Leeds, England, 2014 –– schoolteacher Ann Maguire is stabbed to death by a 15-year-old boy at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Osmondthorpe. Statistics in Britain show that two years earlier, 17,520 students were permanently removed from schools for physically assaulting teachers.
In 2013 the Daily Mail reported that 40 primary school pupils were expelled every day across the country for attacks on staff. The paper reported that violence was so endemic that expulsions for such attacks were more prevalent in primary schools than secondary.
Official statistics, the Mail noted, indicated that 8,030 pupils aged five to 11 had received such punishment between 2010 and 2011, which represented a 15 per cent rise over a four-year period. Teachers’ unions, however, were of the opinion that overall figures could be grossly underestimated because staff were often discouraged from reporting assaults. Additionally, police authorities did not always record such incidents as crimes, and often tried to deal with them in a non-prosecutorial manner.
One union leader noted: “Where violence occurs, schools should operate a zero tolerance approach, sending a strong message to pupils and local communities that such behaviour has no place in schools and will not be tolerated.”
No mention was made of “sending a strong message” to parents and guardians, but their role in such a scenario needs little expounding.
During the school year 2011-2012 in the United States, nine per cent of schoolteachers reported being threatened with violence by a student from their school. During the same period five per cent reported being actually attacked.
A survey carried out in the United States in 2014 identified significant instances where teachers were the victims of obscene remarks, obscene gestures, verbal threats and intimidation. They were also subjected to the theft of their property, damage to personal property, had objects thrown at them, were physically attacked, and had weapons pulled on them. In most instances, the main defaulters were males, but females still represented a significant percentage of louts.
But what does all of this have to do with Barbados? After all, this is not the United States where access to firearms is as easy as sourcing pudding and souse on Saturdays on these shores. We have neither mass shootings at our schools, university, polytechnic or community college. However, we are very much mired in the practice of keeping school-related violence against teachers under the carpet and under-reporting and under-prosecuting people involved in such occurrences.
But violence against teachers in Barbados is not only very real, if we are to believe our teachers’ unions and our own eyes and ears; it is also quite prevalent. In January, 2015, president of the Barbados Secondary Teachers Union, Mary Redman, stated that violence against teachers was a major problem in schools. Looking at the problem from an industrial relations perspective, she stated it was one of the issues that fundamentally affected the terms and conditions of service of union members.
She proceeded also to give examples of teachers being subjected to assault and battery by their charges. Earlier this week, Miss Redman was on the subject again, relating an incident where a teacher had been attacked on three occasions and his vehicle vandalized.
Last year, president of the Barbados Union of Teachers, Pedro Shepherd, again joined the fray on the issue of violence against teachers and the intimidation to which some were subjected by students who brought weapons on to school properties. Both Mr Shepherd and Miss Redman described the escalation of violence in some schools as rendering those institutions “war zones”.
But that is the problem. How do we deal with it?
Both Mr Shepherd and Miss Redman have been adamant that the relevant authorities are not doing enough to arrest the situation. They have also been unswerving advocates of corporal punishment as one method of dealing with such deviant and violent behaviour in our schools. But taken into consideration that corporal punishment has been around perhaps even longer than schools, it seems reasonable to assume that other forms of intervention will be required.
We have had student-related violence at schools that has resulted in death. Thankfully, such occurrences have been the exception, rather than the rule. But as we attempt to deal with the situation, Government, teachers, their various representatives, and law officials, must be on the same page in tackling the issue. It is a social problem that should not be politicized to an adversarial degree where the objective is lost in cross-table bickering and asinine grandstanding.
To those who support corporal punishment, we add the need for physical checks of persons and bags at schools as specific case scenarios merit; increased counselling and mediation processes that involve parents, students and law authorities; properly trained security personnel at schools; and an expanded role for the Juvenile Liaison Scheme and the Barbados Youth Service.
Most importantly, the message must manifestly go forward that there is a zero tolerance policy –– not mere sloganeering –– on violence in schools, whether perpetrated by student on student, or specifically student on teachers.
We do not think the horse has bolted from the stable yet on this situation.
But the stable door is palpably gaping.