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Securing The Nation's Future Citizens

It was not the gong of the school bells, but the shrill alarm bells of 16 hoax bomb calls that ran through schools and colleges in Bangalore, right from January this year. With the trauma of the Mumbai carnage still fresh in the minds of many, who now realise the long arm of terror knows no boundaries of place or age, Shonali Misra finds out what security means to the heads of various educational institutions, and how they plan to ensure a safe environment for their students and staff

Herbert Hoover said, “Children are our most valuable natural resource.”
The source of the resource undoubtedly, the nine months of safety in the mother’s womb. As the child grows up and ventures into the (actually) ‘ Big Bad World’, he/she is no longer under the protective umbrella of his parents. Thereafter, the next ‘shelter’ for the child is only the school.

There is uncertainty in the air — a prevalent unease — Are we safe today from the Machiavellian tactics of the perpetrators who want to wreak havoc and sniff out lives? In the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, security has been stepped up in all major establishments — be it defence, government, IT, etc. But what is the security picture in our schools and colleges?

According to police sources, out of a total of 84 bomb hoax calls, from January 2008 till date, 16 of the hoaxes have been reported from educational institutions.  What this implies is that there is no dearth of troublemakers even where normal functioning of schools and colleges is concerned.

DH Education interacted with the heads of various institutions to get a feel of what adequate security means to them and how they plan to make their institution a safer haven than it already is.

No ‘safe’ place

“No place on this earth is safe now,” says M Geetha, Principal, Ryan International School, Bannerghatta. “ Will they (terrorists) spare the educational institutions? Probably, someone might get the bright idea of holding the entire institution to a ransom.” In agreement is Prof N K Prasad, head, Corporate Relations, International School of Management Excellence, Whitefield. He says, “Any place can become a target since attacks are aimed: (i) to give recognition to the organisation that would take the credit and the executor; (ii) ill-gotten funds that would change hands; and; (iii) to generate fear.” Therefore, “ it is better to be proactive,” feels Lt Col P K Sharma, Principal, Rashtriya Military School. He stresses, “ While the staff and students should be made aware of security threats, there is need to make them more vigilant.”

Isn’t there a general attitude that educational institutions are by far, (with the exception of bigwigs!), safe from such dangers? Some don’t agree and thankfully so!

No insulation

“ We believe educational institutions should not be under the impression that they are insulated from the possibility of such attacks,” avers Prof Dilipraj Dongre, Deputy Director, Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Hosur Main Road. “The recent terrorist attack at the IISc is a case in point. Subsequently, educational institutions should take care to ensure that appropriate security safeguards are in place at all times of the day.”

For — “The life of every child is precious, regardless of its education in a big or small institution. The responsibility and onus lies with the institution to safeguard and protect the child, and we owe that to the parents who implicitly trust us” — feels M Geetha.

Given that most educational institutions already have the appropriate security apparatus in place, they might still fall short of the safeguards in the (god forbid!) event of a more calculated form of intrusion into their premises. Yet, what are the safeguards in place? Have security arrangements been upgraded?

Stepping up security

One that has, is Vidya Niketan School, Hebbal, that has a student count of 1,200. Principal Nalini Ponnappa says the school is looking at strengthening security at the entry point, after the Mumbai attack.  Believing that it always helps being alert, she says the school’s buses are checked daily before the children board them. In addition, phones have caller IDs, she adds.

In the 7-month-old Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, security personnel are stationed at the hostels, entrance, lobby, recreation areas as well as inside the campus. Adds Prof Dongre, “ Along with the security in the institution, the latter is patrolled by the Electronic City Industries Association (ELCIA) Police patrol team, who update the campus administration on all necessary precautions.”

Foreign students

While, on one hand, ensuring the address details, antecedents, etc, of Indian students is important, it is more so in case of foreign students. What are the measures educational institutes, take, in order to do so?

There are six foreign students in RBANMS College, Ulsoor. “There is no system to verify their antecedents, apart from checking their passports,” says Principal, Dr B S Srikantha. “Though the police department collects information on foreign nationals from time to time, there is no support from the government for the same,” he adds. “Very recently, the Education Secretary was instructing us to be careful in the wake of the Mumbai incident.”

Symbiosis has 29 foreign students and takes the necessary safeguards while admitting such students. The institute undertakes verification of all necessary documents and certificates of students. A thorough verification of passports of foreign students, visa documentation and ID proof is also carried out. Security has been stepped up after the November 26 incident. A thorough examination of bags and belongings of students and visitors to the institution, along with visitor ID confirmation by security personnel, is carried out.

How effective can governmental measures like introducing smart cards, etc, be, in stepping up security?

“Government keeps trying to do many things, but doesn’t succeed,” says a skeptical Rev. Father Jerome Rego, Principal of St Germain High School and Pre-University College, Frazer Town. The institution started using Smart Cards four years back. But having an ID card is more practical than the Smart Card, says Father Rego. Also, according to him, degree colleges need to be more security conscious and take the adequate measures for student and staff identification. “Schools have a personal touch in interacting with students and parents that degree colleges don’t have,” he opines.

Security measures from the school’s side are never compromised, keeping in mind the 1,500 high school and 400 college students of the 60 plus-year-old institution. College students are always supposed to display their ID cards. There is 24-hour security at the main gate and entrance, and the school buses are stationed inside the school compound only.

However, when it comes to probing the credentials of parents, Father Rego says they are ‘very sensitive and don’t like to be questioned.’

Safeguards aplenty

St Joseph’s Boys’ High school is celebrating its 150th year of existence. With a student strength of 2,325, Principal Rev Father Celestine Sera says the school is increasing the security safeguards post the Mumbai incident, particularly, with parents expressing the urgency to do so. It has almost doubled the security personnel from the previous four to seven now, and will regularise ID cards for all students as well as those who come to pick them up. “There will be strict measures to ensure vehicles are not parked inside and around the school compound and handing over of tiffins will not be permitted during school hours. Eight CCTVs were installed all around the school in October this year, to monitor every activity and person inside the premises — because, “ Safety of the students is our priority.” The school also invited the Fire Detection & Disposal Squad to conduct a demonstration for the students on what to do in case of a fire or explosion, in September 2008.

Nothing works better for safety than each person being fully alert against all forms of danger — be it students, teachers, parents or any other person. “Students have to be on guard always and not be attracted to unattended articles,” feels Father Celestine. His words of advice for students: “ Use your prudence and don’t try to be a good samaritan always — for you never know when it might backfire.” 

Security at all times

Principal of Sacred Hearts Girls’ High School, Sister Preeti, feels security in schools is mandatory throughout the year and should not be connected to any incident as such. The school plans to have its own bus service soon and stricter control regarding entry of visitors, including parents and servants who come to hand over lunch parcels. The Principal is not in favour of ID cards for the students and prefers to have the parents presenting the particular student’s ID card at the entrance, instead.

Times have changed and will continue to change, maybe for the better or for the worse. Like Principal Ponnappa observes in her two decades of heading Vidya Niketan — “ Our school is situated in the suburbs, and in the earlier years, our school gates were unmanned and left open at times. Today — we ask visitors for personal details.”

We have to — for it would be prudent to remember India’s first Prime Minister and teacher, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s words — Children are the future of society, country and mankind. So we just have to remind ourselves that ‘One generation plants the trees, and another gets the shade.’

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