In 2008, then Prime Minister David Thompson, in his first national Budget, announced the introduction of free bus rides for the island’s school children.
The move, largely seen as a public good, was designed to curb deviant behaviour among our boys and girls and to ensure they refocus on the more pertinent business of achieving a well-rounded education.
Nine years later, even without scientific evidence, the measure has largely failed to achieve its desired objective for more than one reason.
Last week, the issue of the transportation of the nation’s children surfaced as a key talking point after three secondary school students allegedly attacked a conductor onboard a public service vehicle (PSV) with a cutlass.
As usual, the shocking incident sparked public outrage, particularly among PSV operators and owners, with several venting their frustration about the “rowdy” behaviour exhibited by some students. Some went as far as to call for greater police presence in the terminals and even on the buses.
One operator, who requested anonymity, told this media house the behaviour of the students was getting out of hand.
“The school children give a lot of trouble on both the vans and Transport Board buses. They don’t know how to behave. When they catch the van and refuse to pay, you put them off, they wait until the van go long and throw big rocks through the window. That could injure anyone or even kill someone,” he said.
“They need to have an officer travelling in these buses and vans to keep the children in check. The bad behaviour is unacceptable now.”
No doubt, this charge is a damning indictment on all of us and none can feign surprise.
Yet, a wise caution oft shared by elderly folk reminds us that “chickens have come home to roost”.
Our PSV operators can hardly deny that they have helped to nurture some of the deviance among our youngsters.
It is on our PSVs that children are subjected to loud and explicitly vulgar music, the lyrics of which cannot and should not be mentioned in this newspaper.
As one honest operator admitted, some PSV operators encourage this bad behaviour.
He said: “Some of the drivers are to blame too. They are driving and playing music [and] from the time they [students] hear, ‘bup bup bup bup’ them gone wild. So the . . . [drivers] encourage them and they take it on and do foolishness,” he added.
And the problem does not stop with noise.
PSVs are famous for joy rides and encouraging students to tightly pack in for the drive. Some even order children to sit on each other.
Students are also onlookers when PSV operators openly flout the law, breaking road traffic rules and disregarding instructions from police officers.
Still, they cannot take all the blame.
While the ruling Democratic Labour Party introduced the laudable no-pay system for our children – and we are not discussing the financial burden at this stage – it failed to ensure that the Transport Board was well equipped to service our students in a timely, efficient manner. The fact is some of our students are forced to resort to using PSVs to get to school.
There can be no denying that, in recent months in particular, our public transport system has been dismal at best. Parents have resorted to call-in programmes to vent their frustration that a child who is at a bus stop from as early as 6:30 a.m. is still there at 10 a.m. And after school, some who arrived in the bus terminal at 3:15 p.m. cannot get a bus until 6:15. p.m. Unacceptable!
At the same time, the Transport Board has not escaped the deviance of some youngsters. Just today, two boys were charged after a stabbing incident on a school bus yesterday.
At the height of the debate, President of the Alliance of Owners of Public Transport (AOPT) Roy Raphael has proposed the use of private contractors to provide services, similar to what pertains in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.
While there may be some merit to his call and it could be worthwhile exploring, that alone is not the answer. Children can easily get up to mischief on private vehicles.
More has to be done to protect this future generation from itself on several fronts.
The Ministry of Education has a duty to deal with the issue of the transport of our children. The Ministry of Transport and Works has to find a realistic, workable plan to ensure our children are transported to their classrooms in a safe and timely manner, and PSV operators can do better by following the rules.
And, of course, there is the home. At risk of beating a dead horse, parents ought to care about what takes place during that short or not-so-short journey that their children unavoidably take every school day. Training your children about proper conduct, insisting on good behaviour is a must, lest we continue on the road to nowhere fast.