Will a password between you and your kid ensure safety?

Bangalore parents have woken up to increasingly depressing days as incident after incident of child sexual abuse (CSA) gets reported in the city. There have been numerous suggestions on social media to tackle CSA, ranging from the naïve to the critical.

1. Password: In the naïve category is a popular forwarded post from an organization called Kids Time that advises teaching your child a password; if a stranger asks the child to accompany him/her, the child asks for the password and scares away the potential abuser.

Password trick being circulated on social media.


Will it work?
This solution is very naive and ineffective because it tries to avert the situation without explaining the issue to the child. In a large majority of CSA cases, the abuser is someone who is known to the child and has worked their way into the child’s circle of trust. The probability of a school staff member, caregiver, relative, older friend, or neighbor perpetrating abuse is far greater than a random stranger (especially one who is daft enough to be spooked by the password trick) being the perpetrator.

Also, children are very attracted to secrets and mysterious things. If an abuser wanted to work around the password, they would simply have to say something like “Ooooh! A password! You probably don’t know this secret, but your mother changed the password just last evening. And she told me the new password today. Do you want to know what it is? It’s Gobi Manchurian.” Think about how easy it is to convince your child about something that is not real, or to distract them from a higher order brain function task.

If you do want to teach your child to not trustingly go with a stranger, teach them to identify and deal with a stranger making such a request, rather than having them waste time and energy memorizing a meaningless password.

2. Technological Solutions: Many parents have vociferously supported technological solutions to the problem like on-campus CCTV cameras, GPS enabled buses, and RFID tags to ensure that the child is not handed over to the wrong person.

Will they work? Technology is useless if not backed up by solid human thinking and intervention. CCTV cameras have low resolution and limited range. While the conventional understanding of CCTV footage is that it can help catch someone red-handed, it can run into a host of technicalities that reduce its credibility as evidence in a court of law because the accused can question the veracity and allege possibility of manipulation of the footage. Even though the Bangalore police have mandated CCTV cameras in schools, it is not yet clear who will monitor this CCTV footage. When the average Bangalore school has trouble finding caring, sensitive and right-thinking teachers, I shudder to think of the type of person who would end up in such a job, watching hours and hours of footage of children. Technology without checks and balances is even more dangerous than no technology at all.

GPS is really inaccurate at the best of times and completely useless at the worst. When I run 14 km in Cubbon Park, the GPS sometimes says I never ran at all, at other times it says I ran over 20 kilometers at the pace of a 500 cc motorbike. Again, the question of who will access this GPS data and how it can prevent abuse has not been explained at all. Beyond instilling fear in bus drivers’ minds that their movements are being tracked, this technology can do precious nothing.

RFID tags and other such outlier suggestions come under the category of technology that is too complex for the school to understand is inevitably outsourced, becoming another tool available for misuse by potential abusers.

At best, technological solutions can be secondary or tertiary systems that can support children, parents, and staff who are prepared and able to respond to situations of CSA.

3. Background Checks and Psychological Evaluations: Many parents feel that had the background of a suspect in a recent CSA case been checked, his bad antecedents would have been uncovered sooner. Many parents also feel that psychological evaluation of all teaching staff will reveal child abusers before they ever make it into a school.

Will they work? Schools are also under immense operational stress, maintaining many simultaneous daily processes and trying to satisfy multiple constituencies like students, parents, teaching staff, support staff, and management. A school will not be able to perform background checks without external assistance. While the Bangalore police have recently shown greater initiative in cases of CSA, a generic background check system enforced by the police has a high likelihood of degenerating into a passport-address-verification kind of farce. It is also notable that the original suspect who had a history of ‘gross misconduct’ has been declared innocent in the VIBGYOR School rape case.

Psychological evaluations also have their own shortcomings. It is very difficult to ‘profile’ people well enough to declare them safe to work with children. Potential abusers thrive on their ability to melt in without being noticed and they are very good at disguising themselves as trustworthy caregivers or supporters of the parents.

Recently in an workshop on teaching children to identify and prevent CSA, the experienced facilitator told participants that she has a very acute sense of spotting situations of abuse, but even she (with years of experience) cannot pinpoint who will turn out to be an abuser and who will not. We cannot catch a criminal before they commit the crime, not even in a sci-fi movie.

Even assuming that the efficacy of police-led background checks and professional psychological evaluation of school staff can be maintained, these measures would still need to be part of a multi-pronged approach with education and enablement of children, school staff, and parents, being the strategic center.

4. Child, parent and staff-focused interventions:

Some parents have been stressing on the need for child-focused enablement sessions. Training for staff (both teaching and non-teaching staff like ayahs, watchmen, and drivers) to recognize, acknowledge, react, and respond to CSA would also be beneficial. Parents need to be taught how to reinforce this messaging with their children at home. Parents need to be given the vocabulary (that they themselves were never taught as children or adults) to articulate the issues around CSA.

Will it work? This seems to be the most effective and viable action on our parts as parents.

Teach children to identify their private parts, and what to call them. Teach children that there are people who abuse others physically, emotionally, and sexually. Teach children that they themselves are their first protectors and should respond to abusive situations with all the confidence and strength they can muster. Teach children that abuse is terrible, but that life doesn’t end if abuse happens, one can recover from abuse and lead a full life. It’s difficult, but we must not give up before we try because of the social stigma around sexual abuse.

Teach teachers and non-teaching staff that they need to know about CSA, that it doesn’t happen only to other school’s children, or that it isn’t perpetrated only by strangers. Teach them that unfortunately for us, there are many potential abusers in our society and we need to watch over our children carefully. Teach them to identify warning signs, teach them to report warning signs, teach them how to report other staff members who are abusive, teach them to foster an open atmosphere in schools where children can talk about anything without shame or guilt.

Finally teach parents that they cannot give away ALL the responsibility of protecting their children on technology, or the state, or the institution. They HAVE to inculcate the right thinking in their children, reinforce the right messages, and constantly check on their children’s state of health. How many parents know how to talk to their child about their genitals or rules of personal safety? How many parents know what a child should do if he/she finds herself/himself in a situation of potential sexual abuse? How many parents know what to do to help the child if sexual abuse HAS unfortunately happened?

This is where our strength lies, this is where we can make the most gains, and this is where we should concentrate our efforts. And once your child, you, and the teachers at school know how to prevent, identify, react, and respond to CSA, then let’s bring on the background checks, psychological evaluations, CCTV cameras, and GPS-enabled buses. But please, let’s start with our children.

Phew. Now, PLEASE DISCUSS!!

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Safety norms for govt schools relaxed: Why?
Mystery of Vibgyor arrests: Will the child ever get justice?

2 Comments

  1. We have to consider all these strategies only in India because in spite of laws to punish offenders against women and children the culture is overwhelming patriarchal and this is displayed not only at the highest level by Parliamentarians but even in society and most homes. The malaise is so deep that even competent women who head many of the concerned bodies that are our the government’s watch dogs seem afraid to come out for quicker and stricter punishment under existing laws and opt for no action by demanding stricter laws that will take another year to pass.
    Society cannot look to the laws they create to reduce domestic violence and abuse ranging from verbal to physical violence. Society must practice it in families and will know how to incorporate it in laws that will protect everyone.
    Does one give a child a password to determine acceptance of relatives and other care givers? Why have the obviously well educated and economically better of parents of VIBGYOR School not pursued action against the owners who have definitely a constructive responsibility? Will they ostracise them or their staff?

  2. Great article. Thank you for breaking it down. In the end, it is a combined effort of school staff and parents to ensure that our children are safe. After all, we leave them in the school’s care for a significant part of the day. There are certainly ways to make the school safer but your point is well taken that we need to educate our kids as well.

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