Safety in schools
Stabroek News
March 19, 2004

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The other side of the coin to the abuse of schoolchildren by certain teachers, particularly in the primary schools, is the attacks on teachers by their pupils, particularly in the secondary schools. The reports coming out of Lodge Community High School, for example, suggest a disciplinary situation which has been allowed to get out of control. These are the kinds of stories which one associates with inner city schools in the United States, or the socially and economically deprived urban areas of the UK.

The issue of classroom safety came to public notice last week after Mr Brian Balgobin, a teacher at Lodge, sustained a fractured skull when a 16-year-old hit him on the head with a piece of wood. The boy was a member of a gang which appears to have been terrorizing the school population, and had been responsible for attacks on both teachers and students even before this incident. Now that things have deteriorated to this point, the Ministry has responded by arranging for regular police patrols at the school to monitor pupils' behaviour.

Leaving aside this specific case for the moment, it has to be observed that the general conditions which produce this kind of behaviour have been around for a long time, and it would be surprising if Lodge Community High were the only secondary school in the country with disciplinary problems - although hopefully not to this extreme. The educational disciplinary environment is changing rapidly, and in the first instance reflects the changes in society at large.

Commentators have pointed out that the social fabric of our society has been under stress for some time, with not just the extended family being broken up by migration, but often the nuclear family as well. Even in two-parent families, both mother and father will often work in order to make ends meet, and will sometimes have no option but to leave their children unsupervised for lengthy periods, or if not, entrust their supervision to others when they are not home. In addition, the old tradition whereby every adult in a village or a street would act in loco parentis if a child was seen behaving badly, has long since been abandoned.

In a general sense, of course, this is also not a rule-governed society any more, and every day children see adults flouting the law in myriad ways - and the young imbibe the untaught lessons of their elders far faster than they do the ones which have been formally imparted. Concomitant with this, in the urban areas in particular, we have lost that sense of community which existed decades ago, and we no longer have consideration for our neighbours or the rights of others. If ever there was an egotistical age, this is it.

It is generally recognized that nowadays many children and parents do not have the respect for education which they once had. We are constantly bombarded with the images of the consumer society, and in this era of instant self-gratification, the route to acquiring the paraphenalia of the materialist world is not through the hard slog of the classroom; quick riches are accessed in more nefarious ways. It is significant, for example, that staff members at Lodge have reported that they have confiscated knives and ice-picks from pupils in the past.

And then there are the changes in the schools themselves. The Ministry of Education itself has previously lamented the shortage of male teachers in the classroom; the salaries are simply not attractive enough to entice them. In the secondary schools, however, there are disciplinary consequences to pay for this gender imbalance; macho teenage gangs of the variety with which Lodge Community appears afflicted, are difficult (although not necessarily impossible) to control in a female-dominated environment.

In addition, the teaching cohort in any given school tends to be younger and less experienced than was the case in the past, while society in general and parents in particular, simply do not accord teachers the respect they were once given. If parents do not show educators respect, and if they do not give them support, the children will pick up on that and operate accordingly.

It has also to be said that teenagers nowadays are rebellious at a younger age than in the past, and disruption in the classroom begins much earlier than it used to. They mature physically earlier too than was the case decades ago, and for those who believe that corporal punishment is the answer to all disciplinary problems, it should be pointed out that a headmistress cannot cane a strapping teenager, and beyond a certain point, neither can a headmaster - more especially in this day and age.

What is puzzling about the Lodge case is why the boy in question - or any member of the gang who was threatening the safety of teachers and pupils - was not expelled before this. Under the regulations currently in operation, children have to stay in school until they are fifteen. However, if their behaviour warrants it, they can be expelled from the formal education system from the age of fourteen years and six months. For obvious reasons, the Ministry of Education is the one to make that decision, and one wonders whether any of the delinquents had even been suspended before the attack on Mr Balgobin. Quite clearly, the existence of a gang cried out for suspensions in the first instance, and possible expulsion for subsequent threatening behaviour or assaults.

One teacher at Lodge told this newspaper that the Ministry needed to recognize that social work should be integrated into the school system; she is right, of course. But this is just one component of a new strategy which the Ministry should adopt, given the changes in society, and given the fact that the days of corporal punishment are numbered. The gang culture has clearly reached our schools; teachers, pupils and concerned parents await the Ministry's considered response to this development.