In the past week, many Nigerians have been outraged by the death of 12-year-old Sylvester Oromoni, a JSS2 student at Dowen College, apparently an upscale school in Lekki, Lagos. The circumstances of his unfortunate death are unravelling, but from what has been published in the public domain so far, his demise might be connected to the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of some bullies in his school boarding house. Thankfully, three of the suspects are in police custody (and the other two are on the run).
In the wake of that unfortunate incident, the school was closed down indefinitely by the Lagos State government. Given how some people insisted that merely shutting down the school was not enough, it is evident that they would be happy to see the end of Dowen College forever. No matter how extreme that sentiment might sound, it is perfectly understandable. There is hardly anyone who saw the video of that poor boy as severe pains wracked his body that would care if the school collapsed or not. If the school authorities could not see to the welfare of Oromoni while he was in their charge, why should they be further entrusted with the care of hundreds of other children? The self-justificatory statement released by the college management when the news first broke was enraging, an indication they were either in denial or dishonest. The attitude they exuded is one of the many problems with the private school system. On the matters where they should take a firm stance, they would rather hedge and compromise standards because they cannot afford to risk their revenue.
In the aftermath of the public outrage, the school’s parents’ forum is now asking for certain reforms such as a complete overhaul of the school management and the hostel personnel, and the installation of CCTVs in the school. Good on these parents that they are demanding reforms from the people watching their children. Ideally, it should never take more than one disaster for a society to be awakened to the degree of their vulnerability to certain unfortunate incidents. If it should happen a second time, not only is it far less likely to stimulate people to demand change but people could easily get accustomed. Once the novelty of an event is gone, people mentally adjust to bad things. It is good that Oromoni’s case and the attendant public rage is fueling calls for immediate reforms. Hopefully, that development informs the reforms in our school system.
The parents’ forum members need not stop at demanding a change in the school management, but collectively, they also owe it to themselves to do a lot of soul-searching. What did they know but overlook because it did not seem important? In every society where evil has thrived, it has been because the people that should have intervened chose to look away. School bullying also happens because the adults in charge of affairs—all the way from the school administrators to the parents—take violence as a rite of passage and shrug it off as a “boys will be boys” thing. The kid that complains about being bullied is taken as a sissy who, in fact, needs the bullying experience to become stronger and self-assertive. Some of the adults who should have taken charge were once the victims—and, sometimes, perpetrators—while they too were in school. They erroneously take bullying as a tradition that must continue until the child victim eventually overcomes the trauma of the abuse and gets toughened as a result. Unfortunately, that myopia merely institutes a culture of abuse, trauma, and even more abuse. It should not have to happen twice before all the parties involved pursue reforms. We are waiting to see how Dowen parents go about reforming the school for the sake of their children.
That said, it should also not take more than one disaster for states like Lagos to start thinking of better safety practices around school zones. Whether by design or happenstance, some schools are located right in the heart of the busy and poorly-planned city, making both the students and their teachers of those schools quite vulnerable to the hazards of road use. Ideally, in places where schools are located, there should be some additional rules of road use—such as enforced speed limits— and all kinds of road signals to alert drivers to the presence of vulnerable road users like schoolchildren. Those measures are necessary to stimulate a higher awareness of responsible road use around school zones, especially during school opening and closing hours.
On Tuesday, we saw the kind of disaster that could happen when there are no enforced safety regulations around a school zone located in busy parts of the city. As the report goes, a truck driver reportedly crushed students on Ogunnusi Road, Lagos State. By one account, the students were let out of school around the same time the truck driver was being chased by either the officials of the Federal Road Safety Corps or the Lagos Traffic Management Authority (for now, both agencies are being blamed). The driver lost control of the vehicle and rammed into the pupils standing by the roadside. By another account, the driver did not stop for the students who signalled to him that they wanted to cross the road. For the driver, slowing down the vehicle would risk him being caught by the LASTMA officials chasing him. Either way, all the poor choices culminated in the deaths of many innocent students who were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. The number of casualties reported has varied between three and 17 schoolchildren.
According to an eyewitness, “The (deceased) students gave the truck driver a sign to wait for them to cross, but it didn’t stop and… crushed… them to death, while some were injured.” This account should prompt the question of why schoolchildren were the ones soliciting a driver’s sense of goodwill to stop for them so they could cross the road? Around a school area and particularly at school closing hours where hundreds of children are about to cross a road, should there not be a crossing guard who signals for the vehicles to stop and then beckons to the students to safely pass? How come the children were left to manage these things on their own?
We typically respond with visceral anger and rage when such terrible incidents occur. It is only human because we see ourselves in the victims, and we want some recompense. Similar to the case of Dowen, we want whatever or whoever we blame for the disaster to suffer the pain we feel and that is why—for instance—we demand that the school be closed down permanently. Around the Grammar School Bus-Stop on Tuesday, witnesses were angry enough to start a riot and even light up bonfires. They reportedly smashed the windscreens of multiple trucks plying the road and even beat up one of the drivers. We were told that several people who were previously bystanders joined in the chase and apprehension of the driver who caused the accident and then fled. In those situations, the people are outraged and they want someone to pay for the negligence and pain that has been caused them. That pain and suffering, precisely, is why it should not take more than this one disaster to begin to address some of the problems of urban planning and school safety.
Such a terrible disaster should never happen more than once, and it should prompt a radical rethinking of city planning and school safety. This particular case should teach LASTMA officials about their crude tactics of stopping motorists on busy roads. They have been repeatedly blamed for road accidents, and they have still not come up with better ideas to apprehend offending motorists. How could they have been chasing a driver around a school zone swarming with hundreds of schoolchildren? Now that they have seen one of the many possible outcomes of their strategies, will they say it was all worthwhile?
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