“Will not tolerate discrimination based on religion, caste and politics”

Police have ruled out any pressure on the girl who took her own life to convert to Christianity; We arrested the director for causing the girl’s mental agony: the minister

Among complaints this a Grade XII girl in Thanjavur killed herself after being forced to do chores at her hostel this month and her parents were asked to who converted to Christianity two years ago, School Education Minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi has denied the allegations. He said the keeper [since arrested] had paid the fee for the girl. In an interview on Sunday, however, he clarified: “We will not tolerate any discrimination based on caste, religion and politics in the classrooms”. Excerpts:

Has the Department of School Education ordered an investigation into the death of a schoolgirl in Thanjavur?

The rector immediately conducted an investigation. We also collected information from the collector and the police. The police recorded the girl’s statement [when she was in hospital] and told us that it would be submitted to court. They made it clear that the pressure to convert was not the cause. I would ask not to divert the question. Although it is alleged that the director caused the girl’s mental agony, it was the director who had paid her fees. Other problems will become known during the trial. We have taken action [the arrest of the warden] because the girl was distressed and forced to take the extreme step. We understand the pain of his parents and the feelings of members of the public.

The BJP, citing a video clip of the girl, claims there was an attempt to convert the girl to Christianity…

It was wrong. They shouldn’t have recorded the girl’s statement. They had questioned her provocatively and she had given no clear-cut answer. But a life has been lost, and whoever is responsible will be punished.

Some BJP leaders demand school closure…

We recorded the statements of more than 30 students. None of them alleged pressure to convert to Christianity. In fact, more Hindu students study there. Christian institutions in this region give priority to education. They did not take the opportunity to convert students to Christianity. The truth will only come out after a thorough investigation.

Was there a failure on the part of the school administration to inform the parents that the young girl had tried to end her life on January 9?

From what we gathered from the CEO and others, there was no delay. Even after previous incidents, we had asked schools not to remove suicide issues to protect themselves. We made it clear that they should not take student complaints lightly. They must respect the feelings of the pupils and inform their parents in the event of a complaint. Schools can gain the trust of parents if they respond to student grievances. I repeat that the schools focus on these issues.

The girl had complained that the innkeeper had forced her to do household chores…

It’s not acceptable. When a teacher from Nagapattinam district cleaned the toilets, I advised him not to. He would have done it out of love for his school and his students. However, I explained to him that there were people designated to do the work. He said there was no one to clean the toilets. I told him he could file a complaint with the CEO. While we don’t even want teachers to do non-pedagogical work, are we going to allow students to clean up? When we received such complaints, we sent warnings to managers. Regarding this incident, the truth will be known once the investigation is completed.

Some claim that some teachers in Christian institutions encourage students to convert to Christianity. How do you propose to deal with these complaints?

We want there to be no discrimination based on religion, caste and politics in the classrooms. I voiced my opinion when a teacher in Thiruvannamalai scolded a student for wearing a rudraksha. It was not a teacher’s business to decide what a student should wear. They come to school only to study. A student can be Hindu, Christian or Muslim. The teacher’s duty is to keep it in a classroom and teach. When we recruit volunteers for ‘Illam Thedi Kalvi’, we test and assess them through the school management committee. A volunteer is recruited after a few layers of selection. The program is not to praise a political leader or a government. Our goal is to teach students. When we pay so much attention to recruiting volunteers, you can understand our priority. If students encounter conversion complaints, they can use the helplines and bring the issue to the attention of the authorities.

Has your department taken action against a few schools in Chennai where teachers have been accused of sexually harassing students during online and offline lessons?

We organized a training program with the help of Tulir [a voluntary organisation] November 19, World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse. The aim is to sensitize and educate teachers and non-teaching staff on what is expected of them. It’s about their conduct, the kind of questions that can be asked in classrooms, and the limit of any conversation with students. It is conducted in batches. Teachers participating in the programs were encouraged to reach out to other teachers, non-teaching staff and students to raise awareness. Instructions have been issued to post the helpline numbers 14417 and 1098 in each classroom. The numbers are also displayed in the 1,20,000 centers that have been set up for ‘Illam thedi Kalvi’ to bridge the learning loss. We asked teachers and volunteers to explain the purpose of these student helplines as outreach in rural areas is not adequate. The government is very picky about the education of girls and we do not want such incidents to prevent them from going to school. The Chief Minister himself spoke to the Assembly about how quickly justice was served in a case brought under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act 2012. This will always remain a warning.

The state has witnessed student suicides, either due to harassment on campus or because they are unable to cope with academic challenges, including the need to weed out NEETs. Does your department have a plan to deal with it?

Today, students must also have emotional intelligence. We work with Tulir, and other organizations come forward to work with us. Health Minister Ma. Subramanian hosted a conference to help students deal with the challenges posed by NEET. It is necessary to offer psychological counseling to students. The Prime Minister advised us to involve the parents in the training programs since half of the pressure comes from the parents themselves. We are preparing a vocational guidance program, which will be ready in a month. It will include motivational ideas.

(Assistance in overcoming suicidal thoughts is available at the state health hotline 104 and the Sneha suicide prevention hotline 044-24640050.)

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