“How old are you?” asks Ayesha (name changed), a 16-year-old school student, distracted by her listener’s surprise at her stories. “How long ago were you in school?” she wants to know. Clearly, 1998 is a very long time ago as far as she is concerned.
Cut to 2009. What sounds like a sensational newspaper headline—‘Violence and ragging in schools’—is, in fact, the subject of a circular by a worried Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), sent out in July to schools affiliated to it.
What could possibly invite such a gravely-worded circular by the CBSE? Isn’t ‘violence’ too serious a description for scuffles between school children?
Conversations with school students from New Delhi and neighbouring Gurgaon tell of shocking extents to which some students are going nowadays to settle a score with their classmates. A culture of machismo seems to have permeated campuses. Schools are seeing new kinds of bullying tactics by children and a rise in aggression—physical and psychological. From school gangs roughing up classmates outside school premises to students posting lewd comments on social networking sites such as Facebook, vindictiveness is reaching a level that is unbecoming of children.
‘Four minors booked for classmate kidnap’ ran a headline last month in a national daily (The Indian Express, 22 November). The four boys, who were from a ‘reputed south Delhi school’, were booked for kidnapping their schoolmate, whom they had roughed up to ‘settle an old score’. One of the boys, according to the news report, had gathered three of his friends to ‘teach the victim a lesson’. All four were between 15 and 16 years of age. The shock value of the incident might tempt one to brush it off as an isolated and extreme case. That the victim’s mother turned out to be a Delhi Police head constable is probably why a case was actually filed and the news got out.
In the last three weeks, Delhi schools have continued to hit the headlines for violent incidents. ‘School turns into battlefield as students clash, assault teachers’ (The Times of India, 3 December). The principal called it an “act of aggression” due to an “internal feud”. The police had to be called after students beat each other up with iron rods and set fire to a bike and bicycle.
Then, a Class X student of a private school in Gurgaon was booked under the Arms Act for carrying a gun to school (‘Gurgaon student smuggles gun into school’, Mail Today, 2 December). The latest story has come from a government-run school, where a group of girls from Class X were assaulted by a ‘gang’ of seniors from Classes XI and XII outside school premises. ‘Boyfriends join city schoolgirls’ catfight’, ran the headline (Mail Today, 8 December ).
Says Ayesha, who goes to a school in Gurgaon, “Although we might like to deny it, the fact is there is violence in schools, both inside and outside. More on the outside. Inside school, there cannot be open fights because there are cameras. Some students have what they call a ‘back’.” ‘Back’, she explains, is a gang of guys who are older and influential, and not students of the school. ‘Back’, from what students describe, are rowdies who are called in by students to rough up their schoolmates outside the school campus.
Rahul (name changed) is a student of Class XI. He goes to a school in Gurgaon. For seven months, a classmate called him repeatedly and threatened to have him beaten up. “A classmate likes this girl I know. He gets drunk every night and calls her and cries and stuff. The girl is a good friend of mine. But this guy is really orthodox, he doesn’t like it if she talks to other boys. He started calling me up and threatening me. He called me out from my class and said his friends and he would come and beat me up. This went on for six to seven months.”
How bad do the fights get? Rahul says, “A schoolmate was threatened at gunpoint.” Not too long ago, in 2007, a boy from Class VIII was shot dead by his classmate in a Gurgaon school.
For students, the stakes seem to have changed. Reactions to disagreements or quarrels have taken on an exaggerated level of seriousness. And there is no grasp of the implications of their actions. “There is so much being offered to children from the adult world. They cannot differentiate between the adult world and their own. And because they are not emotionally mature, it manifests itself in different forms of abuse and a complete lack of respect, an irreverence, for anything to do with authority,” says Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Sprindales School, New Delhi.
The CBSE is not taking any more chances. ‘There have often been incidents of physical and sexual abuse in schools which are brushed under the carpet, and not reported even to the parents as it may harm the reputation of the institute. This is a dangerous trend and needs to be stopped immediately,’ states the circular. Schools not complying with its directives to create a warm and amiable environment for students, warns CBSE chairman Vineet Joshi, risk “disaffiliation” from the Board and the heads of such organisations would be held accountable.
Aditi Mishra, principal of Delhi Public School, Gurgaon, for one, pulled out all stops to put an end to inter-school gang fights, a problem she faced a lot in the first two years of the school being established in 2002. “The fights could be over playing space, or a girl, or losing a game. These fights happen outside school. Parents asked me why I was bothered with what a student did outside campus. Whether he is in school, or at home, or in the school bus, he should be a wholesome child. The fights can get very dangerous. They go with hockey sticks and beat each other up. Some students flaunt their connections with older boys. They actually have connections.”
Physical intimidation is only half the story. Extreme forms of verbal abuse and abuse of technology, like the internet and mobile phones, to emotionally and sexually harass schoolmates, too, are not uncommon.
And with long hours spent on the computer has come forms of online bullying, where students trash each other on social networking sites. What can’t be done on school premises is often accomplished online. Cyber bullying has become a convenient weapon for some students to circulate rumours and malign reputations. And since students can create anonymous online identities, there is no way of identifying the perpetrators.
Six months ago, Ritika and Shalini (names changed), both Class XII students who study in a New Delhi school, had to live through the worst form of cyber bullying. Two groups with their names linked to sexually explicit titles were created on Facebook. “Basically, a lot of abusive things was written about us. Most of the stuff they wrote was about sex. The day it was put up, I’m sure hundreds of people in school would have seen it. Obviously, we knew who did it. But it is very easy to create an anonymous fake profile and so we didn’t have solid proof to accuse that person.”
The girls complained to Facebook. It was a week before the groups were removed from the site. The hands of the school authorities were tied because the boy who was suspected of creating the groups denied it. The incident left the girls shaken. “It was very difficult to deal with it because our parents and friends are on Facebook. Everyone saw it. We could not focus on our studies. People were constantly calling us up and telling us that they had seen it,” said Ritika.
Says Geetanjali Kumar, a child psychologist who counsels school children, “Teachers, parents and students have to be sensitised to the changing shades of bullying. Earlier, it was innocent, it was harmless, it was fun. Definitely, cyber bullying, sending lewd messages, making blank calls have increased. Using technology, clicking pictures and blackmailing the child are not uncommon.”
This wasn’t the first time Ritika and Shalini had experienced bullying. “There are groups of boys and girls in school who like to dominate others. They consider themselves the bullies of the school. They use abusive language, and show no respect for their classmates, especially girls. Most of us stay away from them. But if they develop a grudge against you, they will be after you,” says Ritika.
Do the fights get physical inside the school? “The boys don’t fight inside school, because then they’ll have to deal with the authorities. They say, ‘meet me here, meet me there, you get your goondas, I’ll get my goondas’.”According to Bhaveen Gupta, school counsellor at Modern School, New Delhi, girls are also becoming more aggressive now. Ayesha has a story from her school which reflects that. A Class IX student’s alleged comment on Facebook about a Class X student took quite a dramatic turn when the senior the following day decided to slap the junior for her precociousness.
“The news that the senior slapped a junior was all over Facebook.” Miffed with all the bad publicity, the junior then called up the senior on the phone. The senior, further outraged at the junior’s audacity, went to her class the next day and humiliated her in front of her classmates. “She lifted the junior’s skirt up in front of everyone. And then hit her.” The senior was suspended. Ayesha concedes, though, that this was an extreme case.
Abusive language is the perhaps the easiest and the quickest to catch. For most students, bad language is practically a non-issue. “It is so common now that we have stopped noticing it,” says Shalini. According to the principal of Shalini’s school, using cuss words starts in the primary classes. “Children in Class II and III are saying things like ‘fuck your mother’ and using Hindi gaalis. You sit with them in the school bus and you’ll hear it. Ask the child the meaning, and he will say, ‘I heard bhaiya saying it and so I am saying it too. Style’.”
Of course, adolescence is a volatile stage. Surely, it would be naive to expect schools to somehow be immune to the changes in lifestyle that have taken place outside their campuses. While mild bullying, says Lata Vaidyanathan, principal of New Delhi’s Modern School, is not abnormal to adolescent behaviour, it is vital to understand what is unacceptable.
“Ragging in its mild form is visible across the spectrum, across schools. There is no doubt that there is a perceptible change in the way students interact with one another—in their language, tone and body language. A child experiences so much sensory stimulation today. Only a dud may not react,” says Vaidyanathan. Indeed, adolescents taking on adult pretensions at such an early age is disconcerting to watch simply because there has been no precedence for the degree and scale of aggression that is visible on school campuses today.