In a shocking incident a scheduled tribe (dalit) girl student of a renowned private school was stripped during the examination by a invigilating teacher on the tip of copying from mobile phone. This incident came late into limelight as victim and her mother seek justice for the heinous crime.

The incident occurred in September, where Sunita, a student of St Andrews School, was allegedly made to remove her clothes by a teacher who accused her of hiding her phone in her clothes.

A 15-year-old Dalit student of the St Andrews School in Hyderabad was allegedly made to strip by her teacher, on the suspicion that she was copying in the exams. Sunita, who studies at one of the branches of the St Andrews School in Hyderabad, was writing an Artificial Intelligence test on September 23, 2021, when the alleged incident happened. She was also menstruating that day and had to use the restroom a couple of times in the middle of her exam. Sunita’s mother, Sudha Rani, alleged that the class teacher suspected that Sunita was going to the washroom to cheat, and accused her of the same. The teacher allegedly called Sunita to the staff room, and then took her to the washroom with a sanitary worker (ayah).

There, she allegedly made Sunita remove her top, including her undergarment, on the pretext of checking if she was hiding her phone there. On failing to find anything incriminating, Sunita told her mother that the teacher insisted that she remove her pants, where she believed Sunita was hiding a phone. However, Sunita stood her ground and refused, despite the accusations the teacher continued to hurl at her, Sunita told Sudha Rani. The school has, however, denied all allegations and said that they have submitted their version to the police.

The day after the incident, Sudha Rani went to the police, and an FIR was registered under sections 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 504, 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of the IPC, and section 3(2)(Va) of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015. Sudha Rani has also complained to the Telangana State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) as well as the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), apart from the school itself.

Caste discrimination with students

While Sudha Rami was shocked by the harassment her daughter allegedly faced on September 23, this wasn’t the first time Sunita had complained of being mistreated by the same teacher, Sudha Rami tells #KhabarLive. Sudha Rani recalls many past instances when her daughter had complained about being singled out and scolded in front of her classmates by the teacher, sometimes over her clothes and appearance, and sometimes over trivial things like briefly turning off the webcam during online class.

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According to Sudha Rani, her daughter is being singled out because of her caste, as she belongs to the Mala community, a Scheduled Caste.

“Knowing the pattern of how she (the accused teacher) is treating my daughter and the several incidents that took place clearly indicate that this prejudice is illogical and deliberate and it is fair to assume this is due to the colour of skin of my daughter and her caste background,” she said in her complaint to the SCPCR.

Sudha Rani says that the way her daughter was treated in the school is bound to have a lifelong impact on her. “We are really shocked and ashamed that we have ignored the past indicators of this bullying and let this continue to happen to her. This is really a shameful teaching environment St Andrew’s school has created, that doesn’t treat all children equally and deliberately pushes children into life-long trauma,” she said in her official complaint.

Sudha Rani says Sunita was once shamed for wearing a dress that the accused teacher considered too short. “The teacher shouted abuses at my daughter asking if she was wearing a short dress to show off deliberately,” Sudha Rani says, adding that while two other classmates who wore similar clothes were called aside and given a comparatively gentler warning, Sunita alone was humiliated in front of her classmates. Sudha Rani says the teacher has also repeatedly criticised Sunita’s choices in her appearance, like her hairstyle and wearing kohl in the eyes.

While young girls are often denigrated for being assertive, in Sunita’s case her caste location has made things worse for her, Sudha alleges. For instance, Sudha says that during online classes, “When her (Sunita’s) video fails due to network issues, the teacher shouts at her. When I return home from work in the middle of her class and my daughter has to open the door for me, the teacher shouts at her saying she doesn’t concentrate, that she can’t sit still and turns off her video frequently. But if another student does so, they are just given a warning. The disproportionate anger shown towards my daughter indicates the teacher’s prejudice,” Sudha Rani alleges.

Parent alleged school did not act properly 

When Sudha Rani approached the school principal on September 24 with a complaint letter over the alleged incidents of the previous day, the principal denied that the incident had happened. “The principal said I was wasting her time. She said my child was lying, and refused to acknowledge the incident. She also told me my daughter was caught copying in an exam last year,” says Sudha Rani. When she asked why she wasn’t informed of this as a parent, Sudha said she could not get a satisfactory answer from the principal. “Retroactively accusing my daughter only when questioned makes me believe the school is lying to malign my daughter and discredit the traumatic experience she underwent,” the mother says, alleging that the school authorities were prioritising shielding the school’s reputation over the child’s safety.

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Sudha Rani has demanded that the school carry out an investigation and terminate the teacher for abusing and sexually harassing her daughter, apologise for allowing the incident to happen, and to assure that Sunita will be protected in the future.

When #KhabarLive called the school director, Hyacinth Emanuel, over the phone, a woman who claimed to be “Mrs Sharma” answered, and said that “there is no truth in the matter and it has been resolved”.

The police however said that the investigation in the matter is still ongoing, as CCTV footage from the school and other evidence are being examined. However, the alleged incident happened inside a restroom, where there are no video cameras. Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Malkajgiri, Rakshitha K Murthy, told #KhabarLive, “The matter is still under investigation. We have not closed the case. It’s not my case, the ACP has to come. We are still collecting evidence regarding it.”

The principal, Padmalaya Sarma, however gave a detailed response and claimed that their internal enquiry found that no such harassment happened.

“The parent had come with the complaint. We did our internal inquiry. They have approached other investigating agencies as well, including the Child Welfare Committee and the police. We have submitted all the evidence. After doing a thorough inquiry, it was found that nothing that was mentioned has happened. All the evidence was collected and handed over to the investigation agencies,” she said.

The principal added that routine checks happen during examinations. “Nothing like that happened, what her mother mentioned. It was a very routine thing which probably would have happened to all children,” she added.

On being asked if the school doubled down on accusations that the student copied in the past, when questioned about the alleged harassment, the principal said a routine check has been “blown out of proportion.”

“I have seen this teacher appreciating this student on online forums on two occasions. The student came and wrote her exam for five days after that day. She seemed happy and chirpy, I have never seen her nervous or scared or anything. She is a very nice child. This child has been with us for ten long years.  You mentioned the caste thing. I am an army officer’s wife, we don’t believe in anything like that in the school. We are very protective towards our children,” she added.

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Sudha Rani confirms that Sunita went to the school on the days following the alleged incident as exams were still going on. “I made her go, she was not willing to. But I made her go to school to write the remaining exams as she had prepared for them. She was very stressed then, and is, even now,” she says.

Sunita stopped going to school from October 20, when physical classes began. Sudha alleges that now, the school has turned hostile to her daughter, who, she says, is the only student in her class who is taking classes online. “She refuses to go to school as she fears backlash from teachers and school authorities, and embarrassment from her friends and classmates. My child has already gone through a difficult childhood and this targeting and harassment has pushed her to the brink,” says Sudha Ranu.

On the school’s claim that it was just a routine check, the girl’s aunt Radhakka asked why these checks are being done in bathrooms. “Should a routine check not be done in public? What is this check in a bathroom?”

#KhabarLive tried to get in touch with the Additional Commissioner of Police for Kushaiguda, Shiva Kumar, however he did not respond. A friend of Sudha’s family, who has been helping them and coordinating with stakeholders, told #KhabarLive that he had spoken to the ACP on November 15, who said he is on leave and did not speak further on the matter. He said he also spoke to Hyacinth Emanuel, who told him that the “case is closed”.

Shaming young girls

Though the school denies it, caste discrimination is quite common and even in upmarket schools. It has been recorded many times how teachers and even peers target students from marginalised communities. Shocking as it may seem to most people, the practice of doubting young girls’ motives and punishing them when they are menstruating is not uncommon in schools and colleges, including in the Telugu states. Many young women who studied in corporate schools and junior colleges in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have talked about facing humiliation from school or hostel authorities, who tend to presume that periods are an excuse to skip class. In educational institutions where marks and ranks are given utmost importance, young girls’ bodily autonomy tends to be ignored.

Harassment in the guise of disciplining or surveillance by women teachers or authorities is deemed necessary, to ensure students are focused on studies. While this has been normalised in corporate schools and colleges in Hyderabad too, other private schools like St Andrews tend to enjoy a more progressive reputation. #KhabarLive #hydnews