By Ebele Orakpo
Between the last quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2023, the Lagos State Government has had cause to shut down some schools due to accidents leading to the death of students. Some of the schools are Dowen College, which shut indefinitely on December 3, 2021, following the death of a student, Sylvester Oromoni Jnr, allegedly bullied by schoolmates; Chrisland Schools, which closed indefinitely in April 2022 for an alleged sexual violence case involving students of the school in faraway Dubai, UAE.
In 2022 also, Government schools around the Ojodu-Berger area of Lagos were shut down for the rest of the session following a fatal accident in which two students lost their lives while several others were injured. Although the schools opened the following day, the government had to shut them down when parents, guardians and concerned citizens stormed the area to protest the opening of the school despite the incident.
On July 5, 2022, Redeemers Nursery and Primary School were closed down because of the death of a five-year-old pupil, suspected to have drowned during a swimming lesson while in the school.
November 12. 2022, the management of the Lagos State University of Science and Technology (LASUSTECH) closed its staff school, LASUSTECH International Secondary School, LISS, indefinitely because of the death of a student involved in a motor accident. Following the death of 12-year-old Whitney Adediran, during the school’s inter-house sports at Agege Stadium, Lagos on February 9, 2023, Chrisland School Opebi, Ikeja was shut down with the state Commissioner for Education, Folasade Adefisayo, saying the decision to shut the school was to “further interrogate endangerment of students and other concerns.”
As the Chinese philosopher, Confucius admonished, ‘do not use a cannon to kill a mosquito,’ some people believe that in as much as erring schools need to be sanctioned, the government seems to be getting it wrong, arguing that there are better ways of doing it without punishing the innocent inadvertently. In this report, Saturday Vanguard spoke with experts in the fields of medicine, security, education and a parent. All the respondents agree that shutting down a school indefinitely after an incident is a no, no.
Speaking on the issue, the Medical Director of Pinecrest Specialist Hospital, Lagos and Senior Pastor at Chapel of His Presence, Dr Omadeli Boyo said: “That’s not the best way to go. It’s like a knee-jerk approach. They are supposed to have in the Education Ministry, an Inspectorate unit that ought to be able to set up standards to inspect schools regularly. You can’t inspect schools except you have standards in place.”
Speaking in the same vein on the death at school sports programme, the President/Chairman of the Council, Institute of Criminal Justice and Criminology Administration, Assistant Vice-President, Security and Safety Operations at the American University of Nigeria, Yola, a forensic criminologist, former US Marine, and President, von Frederick Global Security, Dr Lionel von Frederick Rawlins said: “For the government to close down a school over such incident was unnecessary. All they had to do if they wanted to, was close the school for the day and send electricians out to find out where the problem was but since it did not occur on the school premises, there was no need to close down the school at all. That was a knee-jerk reaction and I don’t know why they would do that.”
”Before you shut down a school, there must be an incident report as somebody died in the school, then the government should do a preliminary investigation to get reports from parents, the school and witnesses that were at the event. You don’t just shut down a school. The forensic team of the Ministry of Justice can come and check the scene,” said Boyo, regretting that in Nigeria, once somebody dies, the corpse is taken straight to the mortuary “but the truth is that wherever a child dies is a crime scene, whether it’s deliberate or not, the area has to be cordoned off, nobody touches anything there so rushing to the mortuary is not the most important thing because the person is already dead.”
First things first
Continued Boyo: “The most important thing is getting the Ministry of Health to send down a forensic team that will take immediate samples and take the corpse for an autopsy because most autopsies are affected when corpses are embalmed. The way a corpse is handled in the first 24 hours can determine the outcome of the autopsy. Then the corpse should be covered and the police called in to come with their forensic team since it involves the death of a child, so it’s no longer an issue for the Education Ministry, it’s now what they call homicide.
The hindrance is that when a child dies, people gather around the body, and parents are called instead of calling 667 or 123, the State Ambulance and at the same time, visit the Education Ministry, the Local Govt. Education Board and then inform the parents. These things can be done simultaneously. When the parents come, they should not touch the body because it’s a crime scene so a doctor comes and certifies death, then Coroner’s inquest starts because, for every death that occurs outside the hospital and death that occurs within the hospital but less than 12 hours of admission, there is the Coroner Law of Lagos State. Since it’s only a child, the corpse is moved to where the Coroner’s Inquest would decide; either the nearest general hospital or a mortuary, but the process should be in place for a post-mortem.
“The aim of the inquest is to know how it happened, what was said and who did what. The Coroner’s inquest is the most important thing. In Lagos State, every local government is supposed to have a Coroners’ Board which comprises the medical officer of health in the local govt. (the doctor in charge of a local govt.), a lawyer from the Justice Ministry and a community member. A Coroner’s inquest is instituted because a child died outside the purview of a hospital. Before the Coroner’s inquest begins, the police would have collected all the samples and specimens for the post-mortem and when it is done, the post-mortem is kept somewhere but the Inquest would continue with lawyers to find out what exactly happened. Those involved can have their own lawyer to appear at the inquest.”
“The result of the inquest will determine if anyone is culpable and that person can be charged by the state for either manslaughter, murder, negligence etc. However, if they feel that the school should be closed down, they can ask for the term to finish or if that is not possible, the PTA and school authorities should meet and discuss the findings.
Shutting down schools
The respondents said they are not totally opposed to closing down schools but the cause and level of death should determine whether to shut down the school and for how long. Dr Rawlins believes that school authorities should always tell the truth instead of lying to protect the image of their school. He said: “For one, the school should have been upfront and honest with the parents because once you start to lie, you will start telling more and more lies and eventually, the truth will come out and you will look really bad. I understand that they need to lie because they don’t want to get in trouble with the public or the law and they don’t want the school to close down but the truth will eventually come out.”
Citing the example of the US where shootings in schools are commonplace, he said: “Even in the US where we have school shootings, schools are not closed down like that. Let’s say somebody goes to school and shoots five or six children, the school will close for a few days or a week, just to carry out investigations but they will not close the school down for longer than that. And that is for a school shooting. However, if it was like this case where a student was electrocuted, they will not close the school down at all. The school will go on while the investigation takes its course because you have a timeline in the curriculum that you have to go by, so I think it was a knee-jerk reaction especially since it didn’t happen on the school premises.”
Said Boyo: “Now, should we close the school at this time? It depends on the level of death. If for instance there is a stampede, a building collapses or a large number of people died, you can close the place down, not punitively but to ensure that things are put in place to prevent further deaths. All these things are not in the laws of Lagos State; I’m talking as a doctor. A lawyer may have a different opinion. While the post-mortem is going on, the Education Ministry will send in their own field inspectors who will possibly come with a doctor, to look at the whole scene, follow the sequence and write down their report. After that, the school, because of the emotional trauma, can be asked to get a psychologist to talk to the children.”
A parent, Ms. Ethel Ajufo condemned, outright, the closing down of these schools saying it’s wrong. She wondered why School authorities would lie to the parents in order to cover up what happened in schools. “Secondly, like the Lekki College case where there were no proper arrangements, innocent students were made to suffer for no fault of theirs.
She admonished schools to put their names and integrity above everything else especially if parents pay very high fees. Shutting off school for all unfortunate incidents for me is a no, no. Government should consider the other children and punish the management or know where to apply sanctions.”
”Closing down the school is an overreaction; whoever closed the school should open it immediately. One person was electrocuted and it was not on the school premises, so there was no reason to close down the school unless it has something to do with the school lying to the parents. Do you know how many students in the US fall ill, slump, die, get into fights, fall off swings, stairways or steps and die and the school still keeps going all the time? If something had happened and 10 people are electrocuted all at once, then there would have been some kind of need to close down the school and investigate,” said Rawlins.
Boyo noted that “closing the school and sending the children away is not always the best because you have not yet provided psychological support. Psychologists will talk to the children and assure them that they are okay, that this just occurred because of so and so. Since it happened during inter-house sports, not all children should be forced to do sports. Children with asthma, or heart disease, and those that are allergic to dust, smoke and crowds should be excused.
“If possible, permission should be taken from the parents, whether the child is suitable to do demanding sports. If you already have a medical report and the parents say the child has no medical issue and can go along, good! What is the govt. should have done was follow this pattern and after that, send in a psychologist and if they can’t get one, get doctors and nurses or people trained to care for the bereaved, to talk to the children, staff and parents. After that, the school authority can ask the children to go home for 48 hours, not the state govt. closing them down. After 48 hours, they resume school and the inter-house sports can be moved to the next term.”
Consequences of closing down schools
Boyo likened the shutting down of schools to killing a fly with a sledgehammer. “One, when you close down a school, you are de-marketing the school, making people feel that the school is bad. Also, parents paid so much so when you close down the school, who compensates the parents for time lost and the money paid? Sometimes, it takes many years for them to recover because it’s name-calling when you close down a school. Investigate first, after investigating, if the circumstances warrant closing the school down, then it can be closed down because they had received several warnings from the Inspectorate. Schools should be advised to inform the Ministry of Education when they are going to do their inter-house sports so that the field would be inspected. Every inter-house sport in school, if possible, should have a representative of the Ministry of Health.”
Speaking further, Dr Boyo harped on the need for the Inspectorate Unit of the Education Ministry to have standards for schools. They may want “every school to have a First Aid unit, they may want the school to have a sick bay, a registered nurse, a visiting doctor, a First Aid box, the teachers trained on Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, CPR, what exactly they want the schools to have in place. If you have those things as standard guidelines, on inspection (maybe quarterly or yearly inspection), they come and look at those facilities in place.
“Then the structures they have put in place like you must have a designated assembly point in case of fire, a designated place to put fire extinguishers, a designated place where they know that if you are sick, this is the sick bay, not just a make-shift thing in a classroom, where everybody can go to – teachers and pupils – whenever they are ill. Apart from that, they should also have what they call the baseline health status of children being admitted into the school. Before they are admitted, every child should come with the result of a comprehensive medical exam with a chest x-ray so that everybody’s health status is defined upon being admitted into school this comprehensive medical exam can be done also when they are going to SS1. That will include things like genotype, blood group, whether have they taken their comprehensive vaccinations, the ones taken under the Expanded Program on Immunization, EPI like Tuberculosis, TB, Diphtheria-Pertussis-Tetanus, DPT, measles, yellow fever vaccines, herpes and mumps, so they need to have all those things in place and ensure that every child is vaccinated before admission? If those things are in place in the health system analysis, then you can take it up from there.”
He said the Lagos State Govt. has new guidelines, even stricter than that of the FG but the problem is lack of monitoring and implementation and the government not paying regular visits due to a shortage of manpower. He noted that the inspectors “must have integrity and be very strict. They are not there to punish schools but to ensure that they have the right things in place. If they don’t comply, they warn them, they come the second time, warn them and the third time, they can sanction them.”
Boyo said that government must ensure that “government schools are the standard that private schools should copy. Not treating government schools with kid gloves but when it comes to private schools, you raise hell. So the duration of closure in most cases is always indefinite, which is wrong. You close a school for two reasons: For a structure to be put in place or for the crime scene not to be violated.”
So instead of closing down the school completely, he suggested leaving the area where the incident took place and for another section of the school for their lectures. “Don’t close a school totally because when you do that, you have de-marketed the school and it will not recover for about five years because it has gotten a bad name. Schools are a support system for the govt. If the state govt. has wonderful public schools, who will send his children to private schools? So the state government must not be seen to be destroying its own educational sector because private schools also contribute a lot to the state and the state should be able to support them. One way you can help them is if you are going to close the school at all, put the children in other private schools, and place the teachers on salary, you can’t just close the school, what happens to the teachers? It’s highly punitive. What if the Coroner’s Inquest reveals that the school was not responsible, how would you compensate the school?
“Finally, after the Dowen College incident, we found out that both the federal and state governments have a school health law, it even has something like CCTV cameras in corridors of the boarding houses, all kinds of things are there but they are neither implemented, supervised nor evaluated to see whether these things are in place and whether they work. The results collated from one incident like Chrisland should be used to set up inspections in other schools. You don’t just close down Chrisland, while they are closing down Chrisland, other schools are having their inter-house sports. What has the government done? They don’t need the post-mortem of Chrisland to do that, they can ensure that the inspectors are monitoring the schools, and bring out new laws about inter-house sports.
Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of Vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.