KARACHI: Not far from the barricaded and irksome presence of Bilawal House, a less fortified school in the busy Clifton area has been hosting a series of storytelling sessions for three- to five-year-old children.
The central character is a schoolchild who asks innocent questions about the increasingly layered security net around him. “Aunty, what is happening outside my school? Why is this put here?” the child asks, pointing to a barricade. “Are you sad today?” the child is asked. “Why are you sad?” “Because there is a big gate outside my school,” he replies. “Why is it up?
This narration, conducted mostly in Urdu, was a means adopted by The Indus Academy Playschool to enable inquiring young minds to ask questions about the dark December morning when the most vulnerable members of society, schoolchildren, were made deliberate targets. The attack on Peshawar Army School left 131 children dead on Dec 16, last year.
According to educationalist Mahnaz Jooma, the school administration has been debating how teachers and counsellors will tackle this issue. “There is no explanation for a tragedy like this, but we are trying to lead our students to a point where they can ask a question. If we are asked questions such as ‘was there a bomb attack?’ or ‘were children killed?’, we have to answer them,” said Ms Jooma. “The idea is to try to make our children understand and take away the ugliness and violence,” she added.
Professor of Psychiatry at the Aga Khan University Hospital Dr Murad Moosa Khan said that being open with children was of supreme importance. “Children must be told why this is happening because they will have questions. There are so many sources of information today that they cannot escape it. It must be dealt with and explained.”
As parents struggle to tackle with the inherent dread of sending children to school against the reality of the country’s security situation — with some panicked calls for snipers to be stationed on rooftops — several leading private institutions in the city are reluctant to talk openly about security.
School owners, however, did confirm to Dawn about having received a circular sent by the government that contained recommendations for enhanced security, which included watchtowers, CCTV systems, higher walls and walkie talkies, among others. The checklist was limited to army, navy, police, missionary and “prominent, high profile” schools.
But Ms Jooma ruled out an overt display of arms. “I will not allow snipers on my roof. I cannot allow visible guns and weaponry… we desentise our children to violence [with gun exposure]. There will come a time when they won’t even notice that there is a gun in the vicinity,” she said.
But can ‘foolproof security’ really be guaranteed anywhere in the city — and in the country?
School owners in unison decried what they perceived as government’s disinterest towards security. “We’ve been sent directives and a checklist along with emergency numbers… but will there be somebody at the end of the hotline if we call? What directives have been given to their people?” said Ms Jooma. “It seems that the schools have been given the task to arrange for their own security but it’s all very generic.”
One private school owner dubbed it a ‘self-help’ society. “We ring up other owners to ask how we can work together.”
Requesting anonymity for fear of security implications, another school owner said that while the school administration had done what they could to have layers of security, there was little that could be done if the school was targeted. “Do you know the success rate of a terrorist attack? It is 99.9%... what can anyone do if they are targeted? Settle their business?”
He censured the government’s response to the security problem. “Everything the government is doing is to absolve itself of responsibility. Monday, when school opened, I saw a police patrol go by my school and an officer stationed outside and was quite pleased. Tuesday, there was nothing.”
The principal of Karachi Grammar School, Colin Wrigley, did not wish to comment on the school’s security arrangements but did say that the strategy had been revised.
With some rumours regarding ‘panic rooms’ doing the rounds, Mr Wrigely dismissed the idea. “It is certainly something people are discussing but after Peshawar, where terrorists scaled a wall and entered the school, people have realised that if attackers are to get in there is little anyone can do even if there are panic rooms.”
With talk of enhanced security, more security guards and parents in a fright about how secure their child’s school really is, CEO of Pak Security Munir Ahmed said augmented security was costly. “Every school should have a security plan and they should also practise it. As private security professionals we have experts who can give training and plans but of course these cost money,” he said.
Mr Ahmed said that barbed wire could be up to Rs3,000 per square metre, a CCTV system (with four cameras, one DVR and four channels) would cost about Rs300,000. A cheaper, China-made security gate was priced between Rs150,000 and Rs200,000, while a Garrett metal detector gate — like the ones used at airports — was as costly as nearly Rs500,000, he added.
To enhance their security, he said, schools should closely monitor entry and exit points and enforce mandatory identification for staff and teachers. “An access control machine, with a turnstile and thumbprint verification system could be for Rs200,000 to Rs400,000 depending on sophistication.”
“Security companies like mine offer consultancy services, where for Rs20,000 to Rs25,000, an expert surveys the area and advises clients on a complete emergency evacuation and security plan for terror incidents, floods, gas leaks etc,” said Mr Ahmed.
However, he ruled out the construction of panic rooms, citing that such a measure could be taken only when a building was being built, with exhaust systems incorporated.
Mr Ahmed referred to a home department meeting held before schools reopened in Karachi. It was attended by heads of major private schools in the city, he said. “The gist of it was ‘we can’t guard every school. You should coordinate with each other and formulate a security plan’,” he said.
Given the country’s security crisis, and the fear of an attack on ‘soft targets’ since the Peshawar massacre, Ms Jooma lamented, “It is a pity that something as simple as going to school is becoming increasingly complicated.”
Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2015