Recollections of his first year in high school elicit horror and indignation. “I was the recipient of the most unimaginable forms of malevolence. A certain Form Three boy hated me so much. I was bathing one evening after preps when he passed electric wires in the water. I nearly died,” says Boniface Kioko.
“He kept his metal box on my bed, forcing me to sleep on the floor with only a bed sheet for a whole term. I even washed his underwear, but I could do nothing because our then dorm captain was his friend,” he adds
Kioko, who says he later developed a heart condition, says that incidents of being burnt with hot tea and food were common in their school.
He narrates the story in the wake of the recent damning report about bullying of Form One students by their seniors at Alliance High School that left the nation incensed.
That such atrocities were perpetrated to vulnerable students in the name of induction within the walls of Alliance High School, a traditionally revered academics, sports and discipline giant, left Kenyans baffled.
Whereas it is the rot at Alliance that was uncovered, this could only be a reflection of what goes down behind the gates of most boarding secondary schools across the country.
In what is usually a highly-guarded secret, dreadful details of what transpires after dusk sets in rarely emerge, unless the assault leads to life-threatening injuries, as in the case of Alliance, or death.
In most instances, schools conceal the truth from the public and use all possible avenues to distort any useful information that may assist in establishing the real cause of injuries or death.
Thus the question begs, as a parent, just how safe is your child in school?
Do you for example interrogate what measures the administration has put in place to ensure your child’s safety? And how often do you engage the school to know the progress of your child?
National and county schools are the envy of most students. But beneath their high level of discipline and outstanding performances in national exams and other exploits sometimes lies rot of unspeakable enormity.
Patrick Kimani attended two top boys’ schools in Murang’a County and he recalls with a frown the events of what he describes as a dark phase of his life.
“Harassment of students in lower classes by senior students was the order of the day in our school, from being forced to clean for them to having our property taken by force. We were always at their mercy,” he says.
“It is a cycle that is passed on to subsequent generations. I remember some big boys who never used to buy their own toiletries. I know of some who sodomised others,” he adds.
Kimani says he witnessed first-hand the recruitment of junior students to a ‘cult’. “The seniors were in charge of the process, and resistance was met with ruthlessness. You dreaded being in the dormitory. Either your beddings were soiled, someone hid your shoes or stole your items. I could not withstand this height of physical and psychological torture. I feigned illness to be allowed to go home after which I demanded for a transfer to a different school.”
Kimani says that bullying happens under the prefects’ noses, and in most cases, the prefects themselves mastermind evils against vulnerable students. “It is hard to tell a good prefect from a bad one,” he says. Monica Wanjeri from Nyeri County recounts how her son was at the brink of psychosis, when she discovered oddities in him. “My son was in Form Two when he came home for the midterm break. He started exhibiting signs of mental illness. I was really upset because I was also struggling to raise his school fees,” she says.
According to Wanjeri, her son was hell-bent on concealing his state from her. It was only after persisting that he admitted to being sexually and physically assaulted by his colleagues in school.
At first, Wanjeri feared that her son had sustained internal head injuries, which would explain the sudden fits of derangement. But after some tests the doctor assured her that her son was only depressed. “He prescribed antibiotics to him. We also put him under counselling therapy to which he responded well. But he had to stay at home for nearly a whole term to recover. I had to look for an alternative school for him,” says the parent.
Lydiah Ngwiri, a child counsellor and teacher at Kiambu High School, says that forms of bullying range from mild to extreme molestation.
According to Ngwiri, however, even mild incidents such as name calling affect students psychologically due to their mental fragility.
“Theft of items, and being made to drink soapy water are the common cases of harassment among boys. Girls are usually petty and sprinkle water on their fellows’ beds. In far lethal cases, students may introduce or attempt to introduce their juniors to homosexuality.”
Esther Aketch, who went to a school in Siaya between 2006 and 2009, says that while she was never subjected to bodily harm, she was coerced to run petty errands like brushing shoes, folding clothes for a group of notorious girls in their school, and even carrying toilet paper for them as they visited the washroom.
“I used to take breakfast to bed to a certain Form Three girl. I would even queue for meals for her. She would say that as a senior student, she did not have the time to waste while queuing. I would first collect her meal, then proceed for mine. Sometimes I would go hungry after missing food. She said that this was the price for protecting me against bullying from other students.”
Aketch says that some of her colleagues in Form One were physically abused, and threatened to be sexually abused. And even as these acts were committed, no one would dare speak up. “For fear of being harmed, I had no choice but to obey and keep mum. I did so for an entire term,” she narrates.
Eliud Macharia, a parent, says that he fails to comprehend how such savagery could happen to Alliance students without the school’s knowledge.
“It beats me, was it a conspiracy among the school staff under whose care the students are? If this was a case of complicity, which nothing so far suggests it was not, it feeds the assumption that this “induction” is a practice that was approved, directly or indirectly, by the school administration.,” he says.
TRANQUILITY IN DAY SCHOOLS
While boarding schools may be the epicentre of bullying, day schools enjoy a considerable level of tranquil.
Eric Ogugu, a Mathematics and Physics teacher at Elburgon PCEA Secondary School in Nakuru County, says that such cases are rare in all the day schools he has taught.
“Day scholars are mostly youth from the same locale, and know each other’s homes and families. The students meet and participate in many activities outside the school setting. So, harassment rarely occurs among them,” he says.
Whereas caning may not be the magic wand to achieve discipline among leaners, many analysts maintain that with the dung hit the fan with the abolishment of corporal punishment in schools.
“We have a generation of highly protective parents who seek litigation against a teacher for suspending or expelling their child for bullying others. If in the end the parent wins the case and the child goes back to school, the teacher will be deterred from taking action against similar incidents involving that child or others in future,” says Ngwiri.
Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i has constantly reminded various schools management to ensure that students have comfortable and conducive learning environment.
“We want to raise happy and confident children, not those who feel demeaned, harassed and mistreated.”
Signs that your child is being bullied
There are a number of indicators that may show a child is being molested at school, and as Lydiah Ngwiri, a child counsellor and teacher advises, parents and teachers should be on the lookout for the following signs:
Physical injury is the most overt pointer of abuse. Deteriorating health and poor appetite of the child should also trigger your alarm bells. A parent should get concerned if the student refuses to go to school, or when he or she is constantly demanding for a transfer. Bullying can also lead to a dramatic drop in performance.
A general lack of enthusiasm for co-curricular activities that formally interested the student should also worry a parent. In some cases, the student may start wetting the bed again. Effects of abuse may also manifest through a general state of anxiety and insecurity by the student. Some victims resort to drug abuse as an escape from their misery.
Ngwiri regrets that whereas some parents lack information on how to address cases of abuse, others are afraid of the cost implications. These parents take their children to a pastor, relatives and friends for a talk. “This cannot be of much help to the child. A counsellor has the professional training to deal with trauma resulting from physical and sexual harassment, and to prescribe remedies for recovery,” she says.
She, however, warns of students who may beguile their real intentions with claims of harassment in school. “Children these days will invent all manner of reasons to win the attention of their parents. This is especially so when they want something such as a transfer from their current school. In most cases, they will cite assault. Before you take any action as a parent, involve a professional to determine whether your child’s claims of intimidation or assault are founded.”
WHO IS TO BLAME? Teachers, parents’ associations speak out
Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers Secretary-General Akelo Misori points out that teacher shortage in most learning institutions overburdens the available personnel, which in turn sows seeds of misconduct among students.
“The teacher-student ratio in Kenya is wanting, where you find a teacher being put in charge of sometimes more than 100 students. It becomes difficult for the teachers to keep an eye on every student. The distribution is even worse at night when teachers have left for their homes. Since students come from diverse backgrounds, leaving them on their own devices allows cases of sodomy, drugs and arson to happen,” he says.
He argues that the concept of student leadership should also take the flak for student indiscipline. “We have democratised our education system so much such that student leadership has to be elected. For fear of losing subsequent polls, prefects are likely to cover up incidents of harassment, which denies the administration the chance to act upon such cases.”
Misori further proposes thorough scrutiny of capacity to handle students’ needs for schools applying for boarding status. “First on the checklist should be the applicant’s size of personnel. It is disastrous for a school without enough teachers and support staff to admit students to their boarding facility. Who will be the custodians of the students?” The school support staff, including security guards, cooks, maintenance and school safety officers are required to report to the school management should they witness or suspect any cases of mistreatment, bodily assault and sexual harassment against students.
The Teachers Service Commission, according to Misori, should stop dwelling on teachers’ misconduct, and instead direct their energies towards strengthening the education system, from one that heavily leans on the academic excellence of students, but also that which caters for their other social needs.
Kenya Parents Association Chairman Nicholas Maiyo
The chairman of the Kenya Parents Association, Nicholas Maiyo, insists that the buck stops with the school management.
“We want principals to reside within the school premises and be close to students at all times. Someone in authority should be in charge of students’ discipline. Parents cannot question prefects about the welfare of their children, or take them to court in case of assault,” he says.
Maiyo emphasises that titles such as students’ president are poisonous, arguing that they elevate prefects above their fellows and the school rules. He terms it as improper for teachers to extend the role of disciplining students to prefects.
“Too much power in the hands of a small body of students creates a toxic breeding ground for abuse, where prefects and captains use their undue influence to have their way with hapless students, to settle scores against their perceived rivals, and to reign terror on and target dissenters for brutality.”
Kenya Secondary Schools Heads Association Chairman Alfred Indimuli
The national chairman of the Kenya Secondary Schools Heads Association (Kessha) Alfred Indimuli opines that policy gaps in the education sector are to blame for widespread bullying and other cases of misconduct among students.
“Beyond suspension or expulsion of an errant student, powers of the school are largely trimmed. A bully will be a bully whenever they go. To transfer them to a day school for misconduct is synonymous with spreading a contagious infection,” he says.
According to Indimuli, unruly students should be isolated from other learners and taken to borstal schools where the conditions will constantly remind them of their misbehaviour.
Part of the recommendations in the report of school fires investigations in 2016 required schools to establish student councils as opposed to the prefecture system.
The Basic Education Act Number 14 of 2013 has a provision that encourages the culture of dialogue and participatory democratic governance in learning institutions. “It takes time to change the culture of a school, but it is unfortunate that to date some schools have not consented to these guidelines,” says Indimuli. He argues that prefects handpicked by the management are naturally an extension of the administration, where mistrust with their fellow students inhibits sharing of vital information. He proposes strict procedures of vetting student leaders. “The youth will usually elect popular figures in their school, who, in most cases, are people of bad conduct who will soon start harassing them,” he notes.Indimuli terms it as reckless for school heads and teachers to brush off curious behaviour among their students. He says: “Teachers must investigate any irregular occurrences such as physical injuries or psychological abnormalities in their students. Only this way are we able to eliminate cases of silent harassment.”
He adds that a disconnect in the channel of information between teachers and persons charged with the responsibility of taking care of students after the end of school hours is to blame.
“Schools must establish efficient channels of communication for action to be taken whenever a problem arises,” says the Kessha leader.
“The incidents at Alliance High School are as regrettable as they are an eye-opener. As school heads, we must work in harmony with all the stakeholders in the education sector because ultimately, these are our children who we must all safeguard against any factor that may prevent smooth learning.”