Make sure schools are ‘safe’
Pushpa Girimaji

When you choose a school or an educational institution for your child, I am sure you look at the school's reputation, infrastructure, faculty and quality of teaching. But do you ever do a safety check on the school? Considering that children spend the best part of the day—about eight hours—in school every day, you should not take chances with your child's safety. Remember the devastating fire that razed Sri Krishna School in Kumbakonam, killing nearly 100 children in July, 2004? Or the Dabwali tragedy in Haryana in 1995, where the shamiana put up for a function at DAV Public School caught fire, resulting in the death of 441 children?

A fire can start in any school. A short-circuit of the power line is a common source. The school canteen or kitchen is equally susceptible. A mishap in the chemistry lab can lead to a fire. A firecracker burst by a student or a cigarette butt thrown carelessly around could ignite a stack of papers. Even lightning can be the culprit. Last year the roof of a middle school in Louisville, Ohio, US, was struck by lightning. In India as many as 40 people were killed in Jharkhand alone due to lightning. At the Green Garden Middle and High School in Ranchi, for example, even as children sat listening to their teacher, lightning struck, immediately killing six and injuring as many as 25. According to the National Crime Record Bureau, 1507 people died in different parts of India in 2001 due to lightning. In 2004, in Orissa alone, 300 people died because of lightning strike.

So parents must insist on lightning-protection systems in every school building. Before the monsoon starts, this is a mandatory check that parents must make at every school and college, too. Parents also need to ask the school authorities whether fire safety measures are in place—and this includes provisions to prevent fire and measures to safely evacuate children in an emergency.

Do they have fire detectors and adequate number of fire extinguishers in good working condition? Are the exits large enough to allow children to escape to safety without causing a stampede? Does the school conduct regular fire safety drills with the help of fire service personnel? Does the school have adequate water reserves and fire hydrants to tackle a fire?

Besides fire safety, parents also need to look at building safety in its entirety. Are the staircase railings strong enough to take the weight of children who may come down leaning on them? Do the windows of all upper floors have protective grills? Are the glass panes on the windows properly fixed? In July, 2003, young Bhavna's forehead was split by a glass pane that came crashing down from the first floor window of St Mark's school in Meera Bagh, New Delhi.

Similarly, there have been cases of children getting injured at the playground because of unsafe equipment. So that's another area for mandatory safety check—playgrounds, swimming pools and, of course, the school bus. Parents must know the credentials of the driver who drives the school bus and how he drives. They must monitor this on a daily basis and insist on schools removing those drivers who are rash or negligent.

The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission has pointed out: "A school's responsibility does not end with providing quality education. Safety of the students is as much an integral part of the service provided by it". In one case the school did not pay heed to safety and the price was paid by two-year old Brinda, who fell into the huge septic tank kept carelessly open on the school premises. Describing it as callous negligence, the apex consumer court awarded compensation to the parents.

But the truth is, no amount of money can bring back little Brinda or all those children who died in the Kumbakonam fire or the Dabhwal (Sirsa) fire. Besides the National Building Code, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has brought out a code of practice for fire safety exclusively for educational institutions. This must be enforced all over the country.

Hundreds of children who perished in the Kumbakonam and Dabwali fires will not have died in vain if we pick up the lessons which we ought to from these terrible tragedies and start asking some relevant questions pertaining to safety from school authorities. We will avert many such tragedies if parents—both as individuals and as members of parents' associations—start demanding safety at educational institutions.