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Pupil’s death in school fire stirs debate on safety in learning institutions

The death this week of a primary school pupil who was injured and then died when fire broke out in a dormitory has once stirred debate on safety in schools and who is responsible.

Even with the severe brain injury that Fiona Wanjiru had sustained after a fire broke out in her school dormitory and despite the presence of teachers at Nairobi West Hospital where she had been taken to, she could not be admitted until her mother arrived.

The hospital needed a cash deposit and Fiona’s school, GSU Primary School in Nairobi’s Ruaraka, could not commit to pay, if that was all they could do to ensure the unconscious girl got speedy treatment after inhaling poisonous smoke from burning mattresses.

Fiona’s mother, Ms Hellen Wambui, travelled from her home in Ruai, about 25 kilometres away from the hospital, and respond to a call from a teacher.

She says it took her about 30 minutes to reach there, and even longer to get deposit money before the 11-year-old Standard Six girl could receive more than the first aid the hospital had administered.

“Valuable time may have been lost while the hospital was waiting for me to make it to the hospital and raise Sh100,000 at 1 am,” Ms Wambui, a single mother, wrote in a bitter letter to the school’s head teacher 23 days later.

Fiona was eventually admitted in Nairobi West Hospital’s intensive care where she stayed for several weeks and then transferred to Kenyatta National Hospital where she died last Sunday night.

BIG DREAMS

She was buried on Saturday in Naro Moru, Nyeri County, ending the journey of a voracious reader who had dreams so big and a mind so bright that in January this year, she inspired her extended family to offer to pool resources and sponsor her fees in the government-owned day and boarding school where a Standard Six boarder pays Sh28,122 in the first term.

Fiona’s case raises questions on what should happen when accidents happen to learners at school.

While primary school heads say they are not given enough money beyond paying for first-line care, National Association of Parents chairman Nicholas Maiyo holds that a portion of the money that schools receive for free primary education should go towards medical care.

“The school should make arrangement for that payment,” Mr Maiyo told the Sunday Nation.

But Mr Shem Ndolo, the chairman of the Kenya Primary School Heads Association, thinks otherwise. Asked if Fiona’s family is justified in demanding that GSU Primary School chips into Fiona’s medical bill, which is well over Sh2 million, was terse in his response.

“They all know that the government does not insure the learners, neither do they do it to the schools,” he stated in a text.

Heads association Kisumu branch chairman Charles Odida said: “What boarding schools charge as medical is very little. The school will only cater for first-line treatment. If it continues, usually the parents are called to take their children to hospital,” said Mr Odida.

NEGLIGENCE

The GSU Primary School head teacher, Mr Benjamin Oloo, has not responded to our queries on whether the school had an obligation to pay and by Saturday he had also not responded to Ms Wambui’s March 24 letter.

Fiona’s family is pushing for the school to bear responsibility for the apparent negligence they saw when they visited her dormitory to pick up her belongings.

Her elder sister Jeanette Wanyeki, an old girl of the school, noted that there were no firefighting equipment despite the fact that a fire had broken out at one dormitory a few years ago.

“Our worry is that there is nothing they did, not even placing smoke detectors or fire extinguishers. There is nothing in that dorm that could secure the children in case of fire. Moreover, they never told us the cause of the fire,” said Jeanette, 21, a student at Kenyatta University.

According to regulations were gazetted in 2015 by Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi, a school’s board must ensure that “regular fire disaster response drills are conducted and that fire extinguishers and alarms are available and functional”.

Mr Maiyo, calls for a comprehensive framework on the safety of children in school.

“The government to make a good policy on the welfare of the children, because as parents we feel that the safety of our children is in the hands of the school management,” he said.