Over a decade ago, in September 2004, terrorists laid siege to a school in Beslan, Russia. For three days they held more than 1100 people hostage, over 700 of whom were school children. Russian security forces had to storm the building and use tanks, incendiary rockets and other heavy weapons, but not before at least 330 hostages were killed, including 186 children, and a significant number of people injured and reported missing. The incident made headlines globally for many days!
Over the last couple of years there have been a series of extremely bloody attacks on schools, colleges and universities globally. The Taliban has been consistently targeting educational institutions. In Pakistan, in 2014, it attacked a school in Peshawar where scores of school children were killed, while over 140 were massacred at a university in northern Kenya by the Somalia-based al-Shabaab. The shootings within schools and colleges of the United States – Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Red Lake, or Columbine – too have been happening with a worrying regularity. Data compiled by the University of Maryland in the US shows a dramatic increase in violence directed at schools.
So why do terrorists attack such targets?
The simplest answer is, because they can! Schools are usually unprotected, easy to access, vulnerable and are soft targets while airports, railway stations, embassies, military bases, malls and even hotels are, after a decade and a half of waves of terrorist strikes across the world, now harder to hit. The fact is that the emotional impact on the global audience via media coverage of school shootings, murdered and injured kids, is far greater than any ‘fidayeen’ attack on government buildings or ambush of security forces. Memories of dead kids linger on far longer in people minds!
With the Islamic State, known for its cruelty toward children and religious minorities, warning of attacks on India and with the schools largely unsecured, they are in greater danger today, than ever before; perhaps more so than the malls and other targets about which politicians warn. After all, malls and most other congregations have security and perhaps patrons who are armed. Kindergartens and many suburban elementary schools do not. The danger increases exponentially if the potential attacker is not just a ‘lone wolf’ shooter, but a coordinated terrorist cell. The danger increases further if the school is upmarket with children of influential parents on its rolls.
There is an urgent need to audit the security framework of all educational institutions in India and evolve minimum standards of protection just as countries like the USA have done. To enhance school safety, the Department of Homeland Security of the US offers funding, training, and resources such as providing money for emergency preparedness, training school bus drivers in security and hardening school buildings’ vulnerability. We will do well to learn from others’ experiences and take similar preventive steps to thwart any terror strike against our educational institutions.
According to a joint program (National School Safety Centre) developed by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice, there are 15 standards that must be embedded within day-to-day operations of any school to make it as safe as possible. Apart from terrorism, keeping other crimes such as rapes, abductions and even bullying in mind, we too must develop a national framework and a model policy on school safety, with third party audits to ensure that our educational institutions are safe. It may not be a bad idea to even introduce security and fire safety as a subject in the teaching curriculum of students!
Till we meet next, stay safe
G B Singh
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