Abuse on school buses 'disturbing'.
URGENT action is needed to overhaul Bahrain's school transport system, where sexual abuse and bullying often go unpunished, according to experts.
The alert has been sounded by the Be Free Centre, which says "extremely disturbing facts" about the country's school buses have come to light.
It comes just over two weeks after a five-year-old Bahraini boy died after being accidentally locked in a bus during the height of summer.
Centre director Rana Al Sairafi warned the lack of oversight that led to Sayed Jaffer Isa Al Abar's death is also contributing to serious child abuse.
"What we have found are extremely disturbing facts, but people need to be aware of them," she told the GDN.
The Be Free Centre, Adliya, is dedicated to safeguarding the welfare of children and trains youngsters on how to spot and avoid abuse.
It launched a child protection campaign in Salmabad last month after the village was labelled an abuse black spot.
However, it is now pushing for a raft of measures to be brought in to make school buses safer following Sayed's death.
These include a full-time supervisor on buses not only to ensure there is no repeat of the tragedy, but also to make sure that the children are in a safe environment.
It is also holding a workshop on child safety on school buses for kindergartens and primary schools on October 9.
Ms Al Sairafi said there had been a number of cases in which bus drivers themselves had been accused of sexually assaulting their young passengers, but added their victims were often unwilling to turn them in.
"In almost all cases where children have been sexually abused by bus drivers, the cases of bullying have been blamed on older children," she revealed.
However, she was keen to stress that most bus drivers were innocent.
"We wish to assert that while a vast majority of bus drivers are completely innocent and are very protective about the children they take in their buses, we must be wary of that small minority which indulge in such acts," she added.
The centre's school bus safety campaign is a direct result of Sayed's death, but Ms Al Sairafi said it was not the first time she had encountered problems with school transport.
"We have heard with horror so many stories of children being left on the bus or being bullied by elder children," she said.
"We also hear how many children return home and are not received by their parents or attendants - they just wander off."
However, she said the problems did not relate to any particular segment of the country's school system.
"Children could be from private or government schools, primary schools or kindergartens across Bahrain," she said.
"We cannot pinpoint any school or segment.
"The concerned ministries, kindergartens and primary schools should immediately put in safety measures to protect children from such abuse."
The Be Free Centre has issued the following recommendations to protect Bahrain's schoolchildren:
There should be a caring and alert supervisor with children on the bus. Many supervisors do not understand the importance of their role. They sleep or read newspapers without paying attention to the children. The supervisor should count the children when getting on the bus and when leaving the bus, to confirm that no one is left or missed. On returning the children to their homes, she/he should confirm that they entered their houses and someone received them.
The supervisor should be someone who knows how to deal with children and ensure their safety on the bus. She/he should stop any bullying among children, and be alert to strange behaviour.
The bus driver should check all seats after delivering children to make sure that no one is sleeping or has forgotten something. If the bus is also used for adult transportation, the driver has to make sure that the school bus is free from any material that can be harmful for children such as cigarettes or sharp objects.
There should be specific criteria to be set as standards for buses that are used to transport children, such as availability of air-conditioning and proper seats. Some buses are not air-conditioned or there is a fault in the air-conditioning and in Bahrain's hot and humid weather, the children reach their homes soaked in sweat.
There should be a limit on the number of children the bus can take at a time. Some children remain standing all the time because the bus is overloaded.
All children should be given guidance to stay safe on the bus. They should be trained to tell the supervisor, their teacher or their parents if they feel uncomfortable with a certain event on the bus. The child should be advised not to move when the bus moves and not to get down if something falls under the seat to find it. They should instead tell the supervisor or wait until the bus stops.
Copyright 2008 Gulf Daily News
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