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What State must do to enhance student safety in public schools

By Antoney Luvinzu | November 22nd 2021

A file photo of a dormitory.

A recent clip of students at Buruburu Girls High School jumping through the windows due to a fire outbreak in one of their dormitories was chilling and is something we will talk about for a while. 

The incident brought to the fore how critical safety in our schools is.

In the international education arena, the utmost premium is placed on child safety and protection. Anything else, including grades, is secondary. It’s a shame the reverse holds true in public schools.

The government’s 100 per cent transition policy, though quite noble, leads to congestion in learning facilities and it is a no-brainer when the safety of boarding students is compromised.

To this end, there is an urgent need for the safety and protection of learners to be  re-calibrated and prioritised. 

But for this to be done effectively, we must first map out possible pressure points, this being the safety threats students face in our public boarding schools.

Bullying, gender discrimination, including sexual harassment and violence, are some of the safety threats students encounter in schools.

Tragic fires (like currently being witnessed across the country), as well as school violence and unrest, have heightened the need for crisis and emergency preparedness. In north-eastern Kenya, students have been directly affected by acts of violence, including terrorist attacks and banditry.

What measures should schools put in place to prevent these threats?

In order to prevent any threats to students’ safety in schools, all the buildings especially classrooms, dormitories and libraries should observe all safety enhancement measures.

Security in the school setting should be maximum at all times to prevent cases of rape and other outside forces that might harm students. Schools should employ stringent measures to curb student unrest and bullying.

The classrooms should be properly lit and ventilated while the size in terms of length and width should be as specified in the Ministry of Education building specifications.

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 (2001).

The doorways should be adequate for emergency purposes, open outwards, and should not be locked from outside at any time when learners are inside. For storeyed buildings, the stairways should be wide enough and located at both ends of the building and should be clear of any obstructions at all times.

The construction of stairways should give provision for learners with special needs. The handrails in the stairs should be strong and firmly fixed.

The corridors should be both well ventilated and lit, and the width should be wide enough for the learners to walk along without bumping into each other. Classroom windows must be without grills and should be easy to open.

In all cases, efforts should be made to cement all the classroom floors. Each block should be fitted with serviced fire extinguishers. Regular inspection of classroom buildings, halls, and stairways should be carried out and immediate measures taken to correct any problems noticed.

Dormitories in boarding schools should be kept clean and properly ventilated. Care should be taken to observe the space between the beds to be at least 1.2 metres while the corridor or pathway space should not be less than two metres. Since sharing of beds is prohibited in schools, admissions should be tied to bed capacity at all times. 

They must not at any time be locked from outside when learners are inside. Each dormitory should have a door at each end and an additional and clearly labelled emergency exit at the middle. Dormitory doors should be locked at all times when learners are in class or on the playing fields.

Dormitory windows must be without grills and should be easy to open outwards. Fire extinguishing equipment should be functioning and placed at each exit with fire alarms fitted at easily accessible points.

Regular spot checks by the teachers and the administration should be undertaken before learners retire to bed. There should also be a frequent inspection of hygiene standards of the dormitories and the learners.  

The library is the centre of academic life of the school. A library that meets safety standards should be rightly located in a quiet place and should have sufficient space in addition to being well ventilated.

They should have wide alleys of passageways to facilitate evacuation and spacious room for easy movement. The administration block is also an important structure in the school.

An ideal school administration block should put the prevailing security situation of the school environment and the needs of the school into consideration. 

What role should the Ministry of Education, school heads, and teachers play to avoid blame games?

Emergency response in schools is also a vital strategy to prevent further damage. Policies, legislative mandates, and professional practices aimed at providing services immediately after an emergency occurs in schools should be put in place.

The Ministry of Education and schools should all play important roles in implementing such measures to ensure safety in schools.

All headteachers should ensure that they purchase the required safety equipment for their schools such as the first aid kits and firefighting equipment to enhance their preparedness in their schools.

The government should design and implement a compulsory school safety training course for principals, teachers, students, and all staff on first aid, firefighting, and other emergency trainings and drills.

The Ministry of Education through the Quality Assurance and Standards Officers (QASO) should actively monitor the effective implementation of safety policies at the schools within their jurisdiction.

Due to the rampant incidents of school disasters in the year 2008, the government took measures to ensure that schools remain safe for the learners by issuing circulars to schools to update them on any new requirements relating to safety.

An example is the circular issued after the Kyanguli Secondary School tragedy entitled, ‘Health and Safety Standards in Educational Institutions’.

The circular contained guidelines on issues relating to school safety and disaster management.

It can be argued that the policy guidelines were not implemented by many schools judging from the 2008 incidents when many strikes hit the country and many schools were razed.

It came out clearly that firefighting equipment were not available in many schools. As a result of the 2008 school’s unrest, the Ministry of Education introduced new rules to improve safety in schools through the introduction of the Safety Standard Manual for Schools (SSMS).

Besides issuing the Manual, the education minister directed that all national and provincial secondary boarding schools be given between Sh150,000 and Sh350,000 to buy firefighting equipment and implement the new policies.

Some of the guidelines in the manual touch on disaster and emergency preparedness, and the need for training on how to handle emergencies including fires, floods, and any other catastrophes which may occur.

Other measures dealt with school/community relations, infrastructure, and policies on doorways, spacing, windows, and school patrol.

The provision of the manual was a positive move by the ministry of Education to enhance school safety. However, the manual failed to address important issues such as the financial implications of modification and reconstruction of school infrastructure. What are the international best practices? In Uganda for instance, school fires are quite common. Besides the fires, road accidents are cited as another major threat to school children’s safety.

According to a survey carried out by Injury Control Centre in 2008, the top cause of severe injuries among urban children under 20 years in Uganda is traffic (46 per cent). 

To minimise this, children have been sensitised on road safety in schools. Teachers have been trained in first aid and in basic injury prevention and control.

The school traffic wardens have been sensitised on road safety, and environmental safety has been reinforced by putting in place speed bumps and zebra crossings.

The school buses are also required to have sweeping lights, like those used by ambulances and police vehicles, to safeguard students from road accidents. In Kenya, protection of students while traveling has been an issue of major concern.

School dormitories in Uganda were redesigned to have double exits without burglar proofing to enable students escape with ease in the event of disasters like fire.

Another study by Action Aid International in 2008 established that 84 per cent of pupils reported to have observed or experienced violence against girls, whereas 76 per cent of pupils had observed or experienced violence against boys and teachers were identified as perpetrators by 17 per cent.

Cases of students getting hurt by teachers have severally hit the headlines in the dailies and media houses in Kenya despite the government’s ban on corporal punishment.

In Uganda, over 200 schools have adopted the Safe School Contract Strategy (SSCS) in which students sign the contract as a binding agreement to become ‘Safe friends’.

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