February 21, 2007
Last week's assault by a cutlass-wielding criminal who injured a student while angrily pursuing a teacher at the St Gabriel's Primary School in Oronoque Street, Queenstown, has highlighted the threat to safety in this country's schools.
Although policemen from the Alberttown Police station, two blocks away in Albert Street, responded promptly and there were no further physical injuries, psychological damage might have been done to both children and teachers who were scared out of their wits and stayed away from school for the rest of the week. The Ministry of Education, less concerned about the altercation or the disruption to education than about the likely effect on its reputation, could advise teachers only that they should not speak to the media about the incident.
Silence will not solve the problem. The Ministry of Education is well aware that discipline in the country's schools has been deteriorating over the last decade. This is not just a question of everyday juvenile delinquency; there is a thick dossier of incidents of serious physical assault and even murder.
Over two years ago, then Minister of Education Dr. Henry Jeffrey acknowledged the problem of school violence and declared that the Ministry was "addressing the issue." Earlier that year, the Ministry airily announced that it had "taken note" of an incident in which a young teacher at the Lodge Community High School had to be admitted to hospital with a suspected fractured skull after he was struck by a third-form student whom he had warned about some misdemeanour. At the Queenstown Community High school, a block away from St Gabriel's, a 14-year-old student died after a fellow student hit him on the head with a stone.
Later that year, a 16-year-old female St George's Secondary School student admitted slapping and cuffing her schoolteacher. The following year, in November 2005, a 16-year-old female student of Richard Ishmael Secondary School was arraigned in court for the fatal stabbing of a woman inside the school's compound. Only in May last year, a 12-year-old schoolboy at the College of Comprehensive Education at La Grange died after being struck on the head by another student.
The Caribbean Regional Consultation on the UN Secretary General's study on Violence against Children in 2005 also found that violence was linked to the increased incidence of gangs and gang-related criminal activity. In the Caribbean, trafficking of illicit drugs within schools by gangs had spawned "inter-gang rivalry and its concomitant animosities which tend to be more violent as compared to regular student fights."
This is also true for some schools in Guyana which not only have insufficient teachers but are also without school-counsellors or social-workers and are often without daytime security. Teacher training, also, can hardly be expected to equip teachers to respond to the extreme forms of school violence which are now evident.
In fairness to the Ministry, some steps have been taken in the right direction. The Ministry of Education, Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security and the Ministry of Finance's Bureau of Statistics signed an agreement with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in 2004 for the establishment of a Child Protection Monitoring Database. Its purpose was to address concerns about the increasing reports of children being victims and perpetrators of violence in Guyana and to ensure that children who are victims of abuse get necessary protection.
Last week's St Gabriel's incident should remind the new Minister of Education that much more than this needs to be done to protect our teachers and students and to make our schools safer.