Looking beyond the physical: Safety concerns at schools

- Anjali Mittal (Assistant Professor, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi) & Mridula Garg (Architect, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi)                                                                                                             

This writing is an attempt to highlight how understanding of safety at schools needs to be logically extended to its psychological and social dimensions and not merely limited to the physical aspects.

This short article presents the key findings and recommendations from the study conducted by Investigating Design as part of a preliminary report prepared for the Honeywell SafeSchools Project of Seeds between May-July 2017. A sample set of 10 carefully chosen schools in Delhi formed the case study sites fulfilling three major criteria: management models, location within the city and immediate context. These included schools across Department of Education (DoE), New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), private, Govt. aided, etc. Apart from location within different zones of the city, factors associated with contextual (or neighbourhood) variation such as residential, mixed-use, urban village, institutional and resettlement, etc. were also taken into account.

Based on an initial study of current policies related to School Safety in the country and abroad; theoretical understanding of the ‘Safety’; and reporting by NGOs on the subject, it was clearly identified that parameters ought to include psychological and social factors in addition to physical aspects for analysis of safety at schools. A research matrix with the role of the various stakeholders affecting the three safety sets was developed as follows:  

Physical Safety
Social Safety
Psychological Safety
Architects, Builders, Engineers, Designers
Structural strength in case of earthquake; Contextual neighbourhood study; Accessibility to the school; Planning for ease of evacuation in case of emergency; Design according to by-laws
Social gathering spaces like grounds, craft room, labs, etc; Spaces for healthy interaction
Light, ventilation and crowding analysis for visual and emotional comfort
Policy Makers
First Aid facility; Policies on drug abuse, physical assault, disturbed family backgrounds, molestation
Coping mechanism for students weak in academics aiming towards social inclusivity
Policies on sexual abuse, molestation, cyber crime, bullying, ragging, etc.
Principal (Head of the school), Administrators
Preparation of evacuation schemes in case of natural/man-made disasters; Transportation system and management
Giving admission to a diversity of students and creating a healthy social interaction environment
Counselor provision and access mechanism/alternates
Parent teacher meets and awareness of progress of their child; Involvement of parents in the education of their child
Awareness regarding importance of education for their children; Workshops regarding psychological safety at home
Prevention of fights in the class, maintaining discipline; Training to respond to injury/accident emergencies
Inter-sex interaction; Menstruation and puberty-related awareness; Handling students from different backgrounds without biases
Giving attention individually to identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each child
Familiarity with the campus
Treating EWS children and other socially disadvantaged groups fairly
Dealing with peer pressure; Equalizing the classroom environment

Both primary and secondary research methods were employed to acquire the data for analysis. These included site visits, physical surveys of school buildings, neighbourhood analysis, interviews, and online data available on each school. Interviews with educationists, school principals, staff etc. were conducted. A detailed questionnaire was developed for the head of the school to primarily understand the psychological-social safety aspects. This study carefully analysed the psychological and social aspects of the spatial design of the school building and campus.

The study revealed that emphasis on physical safety, especially in terms of disaster awareness and preparedness, seemed sufficient in most schools and aligned with directives of the NDMA. However, a majority of the schools had no active policies for ensuring social and psychological safety of students. An assumption that private schools would fare better than Government schools was also found false as many of the latter were better equipped in terms of land and infrastructure but lacked severely in human resources. Another critical observation included the role of the administrative head of the institution- his/ her attitude, commitment to school’s philosophy and tenure of duty. Qualitative investments in human resources - both teaching and non-teaching staff - with regard to their training, sensitisation and capacity building was also found as the need of the hour. Schools with effective heads of the institution, and well trained and committed staff were found to have comparatively lower long absence rates. The ‘No Detention Policy’ was criticised for its shortfall by all stakeholders.

The study has indicated that there is a dire need for a holistic approach towards safety in schools. There needs to be an equal emphasis on physical, social and psychological aspects of safety in school environments for a healthy overall growth of children.

Some of the key recommendations as way forward regarding Physical, Social and Psychological safety are listed below:

Building and Campus Design and Layout

Emphasis on design of building and campuses by trained professionals - architects, engineers, service consultants, child psychologists, doctors, etc. - for proper adherence to building bye-laws, structural stability, response to disaster, creation of a healthy environment and more importantly, to ensure a ‘desirable’ school environment for children.

Future expansion to be included within initial design schemes of the school to avoid compromising situations on safety aspects later.

Access points of the school must be thought of carefully with relation to the neighbourhood context for efficient circulation of people/ traffic and quick evacuation in emergency situations.

Scale and experience of the school building/ campus ought to inculcate a sense of belonging. The design should enable the finding of a nook/ a corner or an individual appropriation of space to make the students ‘feel at home’ in the school.

Spatial systems such as landscaping that help connect with nature can be useful in creating a psychologically soothing environment for children, which in turn would support learning. Along with that, materiality, texture and colour could greatly contribute to making ‘happy’ spaces in the school.

Natural Disaster Preparedness

Enforcement of regular practice drills and sessions emulating possible disaster situations within the building/ campus to enable appropriate and spontaneous response from children, staff and teachers in a real emergency.

The immediate neighbourhood/ context of the school must also be made aware of necessary steps to be taken during an emergency situation.

Introduction of Location-based and concept of ‘shared resources' into current policies

Creation of location-based policies as the immediate context and neighbourhood has social and psychological implications on safety and required safety measures.

Inclusion of concept of ‘shared resources’ in schools in dense neighbourhood areas will support a method of multivalency of spaces and efficient use of school campus by neighbouring communities during ‘closed’ hours that is much desired for cities today. It will also lead to a reciprocal social relationship with the neighbourhood, with the willingness to offer support and provide vigilance as and when required.

Formulation of systems to foster harmonious relationship of the school with the surrounding neighbourhood to enhance familiarity. This will augment trust amongst people in and outside of the school leading to a neighbourhood support system that can be activated in case of emergency.

Capacity building and Sensitisation of school staff and parents

Ensuring appropriate ratio of students, teachers and staff to enable thorough implementation of all policies whether related to physical (health, transport, disaster), social or psychological aspects of safety.

Ensuring sufficient length of tenure of Head of School as well as teachers for efficient implementation of school philosophy and policies and to develop social bond and association with children. However, this needs to be supplemented with systems to check performance and contribution.

Continuous sensitisation of teachers/staff about current social and psychological issues faced by children like bullying, puberty, sex, cyber crime, drug abuse, etc.

Capacity building of staff members to identify initial signs of any child suffering from mental health issues and create an environment of mutual respect and trust.

Establishing monitoring systems for individual student and a system of public appreciation - presence in school, achievements in and outside school, recognition of talents and other aspects that can boost the enthusiasm and confidence of the child.

Active participation of parents in their child’s learning at school through meetings, seminars and relevant events.

Disclaimer: Views and/or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NDMA.                       

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