A few weeks ago, I went to one of the schools in Mukono Town, where my cousin attends. The guard who manned the school’s gate only asked me to show him my identity card and just like that I was given permission to enter the school.
I headed straight to the visitors room and though it was not the official visiting day, the teacher on duty just asked me for the name of the child I wanted to see and within a few minutes, they had fetched my cousin.
I was happy that it was quite easy to access my cousin, but I am not the authorised person to visit him. My mind thought about an ill-intentioned person accessing him just as swiftly as I had because they did not probe me at all.
I expected that they would perhaps ask me why I needed the child, who I was to them and a visitor’s card to prove that I am authorised to see him. This made me wonder whether schools are conscious about the security of their students while at school.
In July 2016, 27 pupils of King’s Kid Nursery and Primary School in Soroti District were rushed to Soroti hospital over suspected poisoning. According to the Uganda Radio Network website, the children presented with stomachache, vomiting, diarrhoea and headache.
Though the school administrators denied allegations that the pupils could have eaten food laced with poison, one of the medics who attended to them said they suspected poisoning.
This and so many other regrettable incidents have been happening in schools, from poisoning to kidnaps to fires and lightning due to lapses in safety measures.
On November 12, 2018, 10 students from St Bernard Secondary School, Manya in Rakai District died and 29 others sustained severe injuries after a fire gutted the dormitory they were sleeping in.
According to eye witnesses, the Senior Three students had been locked up in the dormitory that housed 50 students and those who survived were only saved after an axe was used to break the padlock.
Several other schools have experienced these regrettable incidents which arguably could have been avoided. This raises questions of whether there is something not being done right or some kind of laxity in vigilance.
Victoria Nazziwa, a resident of Wakiso District, says at the school her children attend, the guard allows strangers to enter the school premises. She says although she was never really concerned about this at first, she later got worried that a stranger with bad intentions could go to her child’s school and pick her at any time without her knowledge.
Nazziwa says most of the schools in the area have security lapses and can easily be accessed by anybody.
“You can access school premises at any time and no one subjects you to any kind of security checks as long as you say you are a parent,” she says.
For Dominic Ssenyondo, a parent in Mukono, schools are to blame for this laxity. He says most schools employ gatekeepers without expertise on the job.
“Some schools employ their family members to man the gates and these usually do not even have basic training in security matters. You cannot expect such people to do a good job,” he observes.
According to Florence Mutwamu, the deputy head teacher Kyebambe Girls School, the onus is on schools to put measures that can ensure students’ safety. At Kyebambe for instance, when students are being admitted, the school administration gives a visiting card to two people that will be authorised to visit the student. Any other person who appears without that visiting card cannot be allowed on the school premises.
“Additionally, the school does not allow parents to come with cooked food at school to prevent incidents of food poisoning,” she says.
To the Rev Grace Xavier Tino, a teacher at Iganga Senior Secondary School, it is important for the school administration to be cautious of people who access the students while at school.
She says visitation of students is restricted to only those that are authorised when the child is being admitted. “Parents also have an obligation to play. Make sure that the school administration knows the right person to visit their child. Some parents only end at paying school fees and do not care how else the child fairs in school. This is dangerous because once the school administrators are not familiar with the parent, then any person can disguise to be you,” she says.
Medi Sebalu, a security expert with GICO Security Company, says another security precaution that schools should employ is well trained security guards. “Security at the gate should not be taken for granted, but rather should be used as a stepping stone for strengthening safety for all students in and outside the school,” he advises.
According to Emiliano Kayima, the former police spokesperson, schools need to rethink security and safety measures some of which were provided in 2008.
He says some of the measures include but are not limited to putting in place fire safety measures such as installing fire hydrants, putting in place firefighting equipment and periodically carrying out dry drills to prepare school communities to handle incidents such as fires when they erupt.
He adds that every structure must be built with an approved plan and should only be occupied when one has secured an occupational permit. He says schools must have emergency exits, marked routes in case of storied structures and protected and marked assembly points.
“We must not only think of fires as the only calamities, there are others such as terror attacks, kidnappers and all sorts of criminals. We should enhance human capacity through installing CCTV systems, having a vetted well-trained team of security guards and empowering teachers, wardens, matrons and prefects to know security and safety matters,” he says.
Kayima says parents must play a positive role in ensuring that these measures are enforced. He advises the Education ministry and security organisations to carryout periodical inspections and take action against schools that do not comply with minimal standards.
The Education ministry demands that schools should have all construction plans approved by the ministry’s construction unit before they embark on construction. In fact schools are supposed to invest 2 per cent of their annual income in reinforcing security, says David Kireli, an engineer at the Education ministry.
“For boarding schools, one must consider a possibility of fire outbreaks when constructing dormitories. A dormitory should at least have two exits, fire extinguishers and lightning conductors installed,” he says.
However, the Education Standard Agency (ESA) needs to have the technical capacity or expertise to inspect the health and safety status of schools, especially the dormitories, which are the key target for school fires, observes Phil Atiye. In a November 16, 2018 letter to the Daily Monitor he regrets that ESA had not ably carried out its role, a reason there were a number of misfortunes in different institutions of learning.
Henry Ssentongo Ssali, the head teacher St Johns Secondary School Mukono, says every dormitory at the school has fire extinguishers.
He says although not all students are trained on how to use this equipment, the school has trained Girl Guides and Scouts together with some prefects so as to help in case of any fire outbreak.
However, he says, schools need to do more sensitisation among students on issues regarding their safety while at school. He says this should not only be in firefighting but in other calamities such as kidnap and food poisoning.
Ssali observes that a number of students are ignorant about the measures they should take personally for their safety while at school yet they need to know how to avoid some of these misfortunes.
“For example students need to be cautious of some unfamiliar visitors who may manage to access the school premises,” he observes. It is time to end the blame games each time a calamity occurs at a school and get to real work of observing safety measures and locking all loopholes through which schools can be caught unawares.
Getting firefighting equipment
Get legitimate providers. John Bosco Tukwasibwe of Booth Fire services Uganda, says schools should get firefighting equipment from licenced providers which will give you legit equipment and also fix as well as offer advice each time there is need. “It is not that everyone knows how to use a fire extinguisher, but when you work with a recognised firefighting institution, you can always request to get trained on how to use the equipment,” he says.
Get trained. According to Godfrey Etyang of Fire Masters Uganda Limited, in as much as a fire extinguisher is important in fighting a fire, it is important that those who have the equipment know how best to use it. He says it is good to keep a distance before discharging the extinguisher so that they do not get disoriented should things turn worse. He adds that it is only advisable to move closer once you start extinguishing the fire and the flames begin to die down.