Noble: Will they pick up a book or a gun? Why school violence was long in coming

In this week’s episode of school violence, we saw a lack of respect for school authorities writ large. The accustomed respect for the office of the Principal was missing. The core incivility of life in our society has been demonstrated for all to witness.

The National Parent-Teacher Association President opined: “It comes as a shock for a lot of people when these videos come out, but this is what is occurring within our schools.”

The Tranquillity Secondary principal (top, centre) is temporarily floored during a fight between students.

Frankly, Mr Kevin David, the shock has long worn off. What we now know is that a principal’s involvement made no difference.

Speaking about the brawl, the Education Minister said: “The law allows for such students to be removed from the system to restore an atmosphere of safety and security to the learning environment.

“[…] Our education system will not be held to ransom by students who […] continue to disrupt our schools.”

She was unclear about which students would be removed. Was it only the fighters? Is any responsibility placed on those students who encouraged or failed to stop the fight?

Minister of Education Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2022)

Our society cannot hold together without communal consent and participation. This sense of community is what the better-performing schools understand and nurture.

Our nation suffers from a lack of cooperation and collective identity, so it is easy to break down and criticise but never to help. We already know that 17 schools have a police presence to control our children. Do we believe that a police presence in every troubled school is a great solution?

School violence was long in coming, and we may hasten to blame the current Ministry officials—but it has been a cumulative, society-wide effort.

We broke the communal bond in the mad scramble to make money and achieve status. We embraced the neo-liberal stance in the post-1970s, and our abiding credo was ‘The devil takes the hindmost!’

Broker Gordon Gekko in the classic film Wall Street.

Not even 1990 stopped our greed and the studied ignoring of the pain felt by the less fortunate. Like Gordon Gekko, in the 1987 movie Wall Street, we believed that “Greed—for lack of a better word—is good.”

In more recent times, our leaders have stooped to shameless vitriol. Facebook also gave licence to spew abuse and disrespect our national institutions and anyone who disagreed with us.

We brought our children to the front lines of protest and increased the badgering of our primary school teachers. What did we expect would be the harvest? How will we bottle the genie that is now out?

Another expression of our greed is the casual disrespect to the marginalised. The contempt was immortalised in the lack of action accompanying the test results of 3,000 children in early childhood and primary schools given to Dr Tim Gopeesingh, then education minister.

That study found that 25 per cent of the children required little external assistance to achieve educational success, 25 per cent could achieve success with some degree of external neurodevelopment assistance, and the other 50 per cent needed significantly more help.

Ten years after, some of the disrupters are likely those children.

In April 2016, Dr Lackram Bodoe warned Parliament about the ADHD problems affecting 12% of our young children and suggested that another 15% had other developmental challenges. We ignored him.

Our national leaders knew. We knew. Both political parties stand guilty of turning their backs on our young, needy children. We fail to link our crime situation to this deliberate neglect—the gestation period gets shorter and shorter with our young being recruited into nefarious actions at increasingly younger ages.

A young man shows off his firearm.
(Copyright We-heart)

We are also witnessing the induction of young women into gangs. We could shut our eyes and believe that our girl students fighting is an oddity. It is not. Women involved in criminal activity is not new.

What do we expect from the cascading stories of school violence? What does this mean for our future when we continue to close our eyes?

Michelle Obama, in her book, “Becoming” said: “Now that I’m an adult, I realise that kids know at a very young age when they’re being devalued when adults aren’t invested enough to help them learn. Their anger over it can manifest itself as unruliness.

“It’s hardly their fault. They aren’t ‘bad kids’. They’re just trying to survive bad circumstances.”

Two female students fight in school during the pandemic.

Covid came, and the less-well-off children had no devices—by one estimate, that number was 35,000 or 17% of all students. But we moved on.

The 2022 SEA results showed that more than half of our students scored less than 50% in the examinations—tragically, three thousand students are placed into secondary schools.

What do we expect if they cannot pick up a book and understand what they see? We selfishly short-circuit our national chances of success. We are converting our schools into dens of indiscipline and our teachers into babysitters.

Simultaneously, we have subverted our school administrations by emphasising certification over experience. We have also saddled our principals with bureaucracy (Brown and Conrad, 2007).

Belmont school boys smile for the cameras during a visit from two-time Olympian Jehue Gordon in 2010.

Men have been shunning the teaching profession, and we are trying to use women to corral adolescents with hyperactive impulses. That will not work—women are more vulnerable in such aggressive situations (Harris and Miller, 2000).

Educational contexts are emotionally demanding, yet ours are starved of resources. Misbehaviour and aggressive acts by students possibly form the most stressful part of teaching.

Many parents of these disadvantaged children cannot come to the schools since they are ‘essential’ workers—they cannot get time off, nor can they afford to take it. With little or no spotlight, we are turning our society into a caste-structured one.

Online education supposedly exacerbated societal inequalities.

Isabel Wilkerson said: “As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theatre, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.

“It is about resources — which groups are seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.”

The anti-social behaviours witnessed mirror what the students experience elsewhere. Deviant peers encourage deviant behaviours, underlining the significance of social networks to the violence problem.

The more there is an acceptance of anti-social behaviour, the more likely the youths will participate. Engaging in violent behaviour is a means of enhancing status, and students who bully befriend each other.

A primary school fight in Kuwait.
(via Kuwait Times)

Microsystems of peers (socialisation during childhood and adolescence), the family (abuse or neglect, lack of parental monitoring), the school (school climate, teacher attitudes), and the community (exposure to violence) set the stage for violence—and its most substantial risk factors—to develop (Espelage, 2014).

Many programmes addressing school violence fail because they are one or two-day affairs. They should have sufficient duration to induce a meaningful cognitive and behavioural change.

Therefore, interventions must focus on emotional control, conflict management, stress coping, and social skills training. These mediations should be holistic and inclusive of peers, teachers, school administrators, parents, and the broader neighbourhood.

Young children enjoy a visit from soldiers under the auspices of President Paula-Mae Weekes.
(Copyright Office of the President)

A social development model that targets youths’ attitudes, behaviours, and social-emotional skill development (eg, interpersonal problem-solving skills) and involves teacher training in classroom instruction and management (eg, proactive classroom management and cooperative learning) is required.

This programme must include a parenting training component (eg, behaviour management and academic support skills). This is a hard slog, but we have no other feasible route.

This mediation approach contradicts our knee-jerk reaction to call in the police, which is rooted in the simple assumption that as penalties for misbehaviour increase, misbehaviour should decrease. But no studies show that the no-tolerance approach works in stemming school violence.

Malick Secondary captain Krystean Morris (second from right) is mobbed by supporters after his team’s 2-0 Big 5 win over Speyside High at Serpentine Road on 30 October 2018.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-Images/Wired868)

Hirschfield (2018) asserts that many studies indicate that merely stepping up punishments does not decrease the incidence of violence.

What do we wish for our young, books or guns? Our answer will determine our national future. Doing nothing will trigger a future societal breakdown.

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One comment

  1. Did we have these problems back when school kids were disciplined with the stick? No.
    Of course there was the occasional fight but it wasn’t that often and the overall discipline was tremendous. And the crime rate in TT was by far less. You see people tend to forget that these kids are destined to become the next generation of adults. It was a mistake to get rid of corporal punishment in schools. The TT society functions, but it only functions as long as somebody is there to enforce rules, the moment you take that away people do whatever the hell they want to do.

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