Last year, when I was scrambling around to get school transportation fixed for my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, a well-meaning neighbour introduced me to a new issue I was blissfully unaware of: sexual harassment by school bus drivers, helpers. In a hushed tone, she narrated a horrific tale of her friend’s daughter who was sexually abused by the school bus driver. He used to take her to the bathroom each day (my neighbour had no idea how he gained access) and harassed the girl for years on end. By the time the girl could reveal the horror, she was 12 year old and had undergone immeasurable pain and anguish.
What happened thereafter was equally agonising. The school refused to deal with the criminal saying it was a private van. The stigmatised parents could not take their complaint any further, let alone bring the criminal to books. They let the spiral of silence swallow them just like their little girl did. The school forgot the issue. The driver was behind the wheels as usual. The status quo was undisturbed. The scars remained.
My neighbour spoke of a marked change in the girl’s behaviour. She was traumatised, withdrawn, and betrayed uncommon fear towards strangers.
Another parent revealed how another reputed school hushed up a molestation case and said bringing children to school is very much parents’ responsibility.
This is when I decided to ignore the government’s appeal to parents to take BMTC buses or school buses to ease early morning traffic and be environment-friendly. Nobody will come to rescue the children and the parents if a crime of this magnitude hits them.
Last week, when I opened a leading national daily, an article on this issue forked the entire episode back into my plate. “Don’t worry, your little ones are safe,” the daily said discussing the issue of school buses exposing children to danger through crowding and reckless driving juxtaposed with a new policy and a slew of assurances by the transport commissioner. The result: “there will come a time soon” when your and my kids “won’t be stuffed into minicabs and buses, driven off to school like sardines in a tin can”.
How I wish it were true!
Perhaps it makes no sense to discuss the same old unresolved issue of stuffing children into cabs, ill-treatment, reckless driving, etc. After the Chikkaballapur incident in January 2011 – where a bus packed with 60 schoolchildren toppled as the driver was busy giving driving lessons to a welder –there is little left to say.
The new policy, yet to be implemented, is packed with a number of children-friendly guidelines. It talks of making it mandatory to hire drivers with a minimum of five years of experience, introducing speed governors, and tax rebates to schools which buy their own vehicles and run them (and hopefully own up the responsibility if anything goes wrong which many schools don’t). However, everyone involved in this discussion – the transport commissioner, the joint commissioner, and some school principals – didn’t even so much as mention the sexual harassment issue.
They may not even know it. Even if they do, they may term these incidents isolated ones even as they sit on the other end of the vicious curve. Their contribution to the spiral of silence is perhaps unintended. But it keeps growing, nevertheless.