Vidura College: Parents Lobby Ministry To Take Over School
- ‘Negligence’ caused death of 13-year old boy
- No ‘medical emergency plan’ at school
By Faraz Shauketaly
The sudden death of a 13-year old student at Vidura College, Rajagiriya has set off a storm of protests from a section of the parents. The 13-year old who collapsed when playing basketball had been kept up to 30 minutes at the grounds without any form of medical attention when the sole member of staff supervising the children, failed to have a plan for an emergency response.
The child was kept until the mother arrived on the scene and thereafter taken by three wheeler to a nearby hospital where the child was pronounced dead. Mrs. Anousha Weerawardene has lodged an official complaint against the school alleging negligence and a failed duty of care.
The child had collapsed with chest pains while playing basketball. The master in charge who was present had confirmed to the parents that when he administered resuscitation he did so the way he had seen it being done in films. The parents allege that the master-in-charge had no formal training in first-aid. The school had no arrangements in place with any medical on-call facility or even an ambulance service. The school has a sick room which is poorly equipped. Citing the instance where a child had suffered a head injury, the school teachers attending on that incident had to run around to neighbouring private homes asking for some ice. Eventually, they had stopped an ice cream vendor and used ice chocks instead of ice. “The school did not even have something as basic as that,” charged Anousha Weerawardene. There is no nurse or matron at the sick room and it appeared that the sick room was merely a showpiece. Another parent alleged that there was no visible first aid box. Our attempts to independently verify this, did not materialise.
Anousha Weerawardene told The Sunday Leader that it was appalling that the school was not prepared for medical emergencies and that the staff was not properly trained. Some parents were of the opinion that the school was more interested in making profits than they were in providing all the facilities and care reasonably expected of a school – private or otherwise. To highlight this particular case was the story related to The Sunday Leader by a parent who said that the school was charging Rs. 500 for an article to be published in the school magazine about their child. A school magazine they opined ought to carry articles designed to inspire and encourage other students – not dictated by whether a parent could afford to pay for publication.
The incident comes hot on the heels of what the parents allege is “authoritarian” behavior by the Principal of the school, D. G. Sumanasekera. The parents complain that staffing levels and standards have been regularly dropping with Sumanasekera either unwilling or unable to check the deteriorating situation. One parent said that his child had had three different teachers for one subject over a period of one year. Lack of continuity did not bode well for the students, he said. Another said that the “rosiness” of the schools’ website bears no resemblance to what is happening at ground level. Back in 2002 when they had considered education choices for their kids Vidura College appeared to have a good reputation and offered the potential of providing a sound all round education guided by Buddhist principles. Certainly Sumanasekera appears to be a well qualified educationalist, having served at various schools having started his career in Kegalle in 1960. He has served as the principal of the Sri Lanka School in Saudi Arabia, at Mahanama College and Nalanda College. Parents are at a loss to understand as to why. Sumanasekera has allowed the reputation of Vidura College to be tarnished by allegation after allegation.
A group of parents had then approached the Ministry of Education. An Additional Secretary had allegedly told them that ‘international’ schools are not regulated or monitored by the Ministry of Education and are, instead, operating as businesses and are registered under the Companies Act. This astounding revelation meant that the Additional Secretary interpreted the status of ‘international’ schools as being nothing more than a ‘tuition class’. However, legal opinion suggested that no matter what the classification of any business there was bound to be a duty of care under common law. Anousha Weerawardena readily agrees: “there was a clear failure on the part of this school in terms of duty of care towards its pupils. I lost one child, but there are thousands more out there who are at real risk.”
Donations not passed on
Parents charge that monies collected in the aftermath of the death of the student, have not been passed on to the mother of the child. They had collected the money and had asked the school to administer the funds and to pass on the balance to the mother. However the school has thus far refused to disclose the full account in relation to these monies apart from giving Rs.125,000 to a parent to spend on the funeral and other arrangements. The parent – Mr. Dharmaratne – has accounted for Rs.120,000 and returned the balance Rs. 5,000 to the school. The mother told us that she had heard that the school was saying they had spent money on ‘this and that’. She said she was, ready to refund any such monies if the school was advertising these so called meritorious acts, provided that all the parents who gave donations would get their money back from the school. Sumanasekera had allegedly told them that he is running a business not a charity and that he was under no obligation to provide an account at all.
Private schools are not regulated by any government agency
The Sunday Leader spoke to H. M Gunsasekera, Secretary, Ministry of Education and he confirmed that indeed, private schools are not regulated or monitored in any way by the Ministry or any of its various agencies. He admitted that this was a very “dangerous situation” and confirmed that legislation has been prepared to address this anomaly. Gunasekera added that most of these private schools operate under the Companies Act and it is the Registrar of Companies who would monitor such institutes.
However he admitted that under the present rules,the Registrar would clearly confine his monitoring and regulation to the commercial aspects of the company ensuring only that the rules relating to the operation of a company were being met. In essence that commercial aspects were regulated and monitored but not the educational aspects. Gunasekera confirmed that the government, realising the potential liability of not having any regulatory mechanism in place for private schools, had prepared appropriate legislation which has already been debated in Parliament. The legislation is now in its final phase and implementation is expected in January 2012.
Anousha Weerawardene told The Sunday Leader that she would be happy to be at the forefront of a lobbying campaign seeking immediate action by the government to ensure that preventive action is taken now rather than resorting to curative action later. The parents in a letter delivered to Bandula Gunawardena, the Minister of Education, urged the Ministry to take over the school as the potential for error was clearly demonstrated by recent tragedy.
Response from Principal, Vidura college
We asked the Principal D. G. Sumanasekera to comment on the allegation of a failed duty of care, delay in getting treatment, the emergency response plan and issues relating to staff, staff turnaround and experience.
“ Thank you for your query. Reference on the death of our Grade 8 student Gavesh, I wish to state that the school authorities acted swiftly and responsibly in attending to the sudden illness of the child. The master-in-charge, coach and the other helping staff were all present who gave their full co-operation to remove the child, after first aid, in the quickset mode of transport after getting the mother, who happens to be a close neighbour of the school together with the basketball captain of the school. We were fortunate that the mother took over the full care of the child at the moment of need.
As you verily state he passed away for reasons unconnected with the sport activity, Basketball. We too are convinced of the same.
After the child was admitted to the closest hospital, Jayawardenepura Hospital, within minutes of the incident the parents and the well wishers of the school assisted in getting the best attention from the hospital. We are grateful to the hospital staff, some of whom are our parents.
After the shocking news of the death of the child, the parents of the basketball players played a leading role to shoulder all aspects of the funeral. I too helped them.
The school on its part took the responsibility of assisting in the religious ceremonies, the Bana and Dana with the help of the Wijayanada Dharmayathanaya the dayaka temple of the school. We are yet to assist in the 3rd month Bana and Dana.
As regards donations made to the mother of the child, you mention we have no information. We do not want to have a hand in their personal gestures.The school at no time collected any contributions for a scholarship fund of the mother, the first time I hear about. As regards, the other matters of educational interest, you have raised, need wider consideration, space and time. You are free to visit the school anytime and see for yourself.”