The case of the missing 13-year-old earlier this week, which had parents sympathising with the couple whose son stepped off the school bus one evening and never came home, finally resulted in a happy reunion yesterday.
However, not everyone is this lucky.
The New Indian Model School pupil’s two-day disappearance has once again shed light on the responsibility of parents, transport authorities and the school itself in ensuring a child’s safety from the moment s/he steps out of the house to board the bus in the morning.
Speaking to M Akhtar, parent of a five-year-old boy studying in a GEMS school, the concerned mother said it was sad to say that it was only when such tragic cases occurred, when a child goes missing, that parents and authorities suddenly step up vigilance in ensuring safety procedures have been followed.
She said: “The boy’s disappearance in this instance can’t be blamed on the school or the bus authorities, especially if he is of a certain age and his parents have given the transport services the nod to allow him to return home on his own accord.
“Plus, at the age of 13 years, usually a child can be expected to take responsibility to step off the bus and walk into his building without an escort. Of course, should the child be at a tender age of five-six or even a little older, proper procedure for his or her safety should be followed.”
Who is responsible?
So, what is the proper procedure here, one wonders. Should the bus authorities ensure the child is handed over to a responsible adult when s/he steps off the bus, or should the parents be blamed? Is the school responsible in any which way?
Emirates 24|7 decided to put the private-owned School Transport Services to the test, which is responsible of shuttling children from over 20 schools, by asking them a few pointed details as a concerned parent.
Call its helpline and you will be quickly informed that a customer service representative for your child’s school is always positioned on the school grounds for specific queries. But for a general overview, the agent who went by the name Yousuf said: “What we do is provide door-to-door services for the children, which means we are responsible for picking the child up from the bus stop near your home and ensuring he reaches school safely.
“The safety procedure entails an ID card to check you belong on this bus and an attendance sheet to check that you are present.
“If the child is not present at the bus stop, we will call the parents and check with them what has caused the delay.”
Once the child in on board and attendance marked, they are safely buckled in for the ride, before another attendance sheet is checked to make sure everyone has gotten off the bus safely.
“The same procedure is repeated when school’s out, and should a child be missing, the class teacher will be informed,” said Yousuf. “Sometimes parents pick up their kids but forget to inform the bus authorities and the school, so we need to verify if the child is safe.
“Naturally, if the teacher is unaware, then the school contacts the parent to cross check.”
But the whole system can go for a toss if the child is not safely dropped off without a supervisory adult to escort them home, as was the case of the missing boy this week.
Said Yousuf: “The incident which happened was tragic, but standard procedure is for the driver and conductor to call the parent to check if no one is there at the bus stop to receive the child.
“If for some reason we can’t reach the parent, we must take the child back to the school. That is the procedure we have to follow. We simply cannot abandon a small child on the curbside.”
But even Yousuf grudgingly agreed that this only applied to younger kids, until Grades two or three, beyond which many parents simply allowed their kids to walk home unescorted.
Who is to be held responsible in such an instance if a child goes missing then?
While STS remained mum on the subject, questions to GEMS school group have also been unanswered presently.
However, speak to Anita Johar, mother of a 14-year-old and she says that parents need to take responsibility. She said: “If you have allowed your child to cross the street unescorted and walk home, then you need to also be responsible that something can go awry in the bargain. Kids will be kids and they will do childish things out of a sense of adventure or even fear, as was the case of the 13-year-old boy.
“As a parent, we need to decide if our schedules are more important or the safety of our children.”