RE: Until the next child: Who bears responsibility for Whitney Adeniran’s tragic death?

By Zikora Ibeh

Within a blink of an eye, the bright spark that was Whitney Adeniran, a cherished 12-year-old student brimming with life and potential at Chrisland International High School, was extinguished on February 9, 2023, at her school’s inter-house sports. The event was held at the Agege Stadium in Lagos State. Amid the turmoil of her untimely death, a subsequent post-mortem investigation by the Lagos State Government confirmed Asphyxia and Electrocution as the cause of her death, dispelling the swirling, contentious accounts that had dominated public discourse regarding the unfortunate situation.

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Following this, the Lagos State Ministry of Justice through its Department of Public Prosecution has also come to the conclusion that the school management, some staffers, and a vendor are culpable, and will therefore be “charged with the offences of involuntary manslaughter and reckless and negligent acts contrary to Sections 224 & 251 of the Criminal Law, Ch C17, Vol.3, Laws of Lagos State, 2015”.

Whitney’s tragedy is far from unique, as countless students in Nigeria have perished or continue to suffer due to the negligence and failure of oversight authorities. The urgent questions we must confront are: who bears responsibility for preventing these tragedies and how can we ensure stringent safety measures in our educational institutions onwards?

In today’s world, schools are entrusted with not only the education but also safety and well-being of students. The immense responsibilities that schools bear in creating a safe and nurturing environment cannot be over-emphasized. Every child entrusted to a school’s care deserves to learn and grow in a secure space where their well-being is the top priority. Unfortunately, the reverse has been the case for a lot of schools in Nigeria that fail to prioritize comprehensive support systems for students. This is not just a reality prevalent in public educational institutions which are habitually underfunded but, as the Chrisland International High School saga shows, in many private for-profit schools charging exorbitant tuition fees across the country.

In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Safe Schools Declaration Document signaling Nigeria’s commitment to global principles on protecting children in schools. Subsequently, a Minimum Standard for Safe Schools was developed by the Federal Ministry of Education with support from Education in Emergencies Working Group (EiEWG) Nigeria. However, as Whitney’s death and a list of previous and similar cases illustrate, these well-thought-out policies are consistently flouted by school administrators with impunity.

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This subpar administration extends to a dearth of emergency preparedness plans, including the provision of fully equipped ambulances, trained medical personnel, psychosocial support and established safeguarding measures. In Whitney’s case, her school’s failure to implement such safety measures during the sports event proved catastrophic. Meticulous safety protocols could have identified and mitigated potential hazards, ensuring that all equipment and tools intended for use at the event were danger-proof, thus preventing the electrocution of a child. Moreover, sufficient expert supervision and security could have overseen students’ activities in the environment and intervened as necessary and appropriate, possibly saving her life.

While this incident has raised questions about the lax operations and poor state of accountability of schools in the country, it is also pertinent to understand the foundation that drives this level of operational irresponsibility. The failure of education regulatory authorities in Nigeria to strictly enforce standards has continued to embolden schools to drop the ball and neglect their responsibilities, believing that they can evade accountability for any harm that may befall students under their care.

The National Policy on Safety, Security and Violence-Free Schools in Nigeria 2021 sets a standard for implementing comprehensive school safety plans and provides clear directions on early warning, disaster risk reduction (DRR), disaster risk management (DRM) and other ancillary national safety obligations expected from schools in the country.

Whitney’s case, however, exposed the shortcomings of regulatory oversight, as the sports event lacked required safeguarding measures. On this note, one must question how the school was permitted to operate without adhering to critical safety obligations in adherence with both federal and state educational safety protocols. Why do Nigerian regulatory authorities seemingly disregard their duties or adopt a laissez-faire attitude until a disaster occurs?

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This incident also raises questions about the quality of vendors contracted by school administrators to handle sensitive installations such as electrical wiring for school events. In the whole mix of the tragic story is an alleged roadside electrician whose poorly managed work materials cost the life of a child. Obviously, something has to be done to ensure that schools engage the services of professional and registered vendors which can significantly reduce the likelihood of accidents arising from negligence.

If educational materials like textbooks and literary materials require pre-approval from Nigeria’s Ministry of Education before their use in school environments, it is only logical to extend similar regulations to vendors handling projects within school settings. The Federal Ministry of Education and its associated departments and agencies must develop a framework to ensure that only certified and registered vendors, approved by the Ministry, are allowed to work within school environments or at events related to educational programmes.

The crux of the matter is that when regulatory authorities neglect to promote integrity in the operational activities of educational institutions, they create an environment in which schools may prioritize their reputation and financial interests over students’ safety and well-being. This reality is starkly illustrated in the aftermath of Whitney’s death when her school, Chrisland International High School, quickly tried to exonerate themselves, claiming that she had simply collapsed at the event and died upon arrival at the hospital against her grieving and heartbroken parent’s claims that timely intervention and appropriate care which the school failed to give, could have saved her life.

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Although the Lagos State Government has commendably sanctioned the school and commenced the process of prosecuting the school management, some staffers and a vendor, unfortunately, nothing can restore the innocent life lost already. However, if the lessons gleaned from this tragedy can serve as a catalyst for change in the work ethic of regulatory authorities, the loss will not be in vain.

It is crucial that the government’s commitment to holding educational institutions accountable and ensuring the safety of students always remains unwavering. On this matter, parents and the public are keenly watching to see how the prosecution goes with hopes that the Lagos State government will ensure a diligent prosecution and the judiciary will also live up to expectations.

Regulatory authorities must enforce strict safety standards, carrying out regular inspections to confirm that schools comply. Additionally, education authorities must provide schools with the necessary guidance and up-to-date resources to implement effective safety measures, while also providing the general public with active whistle blowing channels to communicate concerns regarding school environments. Finally, well-defined penalties for non-compliant institutions must also be enforced to serve as deterrents.

Parents, guardians and the wider public wield significant influence in ensuring the safety of children in educational institutions. By proactively engaging with schools and regulatory authorities, insisting on transparency, accountability and compliance with safety protocols, they can also contribute to forging an unyielding protective barrier for our children.

Ultimately, the responsibility falls on all stakeholders to work together in a resolute fashion to ensure that every child is cherished, protected and given the opportunity to thrive. In ensuring a culture of monitoring and accountability, we can help prevent another Whitney.

Zikora is Policy and Research Officer at Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa

Joshua Okoria

Joshua Okoria is a Lagos based multi-skilled journalist covering the maritime industry. His ICT and graphic design skills makes him a resourceful person in any modern newsroom. He read mass communication at the Olabisi Onabanjo University and has sharpened his knowledge in media practice from several other short courses. 07030562600, hubitokoria@gmail.com

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