Time to confront negligence by school managers

Sacred Heart Mukumu Girls High School students exiting the institution following disease outbreak. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

The recent spike in deaths in schools, the most notable case being at the Sacred Heart Mukumu Girls High School, brings to the fore once again the unattended matter of school safety.

Successive governments have taken a puritanical and moralistic view around school discipline matters. It is clear that school managers are taking advantage of this view and instead of taking full responsibility, some are blaming and gas lighting students and the media.

Three prepositions can be advanced to explain this lack of accountability and demand that the Parliamentary Committee on Education compels the Ministry of Education to establish a robust school safety regime that is holistic and student centred, ensuring that no student shall be harmed.

First, while acknowledging that the government's 100 per cent transition has led to unenvisaged student population, there was a missed window in the review of school infrastructure, teachers' and workers' capacity to provide proper oversight to students.

Basic education has been the hardest hit, with the rollout of the CBC curriculum that placed an urgent need for rapid school infrastructure development without taking into account the necessary health, disability friendly, safety and evacuation concerns in most of the new buildings. Boards of management and local politicians are more concerned about the procurement tenders, completely neglecting the need for buildings fit for purpose.

As a result, most new buildings are not safety ready and in the event of any emergency, they will simply be death traps for the hundreds of children. This situation is a collective failure by the ministry by allocating more students to schools while neglecting the integrity and capacity of infrastructures.

It is a failure by school communities - teachers and parents - to ignore the evident safety risks students face and it becomes challenging to identify a child whose health is gradually deteriorating because of concentration on population.

Secondly, while there is a possibility that in certain incidences, students are individually responsible for school unrest that can result in deaths or harm of other students. A chilling trend is the complete unaccountability and distancing from responsibility by school managers.

Synonymous with the blue code of silence among police officers whenever there is misconduct, this tendency of teachers covering up for one another, especially in the aftermath of grave student harm calls for an enhanced criminal liability clause to be introduced in teachers' contracts by the Teachers Service Commission (TSC).

There is need for TSC to reconstitute its disciplinary machinery in a way that will swiftly address cases of teacher misconduct, including placing criminal liability on head teachers and school principals when children die or are gravely harmed in the school environment.

If TSC cannot affect this, Parliament should review the TSC Act and establish an independent Teachers Disciplinary Tribunal to confront school management negligence.

The third opportunity to address school safety is the need to relook the whole school approach being rolled out by the Ministry of Education and put in place a clear protocol for school safety, outlining standard operating procedures for reporting deaths and negligence in schools, protecting whistle blowers and providing a clear process for school alumni associations, parents associations and school boards of management to work together.

It cannot be business as usual when students are gravely harmed or denied medical attention and released at the last minute.

While we acknowledge that the Kenya Kwanza government owes us enactment of a National Disaster Management Authority that will create a single agency to coordinate all matters of civil disaster response and coordination, days when school principals run schools as their personal chattels, should end.

-The writer is a disaster risk reduction specialist.