incident, principal Rakesh Kumar Sorot made it a point to talk to the children. Violence, he said, should never be an option to settle skirmishes. And it is not an option the strong should ever exercise on the weak. He urged them to instead take up their complaints with the teachers. He created a pool of teachers, including the principal, for this. He reached out to his teachers too, instructing them to “listen” and not turn a deaf ear to anyone with a grievance. Nothing, he notes, can happen without the involvement of the three stakeholders — child, parent and teachers. For the first time in his school, psychometric tests were conducted for Std 12 students. CCTV cameras, though, are yet to be installed. Interventions to tackle violence in schools is an evolving idea. Till then, “listening” appears a good place to start from.