Published in Dawn Opinion section, on 29 March 2015.
Since Dec 16 last year, it has become heartbreakingly evident that no space has remained sacred. Schools, mosques and churches, all have been violated and smeared with blood. While authorities are under pressure to demonstrate that security measures are being installed, particularly in educational institutions, it is important that these demonstrations reinforce — rather than undermine — a feeling of safety for children.
The perpetrators of the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar have been successful in their objective of instilling terror in the nation. In the weeks of panic following the assault, there were serious discussions regarding the arming of teachers, and anti-terrorist squads actually facilitated sessions, training teachers in the use of the pistol and Kalashnikov. Images of both children and their academic mentors wielding guns in the presence of state personnel flooded the media — shocking to most people, especially those associated with teaching, child care and child protection.
Physical security for schools is vital; that is beyond dispute. The threat to schools is real, and has been so for several years. Since the 1970s, Pakistan has experienced more attacks on schools than any other country in the world. According to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, the total number of reported militant attacks on schools between 2009-2012 alone was at least 838 and, given reporting constraints, could be as high as 919. Ensuring adequate security for schools has therefore been an urgent need for Pakistan since the rise of organised militancy.
In that sense, positive steps are underway. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former British prime minister Gordon Brown recently concluded discussions about a 15-point Safe Schools Plan, drawing upon global best practices to protect educational institutions from attack. These include community-level interventions, engaging parents and stakeholders like religious leaders; school-level interventions, including the strengthening of infrastructure and the creation of contingency plans; and possible extra steps for high-risk areas. The Punjab government’s call for the raising of boundary walls, installing razor-wire fencing, and the creation of monitored points of entry and exit appears to be in line with this plan, as does the beefing up of security personnel in schools.
The Safe Schools Plan presents guidelines in broad strokes; it is important for implementation to be both effective and appropriate. Beyond the security hardware, ideas like having safe transportation for schools in high-risk areas are in danger of being pushed to the backburner, as well as the creation of school safety officers and counsellors.
It is also important to recognise that the idea of protection goes beyond physical security. It is difficult enough for children to watch their schools become fortresses, to be briefed on security protocols and be told that their uniforms may symbolise vulnerability. Already, the images of weapons training sessions have caused damage to student perceptions regarding the role of teachers, and what the school represents. While security personnel take on the responsibility for physical safety, there is a need for both private and public school administrators to re-evaluate their roles, considering the best interests of those they seek to protect.
In a fragile country like Pakistan, caught in a protracted state of emergency, the school environment can offer children the support they need to make sense of the world. Particularly when their lives are disrupted by violence, children need schools to reinforce a sense of stability. The psychosocial wellbeing of children is a priority for many reasons — exposure to crises can affect both social interaction and learning outcomes. Teachers and staff can become the first and last responders in a crisis, with the classroom becoming a space for building resilience and the ability to cope with stressors.
Apart from providing stability and being designated places of learning, schools can play a vital, constructive role in determining the worldview of young people. The voices of teachers can be critical in establishing that violence is not the norm — that in spite of the terrible reality of the daily news, an alternative reality is possible, and is something to work towards. For very young children in particular, teachers can become attachment figures and role models whose words are valued and remembered. If there is any hope for the narrative of tomorrow to be written differently, it is in the classrooms of today.
Already, Pakistan demands extraordinary courage of its children. The heroic, ultimate sacrifice made by Aitzaz Hasan is one that will always be remembered — but is one that a school-going child should never, ever have had to make. It is the responsibility of the authorities, of the police and security personnel, to physically protect the school space — and of those within that space, to protect the sanctity of childhood. In that respect, the delineation of roles is essential — neither teachers nor children can stand sentinel, and the classroom cannot be a place where students turn into soldiers.