Islamabad: As Pakistanis paid tribute to the 147 people killed in the terror attack in Peshawar in 2014, the fourth anniversary brought fresh pain for the grieving parents.
A total of 132 children died in the attack on the Army Public School (APS).
“Time does not take away the pain,” said Shahab Uddin, who lost his only son, 15-year-old Mohammad Ali Khan, in the attack.
“Every year in December [anniversary of attack] we feel somehow it will be easier this year, but it is not,” Shahab told Gulf News.
“All we have of Ali now is memories of him and his unforgettable laughter.”
Better security at school could have saved his son, he says.
However, he is satisfied with the current security measures at APS, where his little girl studies.
Shahab called for the improvement of security at educational institutions in the country, “so that no parent should go through the pain of losing their child.”
Pakistan police better prepared
Four years on, the APS school attack offers the nation a chance to reflect on the hardest lessons learnt and security measures taken.
Although Pakistan has since witnessed more brazen attacks on educational institutes — such as the 2016 assault on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda which killed 20 and the burning down of schools in Diamer in 2018 — police officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province are now confident about their level of preparedness.
[We have also asked officials to] ensure compliance with regulations such as [installing] boundary walls, barbed wire and emergency exits at schools and holding regular mock exercises.
Talking to Gulf News, SSP (Senior Superintendent of Police) Operations, Javed Iqbal, said police in the province had launched several measures, “Including mobile alert systems, security cameras and armed security guards at all schools.”
“[We have also asked officials to] ensure compliance with regulations such as [installing] boundary walls, barbed wire and emergency exits at schools and holding regular mock exercises to check the preparedness of the force”.
The chilling attack prompted security reviews nationwide at educational institutions, but especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is in proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions wrecked by violence and counterinsurgency operations.
To counter threats, police have been conducting daily search and strike operations in different districts of the province, recovering caches of arms and ammunition.
Technology has proven to be the most useful tool for the police.
In 2014, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police launched a one-click SOS alert service for the sensitive and vulnerable organisations including all schools, colleges and universities to enable them to alert police about any emergency within seconds.
“One click on their phones automatically send alerts to up to 10 different stations with the exact location of the place under attack and shortest possible route to reach” Iqbal informed.
However, he complained about the limited human resources and modern equipment and transportation at the disposal of the department to deal with the threats effectively.
National Action Plan
Although Pakistan’s massive military action against the local and foreign militants was launched in North Waziristan in June 2014, the school attack proved to be the catalyst for the National Action Plan (NAP) by civil and military leadership to curb terrorism.
Under the NAP, the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted to convicted terrorists and military courts were set up.
Several points were agreed in the NAP deal, including action on banned outfits and choking their funding sources.
It also included counterterrorism steps such as strengthening the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), establishing a dedicated counterterrorism force, as well as regulation of religious seminaries, strict action on promotion hatred, extremism and sectarianism.
While substantial achievements have been made, the plan has been marred by slow implementation and weak political will.
Pakistan School Safety Framework
In a bid to make schools resilient, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) issued Pakistan School Safety Framework (PSSF) project in 2017 under which 1,500 teachers and 400,000 schoolchildren would be trained.
The framework offers policy guidance for school safety to assess potential risks and prepare for natural hazards (such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, and heatwaves) and man-made hazards (such as fires, bomb threats, hostage situations, terrorist attacks, building collapse and toxic hazards). In the wake of the terrorist attack, the framework urges to raise awareness among students, teachers and staff regarding spotting and reporting on strangers lurking within or around the school premises or taking pictures of the school premises or observing school schedules and routines. It urges schools to adopt safety measures such as “high walls, barbed wires on the walls, armed security guards at all entrances, security cameras and update list of emergency contact numbers.”
Government invests in improving school situation
In the wake of the APS massacre, the KP government announced a series of steps such as boundary walls over 2 metres high, barbed wire fences and installation of CCTV cameras.
Police have taken action on nearly 4,000 cases of non-compliance by schools that failed to tighten security measures, according to SSP Javed.
In a bid to boost security at school, the local government of KP claims to have invested over Rs36 billion in providing basic facilities at 73,418 schools in the province from 2013 to 2018. However, a government schoolteacher in Islamabad, Shahida Perveen, said “Security in schools has been relaxed and is not as strict as it was during the first few months after the Peshawar school attack.”
Missing border walls and priorities
While the safety situation in KP appears to be improving, other provinces seem to be lagging. Statistics prepared by Alif Ailan, an education advocacy organisation in Pakistan, indicate that 43 per cent of government schools are in poor condition and lack basic facilities such as furniture, bathrooms, boundary walls, electricity and running water.
Nearly 31,000 schools out of 150,000 surveyed all over the country did not have proper boundary wall, which is seen important due to security situation.
Education activist, Farhad Jarral, who has toured several schools in different provinces, told Gulf News that “Many primary level schools across country are boundary less and shelter less especially in Sindh and Balochistan” making them vulnerable. The situation has improved in private and state schools in cities but rural areas have poor schooling conditions, he adds.
Experts demand better infrastructure and security
Pakistan’s government does not collect specific data on the number of attacks on schools and universities. However, according to the Global Terrorism Database, there were 867 minor attacks on educational institutions in Pakistan from 2007 to 2015, resulting in 392 fatalities and 724 injuries.
867attacks on educational institutions in Pakistan from 2007 to 2015
Pakistan already faces major education challenges such as estimated 25 million children out of school, low enrolment rates of girls especially, lack of trained teachers, and poor physical infrastructure. But the threat of terrorism has further intensified the challenges. To make schools safer, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Pakistan government to develop a comprehensive policy for protecting students and fairly prosecute those responsible for attacks against students, teachers and schools.
To enhance security, Pakistan’s federal government should cooperate with provincial authorities to create a rapid response system. “Pakistan government should do all it can to deter future attacks on education, beginning with improving school security,” said Bede Sheppard, deputy children’s rights director at HRW. “Attacks on education not only harm the students and families directly affected, but also have an incalculable long-term negative effect on Pakistani society.”