The last instance of school violence has revealed a number of important lessons to us as a nation. Unfortunately, the angle of engagement of the Minister responsible for guiding the national discourse on violence in schools is a completely diversionary and emotive one.
There is no reason for us to restart a national discourse on metal detectors. This area has been completely ventilated since the beginning of the 2000s when I was teaching in the secondary school system. It is also not accurate to say as a blanket statement that the majority of our school age population does not go to school armed. When I say it is not accurate, perhaps the better way to express it is that the statement requires statistical evidence without which, it is reckless to hold such a definitive position on what is the majority.
When I was about 11 weeks pregnant with my second son, I narrowly escaped a butcher’s cleaver which one student threw at another. The cleaver was so sharp that it landed in a brick just millimetres in front my face and took a clean chunk out. The child who brought the cleaver to school was being bullied by others and his bag had other implements in it which marked his frustration, including a hammer and a box of matches. He could not really explain what his plan was that day, he just knew he wanted the bullying to cease.
Why do I relay this experience? I think it bears out the first lesson for us as a nation. Teachers have been in the firing line in Barbados or expected to physically put themselves at danger to intercede in violent outbursts for at least 17 years if you use this personal experience as a marker. It is unreasonable for anybody in direct responsibility for keeping teachers protected to just make a case about a course of action based on the student perspective.
Most workplaces have beefed up security checks and installed various modes of technology to be able to offer a safe working environment for employees. Schools are not just a learning and play environment for children, it is also the workplace for teachers, ancillary staff and support staff. Any forward action must bear that in mind and from that narrow view, the case for any technology that can make schools safer has been made.
I am not principally opposed to considering the point which was poorly made in the national discourse but which has some weight. I think the intention was to indicate that our school system will not be taken hostage by what can be comparatively seen as a few and isolated instances of violence. Immediately, we have the problem we had a few paragraphs above. We have not done the level of research that clearly lets us know how pervasive these instances of violence are and if they can be still classified as one off occurrences or if we are into a more patterned and pervasive type of situation.
Access to social media makes it seem like there is a heightened instance of violent behaviour in our school population but our collective experience tells us that we have all seen a stabbing or two and more than a few intense fights as children ourselves, at least people of my vintage anyway. If there is one difference, perhaps these instances took place more around school than in it. Students with grouses would wait until they had been dismissed or had boarded buses or vans.
That caveat is now off and within the compound seems just as good as anywhere else. That is the second reason I think our children see school and the authority within it very differently from how they once did. In creating any forward action, we cannot bury our heads in the sand.
I have left what I think to be the most profound reflection for the last. There are a number of chasms in our social system which require our schools to function in a number of ways that schools are simply not designed to work. The violence that we see playing out in the various ways across Barbados is all under rooted by the same primary cause – there are families and people in Barbados that need social support and intervention in order to reverse challenges of persistent poverty, low or no education and low levels of emotional intelligence.
The way that we perceive the system of state-granted support, the way that we organize child protection services and the way that we identify the need for counselling and other type of intervention are archaic. This results in a significant number of hopeless children in the school system who feel like there are very few legitimate channels to get help. Their frustrations are coupled with other underlying diagnoses that are never made.
We are not effectively screening our school population for learning deficits. We are also not screening children for psychological and psychiatric predispositions. Teachers are then left to teach children that they simply do not know how to manage. I can agree that metal detectors alone cannot solve these deeper issues. Yet I did not hear the minister speaking to treating cause and effect.
How many psychologists does the Ministry of Education currently have on staff? Have we yet set limits on a teacher/student ratio such that those needing special attention are granted it? When a student exhibits violent tendencies in school, what is the rehabilitative process? Anecdotal evidence is revealing that those children causing the greatest challenges have family histories that are in most cases known to the school, in some cases also known to the police, and yet intervention is not an obvious strategy for dealing with the violence in our schools.
If we were only spinning tops in mud, I would not feel so invested in getting us to see that we are have a colossal problem. We are destroying the lives of what is to be our most productive sector. We are creating a set of people who are hopeless and damaged by their unresolved challenges. I would love statistics to support this next assertion, but I think we are flirting with the stability of Barbados by not more effectively addressing the needs of our school populations. It all feels needless and reckless to me.