Is the Ministry of Education waiting for our own Columbine?

“We are still grappling with—and even clueless about—how to curb the high crime situation in the wider society. Any wonder the violent behaviour is mirrored in our schools?

“And let us not stick our head in the sand because these pupils live in the communities and maybe even repeatedly interface with the criminal elements that can influence their young minds.”

The following Letter to the Editor calling for immediate action on school violence was submitted to Wired868 by Mr Salaah Inniss of Santa Rosa Heights:

Photo: A tribute to the victims of the Columbine school massacre. (Copyright NBC)
Photo: A tribute to the victims of the Columbine school massacre.
(Copyright NBC)

What is going on in our nation’s schools? From primary to secondary, there is just an upsurge in lewd, violent and abhorrent behaviour by pupils, both girls and boys.

And that is the crux. Why can’t we come up with a viable solution to curb school violence by children? Because that’s who we are dealing with—children. School counselling, professionals in the field of child psychology and social workers must play an active part in our nation’s schools.

I am sure there is empirical data to show that there are citizens in our country with degrees in psychology. Why can’t the Education Ministry employ these professionals, if not on a full-time basis at least on a contractual arrangement whereby they make themselves available part-time.

Because the truth is that they can’t rely on the full-time teachers to be responsible for carrying out the sensitive tasks required.

School hazing, bullying and peer pressure are some of the ills plaguing our schools. Parent-teacher associations must also be actively involved in all schools, engaging the parents, propagating the right values in their message and ensuring parents get involved with their children.

Photo: Students, teachers, parents and well-wishers prepare to face the starting gun for Arima North Secondary's 5K against school violence and bullying. (Courtesy Arima North Secondary)
Photo: Students, teachers, parents and well-wishers prepare to face the starting gun for Arima North Secondary’s 5K against school violence and bullying.
(Courtesy Arima North Secondary)

In some schools, violence may be a minor issue while in others it may be a daily occurrence. Though the most extreme forms of violence are rare, I believe, the threat of all kinds of violence can keep students away from school, prevent them from going to after-school events, and eventually leave them in fear every day.

Surely this is not an environment conducive to learning and healthy development.

It is the responsibility of teachers to be aware of each child in their class so that they are able recommend to school counsellors after appraisal the child who is displaying signs of indiscipline and/or exhibiting potentially destructive or dangerous traits.

We are still grappling with – and even clueless about – how to curb the high crime situation in the wider society. Any wonder the violent behaviour is mirrored in our schools? And let us not stick our head in the sand because these pupils live in the communities and maybe even regularly interface with the criminal elements that can influence their young minds.

There must be effective communication to clearly address these violence issues and concerns. There must be a strong stand against school violence in any form and schools have the responsibility not to accept or tolerate violent behaviour.

Photo: Education Minister Anthony Garcia. (Courtesy News.Gov.TT)
Photo: Education Minister Anthony Garcia.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

It is imperative that we talk about what school violence is in a broad way and that we involve the student body, who should not be excluded from these discussions. In fact, we should make it a point of duty to sincerely listen to their ideas and concerns.

The time to start dealing with this problem is now. We should not wait to have a repeat of the April 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, USA, on our hands.

Over to you, Minister Garcia.

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  1. 1. Start holding parents responsible. If you have a dog and due to your negligence, poor training, poor feeding, poor boundaries it bites and maims someone, YOU the owner are liable. It should be no different with a child. If your child has not developed proper social skills due to your poor parenting or growing up in a violent household or you ignoring psychological, emotional issues the child has, and that child lashes out and hurts other people’s children, YOU the parent are liable.

    2. Schools especially those with a student population predominantly from at risk communities should have a policy of CONSTANT supervision. Most of these incidents happen in classrooms, playgrounds, halls etc. where adults are absent.

    3. Teachers need to be educated about the signs of abusive behavior in students. At the very first indication, that student needs to be removed to counseling and his/her domestic situation investigated. What is going on in the home? Does the child have some kind of mental or personality disorder?

    4. Teachers have to set the example by not being bullies themselves. Often many teachers single out students for ridicule and abuse and the other students realize it’s “open season” on that student.

    • I disagree with students from different financial backgrounds (at risk is usually another word for poor) being more or less predisposed to violence. That was not my experience as a student.
      Were I a dog owner, I think my responsibility is to restrain my dog so it can’t get off my property to cause harm.
      If you are socialising with my dog and it bites you, I don’t think I’m legally responsible at all.
      I appreciate the out of the box thinking but I don’t agree with points one and two.

    • I understand your disagreement, however regardless of your personal opinion, the evidence shows that children raised in at-risk environments (high crime, violence, gangs, drug use, single parent homes etc.) do indeed have higher risks of being violent. Evidence shows poor nutrition due to poverty also leads to more violence. Certain children in our society have special needs due to their environment and domestic situation and our educational and social services have to pick up the slack where their parents/community are lacking. We need to put emotionalism, shame and defensiveness aside here and deal with the facts in front of us.

      If I own a dog park or Doggie Daycare and someone brings a dog there that is dangerous due to poor training and owner negligence and it harms other dogs or staff, you can bet the owner is liable in claims court. You see such claims settled in favor of the victim all the time. Again, we have a defensiveness about holding parents accountable and this itself is part of the problem.

    • Based on your description of at risk, Jessica, how would you work out which children are and which aren’t? Because there is quite probably more of that criminal stuff in the posh parts of this country than the “ghettos”.
      Regardless of my personal opinion, you have evidence?
      Jack Warner engaged in criminal behavior and so did his sons while his wife was director of companies created to defraud.
      Does that mean you would have monitored them in school?
      Anil Robert’s dad was disbarred for misconduct. Anil was no better. Would you monitor his children?
      Would you consider Machel Montano’s children to be at risk or high risk due to his own violent tendencies?
      If yes to ALL of the above then we can talk. If not then I reject the notion.

    • Makes sense. And, by extension, we should hold that child’s grandparents liable too (or their estate). For, if not for the grandparents shortcomings, then the parents wouldn’t have been liable. Worse yet if the great grandparents are alive! Or God parents! They’re all liable by this logic…

    • Lasana Liburd Child psychologists who are well trained can easily tell if a child is manifesting anti-social behavior, sexually inappropriate behavior for their age and violent behavior or PTSD due to exposure to violence or abuse.

      I would recommend you looking into the UN Juvenile Justice Reform Project in the Caribbean and the research into what environmental and domestic factors play into this. I was privy to the project through my work, so I am basing my fact-based opinions on that. Poverty is REAL and has REAL impacts in terms of stress, nutrition, provision of support for health etc. Violence in one’s neighborhood and home is REAL and has REAL impacts. Unstable domestic life is REAL and has REAL impacts on child development. Even something as simple as not having any clean, green safe places to play, has a negative impact on development. It does not matter if it sounds harsh. It is the truth. And if a school is dealing with a school population comprised primary of kids facing these realities, it needs to offer additional support. Failure to do so is just being unrealistic.

      There seems to be a “class” chip on shoulder issue regarding this which is not helping. Yes there is violence, white collar crime and family breakdown in posh homes. However in poor homes, they don’t have the money to pay for therapists, extracurricular activities and other positive distractions that often help children of privileged backgrounds cope with dysfunction. There is no “second chances” due to the “respected family name” given to children of poor single mothers. So our focus has to be on those who are less privileged not those who are.

    • Emir Crowne Child Neglect Laws apply to the CURRENT primary guardians of the child, not the child’s grandparents unless they are the primary guardians of the child. Why is RESPONSIBILITY being seen as such a bad thing?

    • I don’t have a chip on my shoulder Jessica. Research is easily biased based on the thinking or the person conducting the research.
      I can’t say that is the case here. But I do know that the starting position that poor households are more violent has holes.

    • Glad to hear it! Because there is nothing to feel “ahow” about in recognizing the plain truth that emotional well-being is linked to physical well-being. Even without all the studies clearly showing the link between poverty and such issues, we have our cultural truth tellers, our calypsonians like Singing Sandra and Shadow who have already said it loud and clear.

      A growing teenage boy, blood hot with surging testosterone AND he hungry on top of that, AND feeling under pressure and frustration from his environment AND is gun shots and police sirens every night. AND a gauntlet of bad man and danger zones to walk past on his way to school. You expect him to go to school and be of sound mind and heart to learn peacefully? Or would he not need some extra special support to help him through? And if you have a school where most of them share this experience, will it not require some additional supervisory, remedial, counselling and disciplinary systems?

    • Somehow you seem to believe that everything you say is “truth” and everything anyone else says is what they “think”.
      How nice it must be to reside in such a place where you are the sole owner of “truth”. And Singing Sandra and Shadow are perfect examples of why I think you are wrong.
      You see they sing about one background of people which is the one they know. You then fill in the blanks about the groups they did NOT sing about and create the narrative that sits well with you.
      I went to school at CIC, which had children from many affluent corners of society, and I did A’s at Arima Senior Comprehensive, which was the opposite.
      And teachers beat students as a matter of course at CIC. Far, far more regularly than Arima. Also, although fights might have been more drastic in the poorer school, they were more frequent in the wealthier school.
      I remember one instance when the current Minister of Legal Affairs Stuart Young–who did karate and was a bully–had his head busted open by a student with a baton who retaliated to years of abuse and bullying. I was in form four along with the student who hit Young. Young was in form five.
      Naturally you would never have read about incidents like that in the newspaper because stuff like that doesn’t get into the paper.
      While you quote your “research”, I can talk from things I have seen as well as documented evidence from reports on both classes.
      And there is just as much violence towards spouses, towards children and between children in both necks of the wood.
      I’m sure I haven’t altered your view one bit. And I’m not trying to. I’m just putting on record my disagreement with your position.

    • Btw, as far as your belief that Singing Sandra and Shadow prove your point.
      1) That is a total misrepresentation of Poverty is Hell and you ought to listen to the song again.
      2) Voices from the Ghetto was actually attacked for misrepresenting life in the poorer areas of T&T and Pink Panther did a rebuttal in song the following year that you forgot to mention.
      3) Ironically although the song was delivered by Singing Sandra who hails from the poorer community, it was actually written by a quite upscale attorney and songwriter. Which might be why, although it struck a chord with you, it was rebuffed as nonsense by many of her fellow calypsonians.

    • Wait, are we arguing that children exposed to violence, poverty, drug abuse (i.e. at risk) are more likely to be more violent themselves? I thought this was well documented.

    • That being said, I don’t know how possible it is to constantly supervise anyone, at risk or not.

    • Fayola read again. What she is saying is that poorer children are more predisposed towards violence than upper class children.
      So Ms Jessica wants “CONSTANT supervision” for children in poor schools. But the others are fine. That is the disagreement.

    • Lasana Liburd Nothing in my comments communicates that. What I did communicate is that children from at risk environments (poverty, crime, gangs, dysfunctional homes, etc.) will have a greater risk of social, emotional and behavioral problems within a school environment.

    • Well my first question Jessica was how would you be able to tell which students come from more at-risk environments. I said that I know many people use “at risk” to mean poor and I’m not sure if you are doing same.
      If you were, then I reject that.
      Otherwise, then no problem. I agree that such children require more help.
      But how would you know which schools to target? Dysfunctionality isn’t a poor people thing either.

    • I think the term “at risk” is the sticking point here. Poverty is not the singular factor that should be considered.

    • I don’t know that poverty is a factor at all beyond if you want to ensure that they get proper meals and uniforms or want to give their parents some employment tips.

    • If poverty is coupled with being in high crime environments (which it sometimes not all times is) then it could play a part. Coupled with lack of access to resources to deal with other factors that could also contribute to being “at risk”. For instance if students are having trouble academically or have learning challenges they may not have access to extra help. That also contributes to being at risk.

    • So it would not be schools that would be labelled at risk, but students. So it would be impossible to constantly supervise these students. We should however try to have resources available to help them. And yeah food could be one.

    • So if you are wealthy but live in a high crime environment Fayola, then are you at risk?
      If so, then why mention poverty at all.
      Is a poor violent person more of a rogue than a rich violent person?

    • When people said “to be poor is a crime”, I bet they never thought they would be taken this literally.

    • You mentioned poverty as being a shorthand for at risk. I am saying it could be one of several factors.

    • If a rich person comes from a violent environment or any number of other factors they would also be considered at risk.

    • Are you saying focus on the poor person more Fayola? And if not, then why mention poverty at all?
      The inference seems to be violence is bad. Poor and violent is worse or requiring of more urgent attention.

    • Whoa. Who is inferring that? Poverty is mentioned because you brought it up and I am trying to say that it is a factor that makes someone at risk. Not saying anything about focusing more on the poor person. The intervention might have to address the poverty though.

    • How would you address poverty? And poverty is a factor towards what exactly? Crime?

    • Well let’s say that a student comes to school hungry and therefore distracted and therefore is having trouble in class (a factor researchers say could contribute to violence – peer reviewed research paper to follow), an intervention could be free meals

    • Fayola Bostic Exactly and poverty was certainly not the only factor I mentioned in my comments. It is however what Lasana has fixated on and reduced to some kind of assumed attack on poor people, which was not the intent at all. I am still trying to find any substantive reasons for this objection but it seems purely emotional not evidence based.

      The anectodal examples of bullies and violent people who came from wealthy homes does not change the fact about which demographic is populating our juvenile homes and prisons. It isn’t the Brad Boyces and St. Mary’s College alums who were assholes as teens.

      There is no safety net or strings to pull with the judge for the little black boy from the ghetto who beats up his classmate. The backgrounds of all the youths in the Juvenile System who got there because of violence, fighting in school (which is what the study was focused on) isn’t Blue Range and Palmiste. So why not focus on the people the system fails? Which is poor people, not wealthy people.

    • I love how my response is emotive and not evidence based Jessica. So if I am emotive then that must make yours evidence based right?
      It is a way to demean a counter point and justify to yourself why you ought not to listen to it in the first place.
      Go guns yes. Like I said, I put in record that any suggestion that poverty is a gateway to undesirable behavior is something I reject as nonsense perpetrated from a position of ignorance.
      Of course, I’m all for helping provide what they might lack in terms of nutrition and so on. But I will not consider them to be potential violent offenders. Such thinking is dangerous and shallow.

    • Lasana Liburd I believed I answered that question about how do you know which students come from at risk environments. If you notice my response was about behavior as the litmus test. If a student is observed having anti-social behavior, inappropriately sexualized behavior, total disrespect for authority all of these are warning flags.

      Also yes, there are schools located in areas where they get a lot of kids from communities that are at risk communities. These schools have to operate in the same manner as schools in the USA that get students primarily from the inner city. Several of these schools were able to turn things around and increase graduation rates, decrease violence. There is a good example of a Chicago school catering to inner city youth that did it. Again, extra supervision was one of the ways. Students always had teachers or prefects present. There would always be someone there into intervene, resolve conflicts, stop conflicts before they started. The staff knew the students were coming from very challenging domestic situations, so they provided extra emotional support, counselling, help with homework etc. There are schools even providing laundry and extra meals because they know some students aren’t getting that support at home. They knew students were coping with stress from violence in their communities, they had programs to help students deal with this.

      There is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting that we have certain communities in T&T whose young people need this kind of help at school.

    • Most people in jail are poor. Therefore most rich people are honest? Right Jessica?

    • Lasana Liburd That is a reductive and inaccurate conclusion that I was never making. Being honest about the challenges people who are poor face has nothing to do with deeming them lesser than or inherently immoral.

    • There seems to be a lot of shame in admitting that certain communities need help with their youth and I have no time for it.

    • What’s happening? ? I think Lasana needs it on the record that nobody is saying poverty predisposes you to violence. I am willing to say that without conceding any of the points mentioned above.

    • Exactly! Exposure to violence, emotional neglect, poor nutrition and lack of proper socialization is what predisposes you to violence.

    • Thank you Fayola. I will take that and move on.
      “Certain communities need help with their youth”… I will give that a wide berth and chalk it down to ignorance.

    • You disagree that certain communities need help with their youth? Really? So we just carry on and provide no after school programmes, no art and sport programmes, no counselling and gang intervention programmes in these communities. That is all just ignorance. Their young people are doing just fine!

    • If their schools don’t have art and sport programs and they don’t have access to them, then you provide them. There is no shame in that.
      But you are talking about dealing with violence and you are pointing primarily towards one class of people. There are multiple Freudian slips in there.
      Give them programs. Of course.
      But don’t treat them as potential criminals.
      That’s my stance.

    • “But you are talking about dealing with violence and you are pointing primarily towards one class of people.”

      Based on evidence and record of suspensions, expulsions and juvenile sentencing based on violence in schools and the predominant backgrounds of those, yes we HAVE to look at socio-economic factors in addition to all the other factors I mentioned.

      Regardless of your personal feelings which I do understand and agree with, about not demonizing the poor, which I was not doing, the mountains and mountains of research on the link between poverty and violence is overwhelming. Poverty is an injustice and violence due to desperation, deprivation, hunger, hopelessness, frustration is the result. A young person living in such an environment is going to have certain challenges to their emotional well-being that need to be considered.

      Are schools on the South Side of Chicago that have special measures in place treating their students like potential criminals or addressing the reality of the situation that poverty presents?

    • What you ought to ask yourself is WHY students in juvenile detentions are more from one class and not the other.
      And you might be surprised that it has nothing to do with them being more or less violent.
      Just like the fact that there are more poor people than rich people in jail ought not to make you feel that poor people are more likely to become criminals than rich people.
      I think things like that deserve better analysis than I see being given to it.
      Like a car, the way research is used depends on the responsibility and vision of the person behind the wheel.
      Or am I being emotive again? ??

    • Lasana Liburd I already acknowledged in my comments that more leeway and slack is given to the bully or violent person from the wealthy family. I specifically said this was yet another reason to focus on those who are not privileged because the system will not be kind to them.

    • So if there is no bail outs for the poor black boy and no bribe or strings for his parents to pull, isn’t it all the more reason to ensure he does not fall into the system in the first place, because once he does, he won’t get out so easily.

    • Jessica I don’t mind that you try to keep poor people out of trouble. I’d rather you look on the positive side and go in trying to make up for their disadvantage on the highway of achievement as opposed to being afraid of them being criminals. Might seem like tomatoes and tomatos. But I think that mindset DOES make a difference.
      But while I am happy with you helping that way, I’d be trying to change the system that does not give a fair deal to all.
      And I believe that system to be bad for ALL and not just the poor.
      So, yes, I am happy for you to help in that way once we are not criminalizing poverty. And I’d be aiming at the system itself.

    • We can do both. Changing the system to be fair as well as ensuring those most at risk of falling into the system, have less chance of doing so 😉

    • I agree Jessica. And it usually is best to work both angles at the same time.
      Trying to do one without the other can lead to problems.

    • That is the approach being taken by inner city communties who realize their youth are being used as fodder for the Prison Industrial Complex in the USA. Studies show the school system is much less forgiving to black and brown students when they “act up” and quicker puts them in Juvenile Detention than white and/or wealther peers who act up. It will take a lot of work to change that. But in the meanwhile, all kinds of innovative methods are being used to address the special needs of kids who come from backgrounds marked by all the stresses of poverty, including violence. And there is actually a form of PTSD that comes from growing up in a violent community that negatively affects learning and socialization.

  2. What is the role of the Judiciary in all of this?

  3. Garcia: :”What you call massacre, I call rough play. Anyone who murders teachers and schoolmates WILL receive NINE days suspension. I am very serious about that”

    • Jesus, Truetalk! Remember that what is joke for the schoolboy is death for the crapaud. Maybe daiz the same crapaud what go smoke we pipe if your “prediction” come true.

      I’ll pray for the country and the Minister.

      And for you!

  4. It may come to that . The bullied are going to strike back at some point with disastrous effects . There needs to be a high visability of teachers/deans/ school safety officers etc during the break times .

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