Recent media reports of an alleged attempted abduction of students at a local school have brought the issue of student security to the fore. By many measures, Hong Kong is a safe place to raise and educate children, certainly compared with some parts of the world. But that does not mean there is no need for sensible and measured vigilance.
How should parents and schools react to this potentially worrying new development? Keeping a sense of perspective may be easier when everything is going smoothly, but when youngsters are perceived to be in danger, emotions come into play and tend to intensify both the debate and any practical responses.
While knee-jerk reactions are generally unhelpful, the current raising of awareness is an ideal opportunity both for schools to review their security policies and practices, and for parents to take a closer look at how their children get to and from school and assess where improvements can be made to protect them from real or perceived threats.
Schools take student security very seriously and employ strategies and techniques to ensure they are protected. Indeed, many accrediting agencies that give schools an international seal of approval place the issue at the top of the agenda and often judge this area as rigorously as academic standards.
However, every school site is different, and each location and catchment area have their own idiosyncrasies. There is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution. While some schools have - and maybe need - state-of-the-art surveillance systems and electronic identification badges, for example, others use more people-based approaches to make sure of adequate supervision at key points and at key times such as the beginning and the end of a school day.
Parents should ask sensible questions about what precautions their child's school takes and engage in a rational conversation. They should share any specific worries about their own circumstances and the context of the school, and satisfy themselves that the school is doing all that can reasonably be done. Parents should not overreact and expect (or want) a school to become an intimidating fortress in which students pursuing their education feel constrained or trapped.
They also need to be aware of their own responsibilities and clear about where the demarcation lines lie. It is unreasonable for parents to expect schools to carry the burden of parenthood far beyond the school gates. Good schools train their students to behave appropriately and responsibly outside school as well as in it, but the primary focus of a school should not be compromised by adding unnecessary extra-curricular child care to its agenda.
There needs to be a clear understanding as to where and when the schools' and parents' responsibilities begin and end, given the unique factors in each school's situation. Parents need to know when school supervision officially ends each day. They might ask questions such as who supervises children to and from school? How can parents be sure that strangers do not have access to unsupervised children? If the approved supervisor of a student is not a parent, then parents need to ensure that that person is reliable and they know how to react in an emergency or a crisis if either should occur.
Schools might re-evaluate and check they have robust systems that ensure that everyone on the premises is accounted for and on legitimate business, and that general supervision arrangements are fit for the purpose. Schools are staffed with experienced professionals, and will often consult community liaison police officers or other experts who can advise further and check they have done all they can.
Nothing is more important than the health and safety of youngsters and, as in many aspects of education, the best practice is a meaningful partnership between school and home. Both can tell children explicitly never to go with a stranger whatever they tell them without the express and clear (and preferably written) permission of parents. Children should be encouraged to watch out for one another. Education is the key. An effective relationship, particularly in these circumstances, involves taking a balanced view and accepting that both sides need to work together to forge the best possible solutions. Neither finger pointing nor hysterical overreaction has any place in such a scenario.
It is everyone's duty to co-operate, reflect and analyse calmly to ensure that students can learn in an environment that is free of unnecessary restrictions, nurturing and safe. Now is a good time to check that all is as good as it can be.
Julie McGuire teaches at an international school