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Fatal stampede exposes excessive rural school mergers

By Hu Tao, Yuan Zhiguo and Xu Haibo (Xinhua)

10:02, March 01, 2013

WUHAN, Feb. 28 (Xinhua) -- Xu Zhaoyi now trembles with fear when entering his school's dormitory, as he bore witness to a fatal stampede that occurred at the school on Wednesday in central China's Hubei Province.

"Five students were lying on the ground after the stampede. Teachers were trying to revive them," said Xu, a 9-year-old student at the Qinji Primary School in Xueji Township in the city of Laohekou.

The fatal school stampede occurred after hundreds of pupils were crowded at the only gate of the school's temporary dorm.

Some have blamed the incident on excessive rural school mergers that have left rural students with little choice but to attend crowded schools far from their homes.

The incident occurred one day after the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that the excessive merging of schools in rural areas had been halted.

"My son cried and begged me to take him home. He was extremely scared to board at the dormitory any longer after witnessing the incident," said Du Zhen, father of a 10-year-old student at the school.

The accident occurred around 6:15 a.m. Wednesday, when two teachers who were on duty failed to open the gate at 6:00 a.m. as scheduled. When it did open, a large crowd of students that had gathered around the gate rushed in simultaneously, triggering a stampede.

There is only one entrance on the ground floor of the school's temporary dormitory, which used to be a four-story classroom.

"As a mother myself, I was extremely sorrowful for the school's tragedy. I wish to express my deepest apologies for the deaths of the four students," said Guo Fangfang, deputy mayor of Laohekou.

The city government blamed the incident on dereliction of duty and removed eight officials from their posts, including the director of the municipal education bureau.

The number of rural primary school's in the city's jurisdiction has dropped from 139 to 39 over the last decade, a trend similar to that seen in other rural areas.

With no school buses, some rural students have to walk or ride bicycles for several kilometers to school.

"My daughter kept crying when I would send her to school every week. I felt bad sending such a young child to board at school," said Sun Zongta, the father of a girl who died in the stampede.

Sun's 8-year-old daughter used to study at a primary school in their village, but had to transfer to the Qinji Primary School after their village school was closed.

A decreasing number of school-age children has led many local governments to merge rural schools, forcing some students to take long journeys to attend school or board in the schools' dormitories.

Although the MOE has halted the mergers, the mergers' effects are still creating problems for local education authorities and schools, said Tu Yanguo, director of the College of Education of Central China Normal University.

Excessive mergers have had a negative effect on teaching quality, school safety and accommodation for students, Tu said.

The MOE has stated that students receiving compulsory education should be required to walk no more than 40 minutes to reach the nearest school.

The stampede has alerted local authorities to the importance of ensuring students' safety and providing more school buses, Tu said.

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