Incidents of sexual offences against children in schools are a cause of grave concern not only for the parents but also for the school administration which comes under heavy scrutiny of the parents, the Government, the police authorities and the media. It therefore, becomes imperative for schools to be aware of the current legal framework and implications there under, so as to implement appropriate measures to prevent occurrence of such incidents in the first place and the appropriate protocol to follow within the confines of the law in case of occurrence of such an unfortunate incident in their schools.
A. LEGAL FRAMEWORK.
- POCSO Act: The Protection of
Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 ("POCSO
Act") provides protection to children from sexual
abuse and prescribes punishment by way of imprisonment and fine for
sexual offences against children. Further, where such offences are
committed by persons who are in the ownership/management of staff
of educational institutions or in positions of trust and authority
over children, such persons are held liable for greater punishment
as compared to other persons under the POCSO Act.
Any person having apprehension that an offence is likely to be committed or knowledge of commission of an offence, is mandatorily required to report the same to the Special Juvenile Police Unit or the local police under the POCSO Act. Failure to report attracts punishment by way of imprisonment and/or fine under Section 21 of POCSO Act, and higher punishment is prescribed for failure by persons in charge of institutions, in reporting offences committed in respect of a subordinate under their control. There have been several cases where reportedly school principals, chairpersons, etc. have been arrested under POCSO Act for non-reporting of offences.
However, what is the reasonable time for reporting the incident is also a moot question. In one of the cases a principal was charged under Section 21(2) of POCSO Act in a school where sexual offence was committed against a minor boy by a staff of the school. The Chhattisgarh High Court quashed the proceedings against the principal and stated that the head of the institution is entitled to and should be allowed sufficient/reasonable time to find out the correct facts by making an enquiry at the institutional level before reporting the matter and therefore the prosecuting agency should be circumspect in initiating prosecution under Section 21(2) of the POCSO Act against the in-charge of the institution.
- Juvenile Justice Act: Another relevant legislation often invoked by the police authorities against school administration is the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 ("Juvenile Justice Act") which under Section 75 imposes both imprisonment and fine on persons in actual charge of or control over a child inter alia for assault, abandonment, abuse and wilful neglect of the child, exposing him to be assaulted/abused. The Juvenile Justice Act also prescribes greater punishment if such offences are committed by persons employed by or managing an organization which is entrusted with the care and protection of children. In the recent sensational Ryan murder case, the senior officials of the Ryan International School were reportedly arrested and booked under Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice Act.
- In addition to the aforesaid enactments, police authorities can also invoke provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 ("IPC") such as Section 304 A (Causing death by negligence), Section 201 (Causing disappearance of evidence of offence, or giving false information, to screen offender), Section 336 (Act endangering life or personal safety of others), etc. of the IPC, depending on the facts and circumstances of the case.
B. MEASURES PROPOSED BY CBSE.
To ensure compliance with the POCSO Act and safety of school children in general, circulars/guidelines have been issued by Central Board of Secondary Education ("CBSE") in 2015 and again on September 12, 2017. These circulars require implementation of various measures such as:
- Management and staff to be made aware about the provisions of POCSO Act;
- Conduct of in-house induction sessions on gender sensitization;
- Self-defense training to girls;
- Appropriate training for staff to address their responsibilities to protect children from abuse;
- Conduct of police verification and psychometric evaluation of all staff and non-teaching staff like bus drivers, conductors, peon, etc.;
- Conduct of security/safety audit of school premises and personnel from local police station and follow security related advice including installation of CCTV cameras;
- Constitution of parent-teacher-students committee to address safety needs of students;
- Display of toll free number and child helpline on notice board with names of teachers designated to handle such cases;
- Control access to school building by outsiders and monitor visitors; etc.
CBSE in its 2017 circular also stated that any violation or lapses with regard to safety/well-being of children on school premises would invite appropriate action including disaffiliation of schools.
Therefore, if a sexual offence takes place against a student, not only the individuals in charge of school administration are exposed to potential criminal prosecution and fine for their lapses and negligence, but the school itself can be disaffiliated from CBSE if the above guidelines have not been complied with.
Accordingly, it becomes vital for schools to adopt and implement both preventive and remedial measures to address situations of sexual abuse against children such as:
- Adopt the measures proposed by CBSE and any other guidelines that may be issued by the relevant state authorities on safety and security of school children so that the measures taken by the schools are not found lacking;
- Adopt appropriate and detailed protocols and standard operating procedures on issues such as reporting of sexual offences; post incident action plan, safety and security policies; complaints and grievance redressal mechanisms; student counselling; visitor entry etc.;
- Hold workshops and trainings for teaching and non-teaching staff on the legal framework and the serious implications arising there under in cases of non-compliance and post incident protocols;
- Sensitize students against undue sexual advances and immediate reporting; etc.
Such an approach would not only assist in preventing instances of sexual abuse against children and ensure their safety, but would also go a long way in mitigating liability exposure if such unfortunate incidents do occur despite all precautions.
This article has been published by Business World Education on January 22, 2018, which is available at http://bweducation.businessworld.in/article/Sexual-Offences-Against-Children-What-Should-Schools-Keep-In-Mind-/22-01-2018-137995/.
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