The recent allegations against Rabea Girls’ Public School for locking up 16 of its kindergarten students in the school basement for non-payment of fees has been in news since Monday morning. A video that went viral showed angry parents with their distressed wards in the so-called basement of the school. An FIR was registered against the school and protests staged at its premises.
“When I went to pick my child from the school, she was not there in the class. On knowing that kids that have been kept in basement’s humid conditions for six hours, we rushed to rescue them”, said an angry parent.
“I always pay the fees in advance, yet today when I went looking for my daughter, she was missing from her class’, said another father, as he held up his daughter’s ‘paid and received’ slip.
Questions were raised about clarity in the collection department regarding the fees deposits; why were the students detained if parents had already paid the fees?
“We never detain students for non-payment of fees. It's only after repeated reminders, over Whatsapp and phone calls, and when parents had failed to send the copy of paid slips for our records, that I decided to call them over,” explained the head mistress Farah Deeba, who has been with Rabea School from the past 35 years.
“In this case, however, the students were segregated not because I wanted to punish them but because I would have handed over the ward and met with the parents myself when they would have come to pick their child,” said Deeba.
She went on, “As the headmistress of Nursery and KG section, I have to take special care with small kids, for whom it’s difficult to comprehend anything about fees. Why would I harass my kids and tell them they are punished because their parents don’t respond to school communication? I am not a cruel person.”
Deeba said that the nursery school working hours were from 8.30 to 12.30. Denying accusations that she had locked-up the kids, as being reported, Deeba clarified that the kids were in their classrooms having lunch during those hours.
On Wednesday, the media started gathering around the three buildings of the school that was built by Hakim Abdul Hameed in 1973 for the purpose of educating the Muslim women of the walled city. The stated aim of the school, to establish the culture of education in the community, has been repeatedly questioned by some conservative sections, more so after the recent incident.
“We are not against the school, but have a problem with the way Principal Naheed Usmani is managing the school. Ever since she has been appointed, the chances of communication between the school authority and parents have only been shrinking,” stressed one local.
Harvinder Singh, who teaches music to students from senior, primary and pre-primary classes, said that he was the teacher who stayed with the students in the activity room on the day of the alleged incident, along with two other teachers. He said that an angry mob entered the basement hurling abuses and switching off all the lights and fans. When they attacked him, that’s when the students panicked and started crying. “It was all being captured on the video that went viral,” he said
Dr Naheed Rabab Usmani, the Principal of Rabea School, said in a detailed interview that her office was always open for parents’ grievances. “That day, the parents didn't even wait to meet me before barging into the activity area, which has been wrongly given sinister implications by being billed as a tehkhaana, as if something evil is going on,” said Usmani.
She noted that the school was not aided and run entirely on the revenues generated by students’ fees.
“We have almost 2,000 students enrolled in the school. With their fees, we have to pay a staff of 130 people and bills of three buildings. At times, we are short of funds and have also borrowed to pay the salaries of the staff. Sometimes, we even pay from our pockets the fees of students from weaker backgrounds. We don’t make a show of it, neither we like to. But what’s happening now is really embarrassing,” she said.
Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy, the Education minister Manish Sisodia visited Rabea to inspect the premises and interact with students of KG section and their parents. They warned the principle strictly that any kind of cruelty against children will not be tolerated and she may face the law if found guilty.
The basement where the children were allegedly detained became the starting point of the whole controversy. Usmani clarifies that due to space constraints, the basement is the only play area that functions as smart class and a music room.
Harvinder Singh, who teaches music to students from senior, primary and pre-primary classes, said that he was the teacher who stayed with the students in the activity room on the day of the alleged incident, along with two other teachers. He said that an angry mob entered the basement hurling abuses and switching off all the lights and fans. When they attacked him, that’s when the students panicked and started crying. “It was all being captured on the video that went viral,” he said.
An issue like fees payment is now being seen as something that must not impact the student directly. Most of the protesting parents demand a system that is transparent and swift.
Fareed Gaur, a local resident and also a Principal at a government school, said that schools need to counsel the parents thoroughly about rules of communication.
“Parents should not feel insulted if reminded through their wards. Management, on the other hand, should be more accessible and responsive to the grievances that parents might have,” he suggested.
The management could not be contacted for any quotes. However, Najma Siddiqui, former manager, who served on the managing committee of Rabea School for 31 years, opined that the parents must help the school.
“The news is very disturbing. Students must not suffer in any way. There are not many good English medium schools for girls in Old Delhi. Let’s not sensationalise an issue that could have been resolved peacefully,” she requested.
The school is now under pressure to spend on its infrastructure, like installing cooling mechanism and ensuring ventilation in the building. It is also facing investigation by Delhi Police, the Department of Women and the Education Department.
(The author is a Delhi-based journalist).