How should Indian schools respond to teenage sexual expression? Therapists and educationists have different answers to this question, but they are certain shaming students into “confessing” their homosexuality is not the way.

But on March 8, Kolkata’s Kamala Girls’ School forced 12 students to do just that. They were made to “confess” in writing that they were lesbian and had indulged in “indecent behaviour” that included holding hands, hugging and putting hands in each other’s blouses and skirts. The incident made national headlines on Wednesday after outraged parents accused the school of coercing their 13-year-old daughters to write the “confession notes”.

The school’s administration denied forcing any student to write such a note. But acting headmistress Sikha Sarkar reportedly claimed that the action was meant to “bring the girls on the right course” after fellow students complained that they had indulged in “such behaviour”. On Friday, when Education Minister Partha Chatterjee ordered an inquiry into the incident, he, too, reportedly claimed that lesbianism was “against the ethos” of West Bengal.

What exactly happened at Kamala Girls’ School remains unclear, but it has sparked a debate about how schools should or should not handle adolescent sexual expression. It is a complicated question to debate in a country where talking about sexuality generally, and homosexuality particularly, is largely taboo.

A balancing act

“Even heterosexuality is not easy for teachers to discuss with pre-adolescents and adolescents, so dealing with homosexuality is a real stretch,” said Kavita Anand, an educationist and director of Adhyayan Quality Education Services, which works with over 400 schools across India. “Parents, teachers and school authorities urgently need guidance and practise on how to hold such conversations. There isn’t anywhere that students officially go to find out what they want to know about human sexuality.”

In this context, many educationists sympathise with the difficult position that schools are always in when it comes to sex education and behaviour that may be beyond what is socially acceptable. Even if schools want to have more open conversations with teenagers about sexuality, they have to ensure their focus is on discipline and have to balance the differing moral expectations of parents. “Two parents can’t agree on what is best for children, and schools have to deal with thousands of parents,” said Lina Ashar, founder of the Kangaroo Kids and Billabong High International School chain. “We are fortunate that we are handling a certain cosmopolitan, well-travelled profile of parents, but many times parents feel it is not the school’s place to talk about sex and sexuality.”

Gender rights activist Harish Sadani points out that in the absence of comprehensive sex education in most schools, children grow up without having crucial conversations about gender identity, sexual orientation and non-heteronormative behaviour. “In the absence of any discussion of healthy sexuality anywhere, there are no safe spaces where teenage boys and girls could talk about their dilemmas, confusions and anxieties related to gender identity, orientation and expression,” said Sadani, founder of Men Against Violence and Abuse, a social organisation that conducts gender sensitivity workshops with adolescent boys and young men.

‘Need open conversations’

At Kamala Girls’ School, parents were offended by the suggestion that their daughters had behaved in a non-heteronormative manner. Whether they had indeed expressed homosexual curiosity, the response by both the school authorities and the parents reinforced the cultural stigmas about homosexuality. The resultant publicity in the media could be even more damaging to the young adolescents, says Delhi-based psychiatrist Avdesh Sharma.

If only for the sake of maintaining decorum in the school, Sharma believes the authorities could have simply spoken to the students and their parents before asking the girls to write the alleged confessions. “Ideally, schools need to have open conversations about sexuality, safe sex and consent,” said Sharma, founder of the online mental health platform Mind Specialists. “A lot of experimentation goes on in schools because the kind of sex education given right now is inadequate and children get information from sources that may not be reliable.”

According to Sadani, schools need to encourage “guided conversations” with teenage students about topics such as infatuation, attraction and love. “Only when children get exposed to viewing gender as a full spectrum – with different gender identities, sexual orientations and expressions – we will be able to inculcate a healthy attitude towards sexuality,” he said.

While this ideal scenario may not be implemented in most Indian schools anytime soon, schools can at least focus their response to adolescent sexual expression on issues such as consent and bullying, rather than sexual policing.

Sharma notes that in the Kolkata school case, the authorities have alleged that other students had complained about being inappropriately touched by the 12 girls who were punished. “If the case is about behaviour that is causing harm to other students, then irrespective of whether the behaviour is homosexual or heterosexual, the students need to be explained about consent,” he said. “It would be like taking action against someone who is bulling another person.”

The other kind of bullying is when students are stigmatised for their sexual expression in the first place, particularly homosexual expression. “Perhaps the school needs to take out the angle of sexuality and address the bullying,” said Anand.