Accusations of sexual harassment by teachers at an elite Lahore school which surfaced last week on social media have raised the alarm over student safety.
The school administration quickly dismissed the staff, the Lahore District Education Authority launched an inquiry, and the Punjab School Education Minister promised to deal with the case personally and “bring the case to a proper conclusion according to the law”.
But the real scandal is that we rely on brave students outing abusers on social media to protect our students in the first place. Scandal, outcry, followed by swift ‘justice’ is a merry-go-round that obscured the truth – that Pakistan has no effective system for vetting applicants for jobs in our schools.
On August 4th 2002, in the UK, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered by a school caretaker, Ian Huntley. Despite Huntley being arrested on suspicion of raping an 18-year-old woman, and other charges such as burglary, he was hired to work at a secondary school. Holly and Jessica were 10 years old.
The murders transformed the way that school staff are recruited in the UK. First, the Bichard Inquiry, published in 2004, recommended a system which vets anyone who may be working with children. Then the Home Office launched the Criminal Records Bureau, which became the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), which provides detailed reports of an applicant's criminal history to certain employers.
Pakistan does not have an equivalent to the Disclosure and Barring Service, nor is there a national database of those convicted of sexual offences. When India launched its national sex offender register in 2018 it included 440,000 names.
This is a failure of government and a disservice to every child throughout our school system.
A register or DBS equivalent is only part of the solution - as it is only as effective as the data it is based on. Even with a system in place, poor record-keeping would leave children at risk.
At present schools wishing to vet teachers rely on their local or state police department records, but these records are chronically deficient.
After the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, in 2010, the subject of education was devolved from the federal government to the provincial governments. This scandal falls within the jurisdiction of the School Education Department of the Government of Punjab. If a criminal complaint is filed against the four alleged harassers, then this will be recorded in the police station concerned in the investigation, usually the closest. It will not necessarily be available beyond that police station.
But even if it is reported, when a criminal offence is reported to the police a First Information Report (FIR) is filed, however, it only contains the facts of the case and the applicable sections of the law. The Punjab Police department has a public record available, but it hasn’t been updated since 2016. In 2019, a rapist dodged two arrests before killing four children in Chunian. There was no record of the complaints kept by the police.
Pakistan also desperately needs a national teaching regulator to maintain a register of qualified teachers and with a mandate to conduct misconduct hearings and strike individuals from that register if they are found to have committed misconduct.
Each state's District Education Authority has powers to investigate professional misconduct, but often there will be no criminal penalties.
Only a national regulator, with access to a unified and efficient criminal records system, can ensure that teachers disgraced in one state cannot simply move elsewhere.
For example, the penalty under the Punjab Protection Against Harassment of Women At Workplace Act 2012 is civil law, not criminal. The only way these teachers would face criminal charges would be if the school, the victims or a public official, such the Chairperson of the Children Protection Bureau were to file a criminal complaint under the Pakistan Penal Code. And if a criminal complaint isn't filed by the school or victims, then there will be no criminal record on any file.
Right now, we can't estimate the number of teachers who are working with children who have criminal records or have been cautioned by the police. Neither is there an authority flagging inappropriate applicants.
In Pakistani law, there is no requirement that educational institutions conduct a background check on employees. Sohail Ayaz was a convicted paedophile deported to Pakistan from the UK. He worked as a consultant on the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governance and Policy Project and was undetected for four years until his arrest in Rawalpindi. He later confessed to raping at least 30 boys while working in Pakistan. There was no government inquiry or reforms proposed off the back of Sohail Ayaz's case. The only positive was that an NGO, Sahil, started collecting data from newspapers noting the number of cases of child abuse cases reported in Pakistan. However, this doesn't prevent any individual convicted of sexual harassment move to another part of Pakistan and continue working with children.
We need to find where our legal system falls short, introduce a sex-offenders register and a national database monitored by a teaching regulator. We need wholesale reform if we are to effectively protect children.