Alarm bells ring as school safety programme falls apart across the country

(Photo: Courtesy)

As the country comes to terms with the Moi Girls High School tragedy last week in which nine girls died in a horrific fire, several boarding schools continue to flout regulations on safety issued eight years ago. In addition, a report issued in May by a task force created by the government to address the causes of unrest in schools continues to gather dust. This is raising questions on whether the State is serious about school safety.

Parents have demanded it is time the government walks the talk and stop making knee jerk reactions whenever there is a disaster like we have seen this past week following the Moi Girls High School Tragedy.

President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a statement hours after the fire broke promising to take action.

“To the families affected, as well as the school and all who wish it well, can be sure that we will investigate the matter fully, and act appropriately, so that this sort of tragedy doesn’t recur. We need to protect our sons and daughters, and we will,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Consequently, the government has announced an impending crackdown (see separate story).

But the Kenya Parents Association chair Nicholas Maiyo told the Saturday Standard the tough talk by the President is not enough.

“As parents we need more commitment from the government. Like in Moi Girls if the parents knew the dorms were congested, they would have raised issues. It is now too late,” Mr Maiyo said.

Meanwhile, boarding schools, which ideally are supposed to be the safest places for children away from home, continue being death traps waiting for a disaster to happen. This is despite clear policies on how facilities in schools are supposed to be structured to minimise casualties in case of an emergency.

Overcrowded dorms

The regulations contained in the School Safety Standards Manual require all dormitories to have two doors, at least five feet wide to be on both sides. “Each dormitory should have a door at each end and an additional emergency exit at the middle. It should be clearly labelled ‘Emergency Exit.’

They also require all boarding schools to tie their admission to bed space, avoid sharing of beds and have in place fire extinguishers in all classrooms and dormitories. In 2008, when the regulations were being created each school was given between Sh150,000 and Sh350,000 to buy fire extinguishers.

Millions of shilling were disbursed to schools to implement the directives. However, a nationwide spot check by the Saturday Standard shows most of these directives have never been implemented.

The situation is worse in schools affected by the widespread unrest last year plunging them into an accommodation crisis. Last year, 239 schools had cases of fire while there were 483 incidents of unrest.

At Sigoti Girls Secondary School in Nyakach where two dormitories were razed down last week, the Saturday Standard witnessed congestion in the remaining dormitories. The school has squeezed students from the affected dormitories into one donated by a sponsor.

It has grilled windows and the spacing between the beds is hardly a metre wide. Ideally, bed space should be not less than 1.2 metres and the corridor width should be more than 2 metres. The Government had according to the Siaya County Director of Education, Masibo Kituyi given the school Sh10 million for the construction of an extra dormitory but this is yet to happen.

“I have done a circular again to schools a fresh to remind the school managements of the safety measures,” he said.

In Murang’a a principal who spoke on condition of anonymity said lack of funds to construct extra dormitories has seen institutions devise ways of accommodating more students in the existing ones. They claimed they had given status reports to the ministry about the situation but nothing has been done.

“A dormitory that is supposed to host like 30 students ends up with 45 students which is against the Ministry of Education regulations but we can do nothing. Our bosses are aware of this,” said the Principal.

“We cannot do everything as ordered. Some parents owe the schools millions of shillings in fees arrears hence affecting the operations of the schools,” said a principal in Taita Taveta.

However, Mr Maiyo accused principals of making it difficult for parents to monitor safety status of schools by denying them access to facilities where their children stay.

“During visiting days school administrations should permit parents to visit where their children sleep, where the food they eat is cooked, the toilet facilities instead of restricting them to the field,” Maiyo suggested.

“Because as much as we want our children to be in certain schools, their safety is also important,” he said.

A teacher in Nyeri said they are torn between enforcing the safety rules and managing discipline among students. The teacher said they were forced to re install metal grills after they realised students were sneaking out of school at night.

“Most of the dormitories are near the fence and there is one instance when I was on duty when I realised that nearly half of the dorm occupants had sneaked out of school through the open windows,” said the teacher.

Kangema High school Principal Nduati Irungu said there was need for the Government to allocate funds to enable construction of additional dormitories to cope with increased numbers. “At the start of every year, principals are under intense pressure from all corners to admit children despite the challenge of existing congestion. The space is too little and must be shared to ensure students are given opportunity to pursue their education,” he said.

In the North Rift, most schools we visited have grills on their windows, a clear violation of Ministry of Education rules. At Kimumu and GK Magereza Secondary Schools in Moiben Constituency all the classrooms and dormitories have metal grills on their windows.

The management of the Africa Inland Church (AIC) Chebisaas Boys High School whose dormitories were razed down in 2008 and 2015 removed grills on its windows but its dorms are filled past capacity. It has 860 students crammed in nine dormitories.

The Form One South classroom still has metallic grills. However Sammy Nganga, the school’s Deputy Principal while admitting they overlooked some of the key safety regulations said discipline is more vital than just implementing safety guidelines.

“Fire extinguishers and several doors in dormitories help reduce the risk but for arson incidences to be contained the young people must be understood and given opportunity to express themselves,” he said.

He especially explicitly blamed fathers for being too hard on their sons and sparing little time for mentorship.

“Fatherhood is a missing pillar in the upbringing of boys leading to troubles coming from family-related challenges. Children will become rogue and even indulge in drugs more when you just suspend them instead of probing them in detail just like offenders in the society out there are treated,” he said.

Uasin Gishu County Director of Education Nichodemus Anyang however says the challenge of compliance with regard to classroom windows is hinged on the fact that some classrooms were constructed long before the guidelines were introduced.

“Many day primary and secondary schools face this challenge. School administrations in these institutions have observed that renovating the classrooms to meet safety guidelines have cost implications and can only be done gradually,” he said.

School safety regulations say the minimum size of a classroom should be 7.5m by 5.8m.

“Such classrooms should accommodate a maximum of 30 learners in one-seater desks or 40 learners in two seater desks in line with the provisions of the Ministry of Education circular on Health and Safety Standards in Educational Institutions,” says the regulations.

“The doorways should be adequate for emergency purposes, open outwards and should not be locked from outside at any time when learners are inside,” says the regulations.

But at Olympic Primary School in Nairobi, its classrooms have more than 100 pupils with a considerable number of them sitting on the floor. The situation is replicated in several public primary schools in slums where the advent of Free Primary Education brought with it a challenge of overcrowding.

In boarding secondary schools, overcrowding as we established is created by over enrollment of Form Ones which is created by principals who enroll students parallel to government systems. At Endarasha Secondary School a dormitory with a capacity of 130 students has 160 learners.

“Congestion is not a major problem because it is an indication that the school is popular, and its academic performance is encouraging parents and students to gain confidence however, we need support to expand our facilities,” said School Principal Kiminda Wambugu.

But despite the widespread flouting of government safety rules, most Country Education Officers who spoke to the Saturday Standard insisted everything is fine. In Taita Taveta, County Director of Education Philip Wambua did not disclose the number of schools that have complied with the laws. He however claimed the rules are being followed to the letter.

“I have visited a total of 16 secondary schools and found out that the management of these schools have already compiled with the directive. The rest were inspected by the Sub County Directors of Education and have not seen any that has flouted the directive,” he said.