In a press release issued yesterday evening, the Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS) quoted Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Education Senator Harry Husbands as saying the ministry “will move swiftly to employ all necessary measures to prevent the recent scourge of violence exhibited in some of the island’s schools from spreading to others”.
Mr Husbands might have been attempting to soothe and assure, but his words were as worrying as they were damning.
Let us ignore some of the other meanings of ‘swift’ – such as the insectivorous bird with a superficial resemblance to a swallow, or the species of moth which scatters its eggs in flight and whose larvae live underground, feeding on roots, making the potentially serious pests – and concentrate on the meaning Mr Husbands intended: happening quickly or promptly, according to the Oxford Dictionary.
In this context, we would like the senior Government spokesman on education to explain what he meant when he said the ministry “will move swiftly”.
Let’s remind Mr Husbands that it has been at least three years since the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU) and the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) have been pleading with the Ronald Jones-led ministry to move swiftly to curb school violence.
Back then the unions had been pointing out the level of student-on-teacher attacks, including damage to the vehicle of one educator. But they were also worried about student-on-student violence.
In January 2015, BSTU President Mary Redman warned that violence against teachers was a major problem in schools, citing as examples teachers being subjected to assault and battery by their charges. A year later BUT President Pedro Shepherd spoke of teachers being intimidated by students who took weapons to school. By then, both Shepherd and Redman had described the escalation of violence in some schools as turning those institutions into “war zones”.
Mr Jones’ response to reporters covering his lunchtime lecture at the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) headquarters in June 2016 was the equivalent of ‘what violence?’
“I am not aware of any incidents,” he said at the time, explaining that he had received no official reports of attacks by students on teachers.
That was mere weeks after the minister had announced in late April 2016, the establishment of a broad-based committee to investigate violence in schools, after a teacher at Ellerslie Secondary School (now The Ellerslie School) was allegedly spat on and kicked by a student whom she had attempted to verbally discipline..
He had said at the time the committee would have been established within a week of the announcement and would look into student-on-student violence and student-on-teacher violence, as well as cases of teacher-on-student violence “if that exists”, and would recommend ways to resolve the issue and enhance security at schools.
Nearly two years later nothing has happened in this regard, yet Mr Husbands seeks to assure us by stating that the ministry would “move swiftly” to prevent the violence from spreading.
Mr Husbands’ statement yesterday was a reaction to the latest school stabbing, which left two 16-year-old students of St Leonard’s Boys’ School nursing injuries, and the detention by police of two 15-year-olds.
How, then, does he plan to prevent the problem from spreading when it is already spreading? This was not an isolated incident. This is not a series of incidents taking place in a single school.
Let’s also remind the goodly Parliamentary Secretary that since November, a student at The Ellerslie School had a finger severed and almost lost another in a cutlass attack; four students – one 14 years old, the others all aged 15 – suffered multiple stab wounds about the body in a dispute between pupils of Darryl Jordan and Frederick Smith secondary schools; four students of Grantley Adams Memorial School were stabbed in yet another attack; and these are just a sampling.
The teachers unions have said the pustule is manifesting itself virtually every day. Back in March last year, after a 14-year-old student was critically injured after being struck on the head, the BUT president complained about “a lot of cases of violence and a lot of cases of malicious damage at schools, particularly at secondary schools, and a lot of it is underreported . . . .It is a serious problem in schools with the level of violence, disturbances, disruption of teaching and learning and something has to be done about it”.
Mr Husband’s assurance yesterday was a clear indication of how we have made a dog’s breakfast of the issue of school violence.
His gave no specifics, only stating: “We are working on these things as we speak. This does not mean that other and similar incidents wouldn’t occur over time but we are working swiftly to put all the required measures in place. What this incident today emphasizes is the critical nature of the issue confronting us and that we should move even more speedily to protect the teachers, students and all those who use the schools’ compounds.”
As school violence spreads and our children find themselves either in hospital or a penal institution, we cannot afford exuberant expansiveness, strategic incoherence, or leadership by taxidermy, no is this the time for grotesque pantomimes.
We need the Ministry of Education to be socially visionary, realistic and an exemplar of virtue.
It is time for the Jones-led ministry to drop the perception of pretence and act swiftly to put a stop to this problem. The alternative is not comforting.