Children of school-going age or below 18 years constitute approximately 40% of our population, or about 400 million. They spend a majority of their time in school. Hence, safety in school attains high importance.
School safety has been defined as the creation of a safe environment for children, starting from their homes to their schools and back. This includes safety from large-scale natural hazards of geological/climatic origin, human-made risks, pandemics, violence as well as more frequent and smaller-scale fires, transportation and other related emergencies and threats that can adversely affect the lives of children.
The concept of safe school has evolved over the last couple of decades as the threat to the physical well-being of children has risen both globally and in India. International attention was drawn to the safety of school children in The Hyogo Framework for Action: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters, adopted by the United Nations in 2005. This framework underlined the importance of knowledge and education with the aim of making the community at large more aware of the threat of hazards and becoming better prepared. As follow-up to the Hyogo Framework, India has enacted the National Disaster Management Act (2005). As mandated by it, Disaster Management Authorities have come into existence at national, state and district levels.
The National Policy on Disaster Management, 2009, was evolved to highlight the need for structural as well as non-structural safety in educational institutions. This policy identifies school buildings as a national priority and enables provision for designing these buildings with earthquake-resilient features and equip them with appropriate fire safety measures.
It emphasises on disaster management training, role of National Cadet Corps and Scouts and Guides in schools and colleges for disaster management-related work. It also recommended the introduction of disaster management as a subject in the curriculum. However, we had to wait till 2016 to have an explicit policy on school safety.
The National School Safety Policy (2016) Guidelines stand for a vision of India where all stakeholders (children, teachers, school personnel, state and district education machinery) are safe from any kind of risks due to natural hazards.
The guidelines highlight the following key elements: Inclusive and holistic approach to disaster management at school level; capacity-building of all stakeholders on school safety and disaster preparedness; implementing child-centred community-based disaster risk reduction in the local context; mainstreaming risk and safety education in the school curriculum and linking it with existing government schemes and policies.
These guidelines would have continued to remain in their dormant state, but for very sad events that have happened across the country in the recent past, resulting in a hue and cry that has made state governments to notify guidelines and/or rules pertaining to school safety.
For instance, the draft School Safety rules by Karnataka government, the Gurgaon Police Guidelines for School safety, etc. Instead of such knee-jerk reactions, however, state governments should consider promoting the following measures:
At district and block level education authorities, they should: strengthen institutional commitment to safe learning environment for children through co-opting its senior officials at the district level as part of District Disaster Management Authority; constitute a school safety advisory committee at the district level and establish a mechanism for monitoring safety parameters on a regular basis; plan for safety by preparing a design of child-friendly spaces for emergencies in advance; ensure all new schools include safety features and prepare block-wise inventory of schools to be made safer; implement safety actions in line with national and state norms on school safety; ensure that all existing as well as new schools conform to safety standards as per the National Building Code and review progress on non-structural safety measures in schools.
At school Level, a simple measure such as designating a School Safety Focal Point Teacher to operationally anchor safety-related actions as part of his/her routine commitments can bring in significant changes. In addition, a cadre of peer educators/trainers can be formed to ensure that safety messages, dos and donts for different disasters reach all students.
The younger generation is most precious for every society and at the individual level, every parent takes utmost care to ensure childrens safety. If the state can also take the required measures, schools can become safe havens for children that help them to effectively assimilate knowledge and prepare them for the future. We should initiate measures to create these safe havens for our future generations, and the sooner the better.
(The writer is associated with Karnataka State Womens University, Vijayapura,