“I cried to sleep for many nights. I felt voiceless, felt like I could never speak up for myself.”
These are the words of a 16-year-old girl who was expelled from her school for merely hugging her friend.
Speaking out for the first time ever, Gayatri*, a Class 11 student of the St Thomas Central School in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram, recounted her trauma and the ordeal that she had to go through for a hug, which her school authorities pinned down as an act of indiscipline.
“I have gone through enough. It’s been more than 5 months since I have been to school. I do not want to lose an academic year because of this. It is so hard to watch other kids go to school, when I am simply not allowed to,” Gayatri tells TNM.
Gayatri and her friend Rahul* were expelled from school on July 21, when Rahul gave her a congratulatory hug after she performed at school in a western singing competition.
Read: For a hug and photos, Kerala school calls teen a 'bull in heat', expels him: HC agrees
“It was a mutual congratulatory hug that lasted for about 2 seconds, how is that a crime? I don’t understand how I can possibly offend the school authorities by this ‘act of indiscipline’,” Gayatri says.
A teacher who saw the teens hug on the stairs adjacent to the staff room, took them to the Vice Principal. The two of them were made to write an apology letter, but the matter did not end there.
The deliberate intrusion of privacy
In a bid to collect more evidence against the two teenagers, the school managed to procure screenshots of their pictures from their Instagram accounts – which were not public.
The personal pictures of the two teenagers were described by the school as “indecent, scandalous, highly objectionable lascivious material which appeals to prurient interest.”
The matter then went out of the Vice Principal’s hands to the school management, and the secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society, Rajan Verghese. Gayatri and her mother were summoned to the Secretary’s office on July 24, and so were Rahul and his parents.
“I was called to his office. I went along with my mother and was shocked at the way he behaved. He slut shamed me and my family and called me names,” says Gayatri.
Rahul’s father, too, had told TNM about how the Secretary called his son a ‘bull in heat’ and suggested he should be castrated.
Gayatri recalled how the conversation was centered around the Instagram pictures that were accessed by school authorities without permission.
“He spoke badly of my family for bringing me up the way I am. The Secretary asked me how I could behave this way being a girl. I do not find the pictures objectionable or obscene the way they do, a lot of teenagers like me have such pictures on social media. They don’t understand our generation. And the pictures were on my private account, how could they hack my account?”
“The secretary made me and my mother cry a lot. We begged him to take me back into school. I pleaded for one last chance. They would deny everything that I pleaded for. Even my apology was denied,”
‘They tried to make me lie’
Once she was expelled, Gayatri’s family was not prepared to fight a legal battle against the school, unlike Rahul’s parents. They were scared that anything they do might end up harming her education. They apologised repeatedly to the school, but every attempt they made only ended up being traumatic for them.
And then, the inquiry commission allegedly did something that angered Gayatri. The Secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society, Gayatri claims, asked her to speak against Rahul to save herself.
“The Secretary asked me to write a letter against Rahul, and promised I could get myself out of this tangle if I did. He made me write that Rahul forced the hug on me, and that it wasn’t mutual. He told me that if I did so, I could avoid expulsion and get back to school,” Gayatri alleges.
“He forced me to give him the letter, but I didn’t,” Gayatri says. “It simply wasn’t a forced hug. I was stubborn, and when he tried to force me to give the letter again, I stormed of the room,” she recalls.
Tired of fighting the school management, Gayatri then decided that she would change her school. But even there, roadblocks were put in her way.
“I had applied to another school. I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to continue in this school. But the St Thomas Central School authorities interfered to tarnish my image, and ensured that the my admission in the new school was cancelled,” Gayatri alleged.
Gayatri hopes to be a fashion designer one day. She eagerly tells TNM that one day, when she is accomplished, she wants to help the society.
“I want to study in NIFT and be a fashion designer. And maybe someday when I'm accomplished, do something good for the society”, says Gayatri.
As we wrap up, Gayatri takes a pause and says,
“I wish my teachers were more considerate towards me and talked to me in a better way. I don’t think I deserved to be expelled from school, for my education to be hampered for five months already. I don’t want to lose a year because of this. I have seen enough in the past five months,”
Students and adolescence
Though the Kerala High Court did not give relief to Rahul, the judge did mention that the school should have a larger and broader outlook when it comes to issues of adolescence. The court said that certain adolescent behavior was a ‘reality’.
When TNM approached the school, they stuck to their stand that hugging and handshakes between a boy and a girl in the school premises were against the discipline and conduct of the school rules.
Rajan Varghese, Secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society, told TNM, “Such undisciplined actions will not be allowed in a prestigious institution like ours. Boys and girls are not allowed to hug in the school premises, it is against the discipline and decorum of our institution. What about discipline? No colleges or schools in Kerala would allow such actions not just our institution,” said Rajan.
He later added, “The teacher who had seen the students hug each other has clearly said that they had hugged for a long time. At first she had asked the students to move back which fell on deaf ears. And then she shouted, that’s when the students moved back. Is that a congratulatory hug?”
Another school official spoke to TNM saying, “If everybody is allowed to hug each other to congratulate their friends, is it practically possible for a disciplined institution like ours to run? A girl and a boy are not allowed to congratulate even with a handshake inside the school premises, it is against discipline.”
Rahul’s father however believes the school could have dealt with the entire incident in a less harsh manner. “The school should have handled this better and in a mature way. They can punish the children but the quantum of punishment should weigh equal to the act of the students. These are adolescents, and teachers should deal with them in a better way,” he said.
"My son is an above average student and his future now hangs in the balance. He has a fundamental right to education, and privacy. It is the court that has to ensure him his rights," Rahul's mother said.
* Names have been changed to conceal identity.
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