GTU demands withdrawal of action against teachers in Neesa probe

- school board had written to ministry over her plight

The Guyana Teachers Union (GTU) is demanding that the Ministry of Education withdraw the letters of sanction it sent to Queen’s College (QC) teachers even as new information coming to light reveals that the QC Board was aware of the plight of murdered teenager Neesa Gopaul and had written several letters to the ministry about it.

The union members met Minister of Education Shaik Baksh yesterday and informed him of their demand but he refused to budge and as a result they stuck to their decision to pull out of this year’s National Schools Athletics Championship. However, GTU President Colin Bynoe at a press conference yesterday said that while the union has pulled out it did not necessarily mean that teachers had to do the same as they have a choice as to whether they want to participate in the national event.

He said it is because they are “grieved” and “hurt” at the manner in which the ministry dealt with the matter that “we have decided to take this stand and we will not move. The time has come [for] the Ministry of Education from the minister… to show some form of respect to the Guyana Teachers Union…

“Right now the Guyana Teachers Union’s final position to the minister is that we are demanding that all letters given to the respective teachers be withdrawn immediately until such time that the investigative process is done in the correct way according to the memorandum of agreement,” Bynoe said yesterday.

Meanwhile, past president of the union Colwyn King yesterday revealed that “over 50 letters” were sent to Minister Baksh on the matter by the school’s board. King, who was part of the board at one time, named the board members at the press conference who he said were instrumental in sending the letters out.

Meanwhile, two of the sanctioned teachers yesterday maintained that they did all in their power to assist the troubled teenager, while a third said she was being disciplined for not taking action as a deputy, even though she was not in that position at the time.

Candida Williams and Carol Marks yesterday told Stabroek News that they were the ones who alerted the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security to the child’s plight and they later informed then headmistress Friedel Isaacs who had the responsibility to inform the Ministry of Education. That was in October 2009. The last day the child attended classes was on June 14, this year. The teachers said they had a staff meeting on April 21 and a teacher asked Isaacs what they were going to do with Neesa as she had stopped doing her assignments and homework and the headmistress told them she was a “special case”.

The two teachers have been told by the Education Ministry that they are barred from promotion for one year while the present deputy head Nadia Hollingsworth has been told she would not be promoted for the next three years. She said she was not the deputy at the time; that person was Gem Rohlehr.

It is understood that Isaacs, who retired last week Friday, has been informed that she has been demoted. Contacted last evening, the former headmistress told Stabroek News she had no comment.

The union maintains that there are several procedural irregularities in the Education Ministry’s recent investigation which found the four Queen’s College teachers negligent in the handling of the Neesa Gopaul case. Bynoe yesterday said that there are binding documents between the union and the ministry which stipulates that the union should have been involved in such an investigation. He questioned how the teachers could have been investigated and not represented in any form. It was pointed out that in every situation, persons are giving a chance to be heard and represented but the teachers were not given that opportunity.

Bynoe said also that it was the QC board which should have conducted the first round of enquiry. When told about this, he said, Baksh informed that the board was not functioning at the time–the new board came into effect on November 3– a position Bynoe said he found puzzling as the ministry had copied documents during the investigation, such as the terms of reference, to the board.

“We can safely say that what happened was flawed and we are calling on the minister to rectify the flawed process. We don’t even care if he wants to do it over again and if he finds the same results… What we want is that we must be involved in the process… so that we can be fully satisfied that the process was done correctly,” Bynoe said.

Bynoe said the teachers were made “scapegoats” adding that leaving the union out of the investigation was not correct. According to him, the teachers were not initially told it was an investigation, instead they were told by the team that they were just trying to get some information so as to ensure that a similar situation did not happen again.

Asked what would be the union’s next move should the ministry continue to refuse to withdraw the letters, Bynoe said he would not show his “trump because [they] would try to counter it” but the union will continue to take a stance.
“The Guyana Teachers Union is concerned first of all over the death of Neesa Gopaul. We are concerned that the righted people who should have been proactive chose to be reactive and discipline teachers… But at the same time we have to announce our grievance…,” Bynoe said adding that should the matter be settled quickly the union would return to the athletics championships.

Chronicling their roles in assisting the child to get help, Williams and Marks said that on October 18, 2009 – a Sunday – Neesa had contacted them informing that she had been badly beaten by her mother the night before and was forced to flee the home with her sister. The child said when they ran out on the road an uncle picked them up and took them to their grandparents. One of the teachers was in church at the time, while the other was cooking but they both dropped what they were doing and sped across the Demerara River to the child’s grandparents’ home. There, they met the badly beaten child and took her to the Leonora Police Station where they made a report. They then took her to the Leonora Cottage Hospital where she was seen by a     doctor. The doctor informed them that she could not give them the medical; the police would have to uplift it. The two teachers returned to the station and the officers indicated that they were aware that they were the ones who had to uplift the medical.

The teachers said they told Neesa’s grandparents that a report must be made to the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security. When the grandparents indicated that they did not know where the ministry was, the teachers said they would meet them the following morning in the vicinity of Stabroek Market. Williams said she went to office of Minister Priya Manickchand but she was not there and she explained to the ministry’s secretary why they were there. She said the secretary informed them that she would put them onto a case worker.

“We explained to [the case worker] what was happening at the time and I presented a file… with photographs of the bodily marks of violence on her back, breast all over her body,” Williams said. Those photographs, according to the teacher, were taken a week before. She said she handed them over to the case worker and they reported all they knew. The worker told them the ministry would take over the matter and they could return to school.

According to Williams, for the entire day while they were in school they kept in contact with Neesa’s grandparents who gave them regular updates on what was transpiring at the ministry that day. Drug tests were done on teenager and her mother and Williams said they were told by Director of the Child Care and Protection Agency (CCPA) Ann Greene that the child tested positive while it was a negative result for the mother.

The teacher said they were also told that same day that a letter would be sent to the school informing the head about the matter.
According to Marks, who was Neesa’s fourth form teacher at the time, after Neesa did not attend classes for that entire week and she decided to ask Isaacs if she had received a letter from the ministry she replied in the negative. Marks said she then called the Human Services Ministry and enquired about the letter but was told that the child had been returned to her mother.

“Obviously they communicated with the grandparents to say send the children back home because she went back home and she was in school the Monday,” Marks said. Reporting on the findings of the investigation done by her ministry, Manickchand had stated that the grandparents had returned the children to their mother’s home because she refused to give them more than $8,000 a week for their upkeep.

Marks said no letter was ever sent to the school, but that the very day after they had returned to the school, as the child’s form mistress, she went to Isaacs’ office and informed her of what transpired over the weekend. She said Isaacs basically listened to her. She said after they had returned to the ministry the following morning, she again briefed the headmistress and the next week when Neesa returned to school she duly reported to Isaacs who told her to take the child to her office.

“After she said that, I figured Miss really don’t know who this child is, so I took her there the Monday and I was not able to get into the office… The Tuesday morning I took her back to the office and I said ‘Miss this is Neesa’ and I put her to sit in a chair and I left the office,” Marks said.

Did not report
Williams said it is being claimed that they did not report to the Ministry of Education but they were faced with the situation on a Sunday and the first thing they thought about was getting the police involved and helping the child to seek medical attention. They pointed out that they had later informed their headmistress and she should have informed the ministry.

“I keep repeating that this entire matter took place one year ago. When Ministry of Human Services took it over that was it, I am not the person to follow up on anything…,” Williams said.
The teachers said Neesa attended school “on and off” from October last year to June this year and she would tell her friends things from time to time.

The teachers, like the union, were critical of the investigation and the first time they heard of an intention to sanction them was last week Friday when Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon made the announcement on the news. They received their letters on Monday.

“I was shocked and very annoyed at the same time. I could not fathom how it was possible after we had helped this girl… I could not comprehend how it was possible for teachers to be sanctioned,” Williams said.

Williams said they were mum on the issue for weeks because they wanted to give the Ministry of Education time to conduct the investigation. She said they felt it was disrespectful to speak to the media before talking to their employer.

All three teachers along with another colleague said they did all they could to help Neesa and could not be blamed for what eventually happened.  The letters served to Williams and Marks informed them that they were being sanctioned because they had information which they suppressed and that their reporting was not done in a timely manner.
“We have to let the public know the truth. We are not going to be made scapegoats,” Hollingsworth said.

Hollingsworth said a colleague did inform her about the child and she told her to report same to the ministry.  She said even though she was not deputy at the time the report was made to the ministry. Her letter informed her that as deputy she failed to conduct the requisite level of supervisory duty in following up on the report and taking the necessary action.

“This is tantamount to extremely poor supervision as a result of your inefficiency a decision has been taken with immediate effect to bar you from promotion for the next three years…” the letter said.

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