Is official indifference fuelling violence in schools?

After all of the official fuss and public anxiety that has been expressed over the issue of violence among schoolchildren and in schools in recent years, we were more than a little surprised that both the Chief Education Officer and the General Secretary of the Guyana Teachers’ Union passed up the offer made to them by The Guyana Review to publicly pronounce on these issues and even to say what, individually or together, their respective institutions are doing in order to seek to remedy these problems.
In the face of indications that the situation is growing worse, there is no really persuasive evidence that the authorities have succeeded in embracing strategies that might even draw more serious public attention to the problems, far less alleviate them. Time was when major incidents of violence in schools and among schoolchildren we ‘few and far between.’ These days such incidents occur with monotonous regularity. The argument has even been made that the persistence of the pattern of violence among schoolchildren and the failure to bring it under control is a function of a lack of understanding of the issues on the part of the authorities since no thorough study has been undertaken up until now. Accordingly, they are hard pressed to even contemplate workable solutions.
The other equally worrying concern is that the relative quiet on the part of the authorities may well have come to be regarded in some quarters as an indication of indifference to the issues and an altogether mistaken conclusion on the part of officialdom that if we look the other way for long enough the problem will go away.

Secondary school children at work
Secondary school children at work

In the case of the Guyana Teachers Union (GTU) one might have thought that it would welcome the opportunity to enjoin an earnest public discourse on an issue that is now affecting its members more and more. Violent children are disruptive in more ways than one. They interfere with the ability of teachers to do their jobs effectively and create a generally unstable environment. The recent occurrence at the Wisburg Secondary School in Region Ten also points to the very real danger that teachers could, increasingly, become victims of the intimidation and the violence and that could lead to periodic protests and withdrawal of labour which, again, would do no good for the delivery of the curriculum.
It would have been useful to learn, for example, whether the Ministry of Education now regards the problems of violence in schools and violence among schoolchildren as sufficiently serious to create a ‘think tank’ within the Ministry to give full-time attention to the problem with a view to deriving possible solutions from those efforts; and if the setting up of such a ‘think tank’ might involve the allocation of human and material resources which the Education Ministry might not have at this time. If it is a question of resources then the issue is more than deserving of the attention of the President, the Finance Minister and the entire Cabinet for that matter. The alternative, of course, is to sit and watch the crisis (and that is what it is) grow worse.
From the Union’s perspective it would have been enlightening to know whether teachers themselves might have perfectly good ideas as to how to tackle the problems. This, in itself, is an interesting issue since some teachers have been known to complain about what they say is their own diminished authority in the face of what they regard as a serious upsurge of indiscipline in schools which, some say, has been made worse by hostile parents who are disinclined to have their children subject themselves to the authority of the school. The other problem which some teachers say undermines their authority is selective Ministry intervention in disciplinary matters which the teachers are both authorized and equipped to handle. These developments have sapped their confidence and diminished their authority.
In the absence of what we had hoped would be enlightened interventions from the Ministry and the Union, therefore, the issue of violence in schools and among schoolchildren would have to be represented by this submission which, we concede, is insufficient to address the problem with any degree of thoroughness. It will, however, have to suffice.
Violence in schools and among schoolchildren is a multi-headed hydra. These forms of behaviour are, variously, manifestations of violent and dysfunctional homes and communities that provide no worthwhile example. What manifests itself among schoolchildren amounts to a mimicking of the wider condition of crime in the society and a glorification of criminal acts. The worsening pattern of violence among schoolchildren appears to have caught the society as a whole off guard. There is no evidence that we had anticipated this development and that we are even fairly well equipped to address the problem. What is clear is that the current disciplinary code for state schools appears altogether insufficient to address the problem.
Among the more frightening dimensions to violence in schools are the phenomenon of bullying, apprehension among teachers about asserting their authority, aggressive parents who buttress the dispositions of violent children, the emergence of school gangs and the employment of weapons that can maim or kill during confrontations among schoolchildren. These abberations need to be studied and efforts made to eradicate them through the application of different methods.
One assumes that we have accepted that cliques of hooligans simply cannot be allowed to take over our schools, compromise our education system and create a general climate of fear for teachers and compliant students. The question, of course, is just what is to be done and who is to do it.
One of the common official responses to criticism on issues of this nature has been to point out that ‘it happens in other countries too.’ We have heard that pronouncement in the matter of violence in schools and among schoolchildren and even if that were true what is also true in the case of Guyana is that we are yet to commence a thorough, aggressive, multi-stakeholder initiative underway to address the problem. If no one is suggesting that the violence can simply be wished away, there is surely the need for evidence of some sensible and sustained effort to bring it under control.
Instead, the authorities appear to favour a proclivity for taking refuge behind walls of silence to take refuge behind a cloak of silence, as if silence will mean that the problem will remain a secret. What the functionaries who subscribe to that ‘policy’ appear not to realize is that violence in schools and among schoolchildren have become high-profile public issues and that incidents of violence and other forms of deviant behaviour often reach the public domain long before official reports are submitted to the Education Ministry. More than that, those teachers who have lost both their confidence and their authority are often only too willing to articulate their frustrations to the media anonymously. In effect, the consequence of official silence is invariably official humiliation when the facts find their way into the public domain by other means.
It is not so much that we do not accept that violence among schoolchildren is a region-wide phenomenon. What is felt in some quarters is that the prevalence of the practice elsewhere is sometimes held forth as justification for its existence here… a sort of we’re-not-alone-in-it attitude which appears to view the violence among schoolchildren in Guyana as less of a problem simply because it exists elsewhere. The truth is that the fact that the problem may be prevalent elsewhere in the region does not excuse what appears to be a lack of energy and effort to resolve it at the local level.
Under the watch of Shaik Baksh, the previous Minister of Education, that problem of violence among schoolchildren grew. Indeed it seemed that violent schoolboys were bent on attracting attention by throwing their weight around in a manner which suggested that they were determined to wrest authority from those in charge of enforcing the rules. Interestingly, the unfolding pattern of deviant behaviour in schools appeared to be occurring side by side with a tide of violence in the wider society characterized by daring robberies, multiple killings and in some quarters what appeared to be a disturbing glorification of crime. One particularly alarming manifestation of that season of runaway juvenile delinquency was the foray across the Demerara River by a schoolboy reportedly to settle a score with some of their counterparts on the West Bank. That incident was an eye-opener insofar as it had several of the hallmarks of adult criminal behaviour one of which was its seeming disregard for the law of the land. It will be recalled that the then Minister’s response to the crisis including hisd suggestion that a handful of Schools Welfare Officers might solve the problem was nothing short of pathetic.
If the difficulty in acquiring reliable statistics makes it difficult to determine whether, quantitatively, the problem has escalated, it is painfully obvious that it has grown worse insofar as (a) violence has now become embedded in the behaviour patterns in some schools; (b) teachers in those schools have lost their authority and have, in some instances, become afraid for their safety; and (c) the Ministry of Education is yet to provide any evidence that it is coming to grips with the problem.
Part of the challenge associated with tackling the problem may well have to do with the fact that it is being allowed to fester inside a policy cocoon of near silence. Officialdom simply refuses to acknowledge that violence among schoolchildren is a national problem and requires a solution that goes beyond the Minister of Education. Whenever the dead hand of politics descends on any national issue, the outcome is invariably the same. Whatever the issue, it becomes shrouded in a blanket of secrecy. Only those with the requisite   political authority can pronounce on those issues and too often they are woefully short of remedial ideas. Teachers, Heads of Schools and Ministry Officials, all of whom may have perfectly reasonable ideas for tackling the problem, may well find themselves muzzled by a political preoccupation with silence. What politics may have done in this particular instance is to centralize the handling of an issue to the detriment of any workable solutions.
No one – and certainly not the Ministry of Education – has a monopoly of ideas as to how the challenges of violence in schools and violence among schoolchildren should be tackled. That is precisely why the issue should become a matter for much broader public discourse, with the Ministry leading the way but with the clear understanding that this is a multi-stakeholder issue that cannot be effectively dealt with by cloistering it behind the walls of officialdom.
The Ministry of Education must, sooner rather than later, embark on a research initiative in an effort to arrive at a better understanding of the nature of the problem. It would be a fatal error to push the problem to the backburner based on reasons that have to do with not enough resources, since, whether we wish to believe it or not, unless we act in a hurry, the consequences of violence in schools and among schoolchildren will compromise most if not all of the hoped-for outcomes of those initiatives aimed at enhancing the education system which set us back billions of tax dollars every year. In this particular regard and for the sake of the country’s education system it makes good sense to treat the problem with an enhanced level of urgency.
Two particularly alarming twists in the problem of violence in schools are, first, the appearance of school gangs which appear inclined to set their own rules and impose their own regimens of disorder on the school system and, secondly, the targeting of teachers for physical attacks and what, by some teachers’ own admission is the aura of intimidation that prevails in some schools. The danger here is that we run the risk of a slide towards a ‘takeover’ of some schools by a hooligan element strong enough to refuse to recognize the legitimate authority. Indeed, it is widely believed that this may well already be the case in some schools.
One baffling peculiarity is what appears to be the reluctance of the authorities to seriously engage parents across the country in intense and well thought out discourses that place on their shoulders some of burden for solving the problem. It is as if we forget, first, that to some extent it has been the public demonstrations of hostility by some parents that might have helped spawn the problem of violence among schoolchildren and at any rate – as has been pointed out on more than one occasion by the Stabroek News, it is the Education Ministry’s failure to enforce the ‘contract’ between the school and the parent that is attended by obligations on both sides. The objective of this exercise is to ensure that education is delivered in a safe and convivial environment and one way of doing so is to ensure that children who are bent on forms of behaviour that are disruptive and dangerous and not allowed to destabilize the entire school population.
That would require the cementing of a binding contract between the school and the parent and that would require protracted and intense discourse with the broadest possible cross section of parents rather than a modest and carefully selected gathering that has little if any focus beyond that which is reflected in a hastily contrived programme. Some of the discourses that might flow from such exchanges might well include devising strategies to ensure that more parents become genuine stakeholders in their children’s education by (perhaps) exploring the extent to which the compulsoriness of the Parent/Teacher Association might be explored. There may be additional issues that might arise for consideration as stakeholders strive to combat the problem of violent schoolchildren but, somehow, we suspect that parents could hold the key to resolving the problem.
Long before schools became afflicted by this current spate of violence the authorities had been weighed and found wanting in the matter of discipline in schools. Part of the problem had to do with confrontations between teachers and parents over discipline in schools and, on occasion, the intervention of the Ministry. Beyond that there appeared to be no mechanism either to update and modify rules regarding discipline to keep abreast of the challenges that would have inevitably arisen over time or no effective oversight mechanism to ensure the those rules were being effectively applied. Recently a teacher opined (interestingly, we thought) that the dramatic dwindling in the number of male (senior) teachers in state schools had meant that male students, particularly the older ones felt greater freedom to refuse to comply with the rules since the chances of them being caned were virtually non-existent.
One suspects too that declining teacher morale may, in some instances, have resulted in an indifference to issues like discipline as teachers focus exclusively on what they perceive – erroneously – to be their primary duty, that is, to attempt to teach children.
Teachers, we believe, can play a role in reducing deviant behaviour in schools if they are trained and incentivized to do so. It is doubtful whether there are sufficient numbers of teachers who possess specialized training in disciplines like Social Work and Child Psycology to ensure that at least those schools that pose particular challenges are staffed with such teachers. Perhaps a case already exists to make adjustments to the teacher training curriculum to ensure that teachers are  much better equipped to cope with the contemporary challenges of the profession.