Allegations and insinuations of human rights abuses at the girls’ compound of the Government Industrial School have been rejected by the institution’s hierarchy following “thorough” investigations into two recent scandals.
Minister of Home Affairs and Information Wilfred Abrahams, at a media conference on Thursday, said a police probe into a report of a girl being held naked in a cell last March and an internal investigation into an attempted escape in recent weeks, had both been put to bed.
Furthermore, he said, the latest incident reported earlier this month by a local newspaper had been “blown totally out of proportion”.
“We are satisfied that the escape was no escape. They did not actually try to go anywhere. It was completely blown out of proportion and that is the challenge we face with every single thing that happens at that school,” Minister Abrahams told reporters.
Abrahams, with consensus from GIS chairman Reverend Dr Lucille Baird, acting principal Ronald Jackman, and clinical psychologist Christa Soleyn, said there was no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of employees or management.
In relation to the foiled escape attempt, Reverend Baird said the board intervened swiftly to facilitate individual and group meetings that included Soleyn and Minister Abrahams, who both concluded the unrest was linked to bullying.
“There was no abuse from any of the staff members or from someone that was working there, and so we were able to conclude that with the young residents in a confined space, that is something that could happen, and we realised that once we could intervene and dispense the right counselling methods with the intervention of Ms Soleyn, we were able to bring that under some form of normalcy,” said Reverend Baird.
“We have been visiting subsequently on a weekly basis. The Minister met with the residents individually and he met with them as a group and he found the same thing. We found that it was just a matter of bullying among the residents and there was no evidence at all to say that there was abuse from the members of staff,” she added.
Over a year ago, the institution came under heavy scrutiny following the release of a photograph showing a naked girl, who was later said to be suicidal, lying in one of the cells.
It unleashed a barrage of public criticism, prompting an overhaul of the board and promises of sweeping reforms. In June 2021, Minister Abrahams asked the Commissioner of Police to appoint an investigating officer to find out whether there was merit to the accusations of wrongdoing levelled at staff.
“The police did their full investigation, talked to all of the staff, they interviewed some of the students, they interviewed everybody and found at the end of the day that there was no abuse of the student and there was nothing to warrant criminal charges,” said Abrahams.
“Of note is the fact that the young lady who was the subject of this, and her mother or her family, declined to comment or give evidence in this matter. But even though they declined to cooperate in the investigation, the police still did their full investigation… and as it stands now, for all practical purposes, that investigation has reached its natural end and we are satisfied that the young lady was not abused,” the Home Affairs Minister added.
Abrahams said he also reached out to former wards of the institution, who raised issues of abuse. However, he said none had expressed an interest in pursuing the matters.
Soleyn, meanwhile, said the board has been a “constant presence” at the facility and had been dealing with issues at the school in a “clinical” manner.
In the most recent case, she said, the so-called bullying which led the students to escape was not of a physical nature, but “teasing”.
“I think we have a view of how children who have behavioural challenges may act, but we are looking at it from the wrong lens. They are testing boundaries, that’s what’s happening,” she said.
The psychologist added: “As far as their mental health, as far as we manage psychosocial programming, it’s really as professionals individually looking at what GIS has and seeing what suggestions we have, how we can strengthen it. But at the core, and I know I speak for the board in general, our heart is in it and the truth is we all were teenagers before as well and we do act out and there will be challenges, but we are equipping them with the skills to manage that interpersonal conflict.”