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School arson a crying national shame

By | October 19th 2010

Barbarism comes in many forms, but when it leads to murder, then clearly, there is something very wrong in society.

This is what transpired yesterday when two Form One students were burnt alive at Endarasha Secondary School in Nyeri in an inferno after a group of fellow students razed down a school dormitory.

The victims are said to have been trapped as the building went up in flames while they were asleep. In March 2000, 26 girls were killed after a dormitory fire razed Bombolulu Girls Secondary School.

Former President Moi announced a commission to investigate the tragedy, with recommendations to be implemented in all government-run schools.

Doused With Petrol

But nothing had prepared the country for a more horrendous blaze in March 2001 at Kyanguli Secondary School, when 67 boys died after colleagues doused their dorms with petrol, lit matchsticks and left the entire nation paralysed by the sheer savagery.

And in July 2008, 200 students were arrested following unrest in one school and Education Minister Sam Ongeri warned any copycat strikers and students who incite colleagues that they would face the full force of the law.

Predictably, a committee was set up to probe the causes of several strikes over that year, in which property worth millions of shillings was destroyed.

Meanwhile, politicians, parents and teachers incensed by the widespread unrest, called for reinstatement of caning as a form of instilling discipline in schools.

But that too was shot down as corporal punishment is outlawed. Some background first.

Public outcry

Between May 1999 and July 2001, the frequency of arson — attempted and executed — in schools shot up and alarmed the country.

These tragedies reduced institutions of learning into death-traps, leading to public outcry and expectation of resolute action, but seemed to recur around the time students are approaching examinations.

Psychologists tried to fathom the reason for the restlessness, and sometimes pure cheek that drives students to torch schools just so they do not sit exams, but have not made any breakthrough, except recommend counselling.

The assaults were laid on the doorstep of, among others, poor teacher-pupil relations, poor diets, a social life gone haywire due to expanded freedoms and increasingly lax parenting.

Some students were found to boast obscene amounts of pocket money that made petrol and kerosene easy to obtain. After the Kyanguli School disaster in March 2001, firebomb attacks appeared to become the fashionable form of school unrest.

Students, across the board, complained of harsh living conditions and high-handedness of school administrators, thereby curtailing freedom at boarding schools.

Some corrupt administrators were, in part, accused of massaging school budgets and even others pegging admission on parents’ connections rather than pupil merit, leading to compromised or poor services being offered.

Firefighting equipment is non-existent in many schools and fire drills are rarely conducted, despite that recommendation by the Government. School strikes should be made a matter of national concern. For instance, this year, 746,409 candidates will sit their KCPE in 23,114 examination centres while 357,789 candidates will sit KCSE in 5,898 centres countrywide. Is their safety guaranteed?

Undue pressure

How do we ensure schools remain institutions of learning and personal growth rather than deathbeds?

What became of the recommendations by the parliamentary committee that went round the country collecting views and suggestions on tackling school strife?

Are school administrators getting lax on their vigilance since most of these incidents have telltale signs long before they occur? Is there a dearth of role models in society that learners would rather parade through school without sitting an exam?

Is there undue pressure on children to ‘shine’ thereby increasing stress levels? And does it have to lead to murder just to press home their point? Is a national discourse needed to address this as a matter of national security, life and death?

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