Violence in schools is neither pervasive nor deep-seated

The Caribbean Voice is a New York based NGO that has been involved in social activism since its launch in 1998. Check out our website at

20140120diasporaWith respect to school violence, according to experts, rather than focusing on a total zero tolerance approach, which has proven to be counterproductive, a more flexible “threat assessment approach,” designed to identify students who might be a risk to others and then intervene to change the behaviour, has proven to be a very successful mechanism. Within this context that The Caribbean Voice has been lobbying for counselors and the abolishing of corporal punishment in schools.

In fact, Minister of Education, Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine, has indicated his intention to realize these two measures. However, mixed signals have ensued from government. The President has stated that Guyana cannot afford counselors in schools and the abolishment of corporal punishment has not been sold to teachers and parents. Yet The Caribbean Voice has outlined proposals that would make both these measures implementable at minimal cost.

For starters, identify teachers who have basic social work and/or mental health training and provide additional needed training, then use them as counselors. Secondly, bring back the Diploma in Counseling at UG so teachers can attend Saturday and/or evening classes.  Thirdly, connect schools to social workers and psychologists, wherever possible, so both monitoring and guidance can be provided to staff. Fourthly incorporate parents into the process so that schools and homes become two sides of the same coin.

Also, The Caribbean Voice is willing to undertake a training program, for selected teachers from every region, focusing on classroom management (without corporal punishment).  These teachers can then return to their respective regions and become peer trainers, with ongoing professional development support from the Ministry of Education. There will be no cost for our services but the Ministry of Education must identify teachers from every region and cater for their transportation and accommodation. We can do this when our Diaspora team visits Guyana in July and we are willing to sit down with Ministry of Education officials to flesh out the programme.  In the interim the Ministry of Education can have focus groups with teachers and parents to sell the idea of abolishing corporal punishment and PTAs can hold meetings to inform parents about its advantages.

Meanwhile, the government has to dispel the climate of fear that has enshrouded teaching and ensure that all its actions are open and transparent, thereby creating the prerequisites to involve all stakeholders in the process of arriving at a comprehensive, implementable policy. Collaborative development by administrators, teachers, parents, and even students, with a review procedure for legal compliance, will help to ensure that the policy be respected and enforced.

One component should be a Violence Free Schools Act with zero tolerance for weapons and significant consequences for students who don’t conform.  The legislation must allow for the trial of offenders as adults if the circumstances, as spelt out by the law, so demand. Finally, the bill must make it possible to hold parents/adults legally responsible for infractions if it is determined that the weapons are brought from home or obtained through the negligence or collaboration of adults. In fact, parents should also be held legally responsible for other types of non-acceptable behaviour such as truancy and delinquency.

Additionally, the Ministry of Education must mandate that all schools institutionalize a code of conduct that demonstrates a commitment to violence prevention and helps staff and students feel safe. The code should clearly explain school rules and punishments for infractions. Cornerstones of this code must be a state mandated “zero tolerance for weapons” and for offences such as assaulting teachers. Consequences must include the removal of violent students and, because some disruptive students might welcome expulsion, the school response to certain specified acts must entail legal prosecution.  But both these measures must include rehabilitative strategies rather than comprise only punitive consequences.

Other consequences can include suspension at another school rather than at home; conferences with parents and perhaps getting family members to sit in the classroom for a few days; taking away gym or PE; moving the student to a different class for a day or more; having parents take away privileges such as phone, TV, games or movies and conferences with students after which they can be placed on Daily Behaviour Ratings (DBRs).

In addition to being prominently posted throughout school buildings, this code must be discussed with students so they understand the parameters of acceptable behaviour, and the consequences of infractions. It must also be discussed with parents so that they understand their roles and responsibilities in ensuring that violence is kept out of school environments and perhaps so that their input is incorporated and their concerns allayed. Finally, this code must also be subjected to periodic review to maintain appropriateness, effectiveness, and completeness over time. In this process the Ministry of Education must monitor and share best practices throughout the education system.

A successful anti-violence policy must also include proactive components; the gamut from general educational improvement efforts to interventions that target specific types of illegal or anti- social behaviour. The most effective campaigns are usually directed by a clearly defined administrative entity, and involve parents in a variety of roles and, as appropriate, also draw on community leaders and resources.  Deans would be the relevant spearheads.

Such programmes must include training in anger management, impulse control, appreciation of diversity, and mediation and conflict resolution skills that can help prevent youth from engaging in violence as they mature. Discussions about the negative consequences of violence, and provision of positive ways of getting personal needs met, can protect children from future violent behaviour.  Also age-appropriate training in self-esteem development and stress management and reduction, especially for students living in poverty or in difficult family circumstances, can help transform negative feelings into positive coping skills. Later intervention programmes, such as aggression replacement and anti-bullying training can focus on modifying beliefs and related behaviour. Other types of training should cover development of “refusal skills” to help cope with peer pressure and other types of pressure that can lead to substance use, sexual activity, teenage pregnancy and date violence.

Also necessary would be programmes that take a positive approach to violence prevention by offering incentives for good behaviour, such as a recognition and reward system for good school citizenship, bonus grade points or special privileges such as an extra PE or being excused for one homework assignment. For at-risk students who generally respond positively to personal attention, teachers can help them resist violent impulses by offering them extra help with their schoolwork, referrals, informal counseling, or even just a sympathetic ear.

All of this can be incorporated into the existing curriculum or a new ‘advisory’ programme that can be scheduled at least once a week for all classes.

In high-risk schools, training in violence prevention-for all staff can both make the school safer and help staff feel more secure. Programmes can include development of the ability to identify students at risk of anti-social behaviour for preventive intervention; identifying and defusing potential violence, and dealing safely with violence should it erupt. Some staff training, such as conflict resolution, would cover the same issues that comprise training for students, and it can be effective in terms of cost, time and effort for all staff to participate. Additionally professional development for teachers should be a regular, ongoing exercise.

Comprehensive regulations for dealing with violence must also ensure that enforcement is not uneven or lax so that teachers do not feel unsupported and students feel protected. Conversely, administrators must ensure that teachers do enforce policies in their classrooms, so that everyone would be held to the same standards and be on the same page. And the Ministry of Education must ensure that politics does not enter into the process so that all students are held to the same standards and all teachers feel safe in enforcing policies.

Another important component is the development of partnerships between schools and community so schools can capitalize on and reinforce the efforts of religious and recreational organizations; social service and public health agencies; the business community and law enforcement agencies. For example, PTA meetings can incorporate programmes in parenting skills and family relationships, particularly those focusing on nonviolent living skills, conflict resolution and anger management. Also, in the most violence-prone areas, schools may form partnerships with the police for the latter to visit periodically or even to patrol the halls regularly.

Additionally, schools could use parents as monitors and teachers’ aides. Doing this is inexpensive and can be an effective deterrent, since students may be more reluctant to behave badly when watched by someone they regularly see in the neighbourhood. Further, involving parents gives them a sense of ownership of anti-violence efforts and may help them reconsider their own attitudes about violence. Finally teachers should be provided with a clear cut chain of command that can be accessed at all times, to deal with matters of discipline.

Students too can be involved in helping to spearhead anti-violence campaigns. For example, a monitor system and peer mediation can be instituted, where possible but does not currently exist, to ensure open eyes and ears among the student body at all times, as well as to give students ownership of the process. Peer mediation is another mechanism that can also be implemented and regular focus groups, is another.

Finally the academic curriculum must become child centred in order to help students become empowered, develop organizational skills and take responsibility for their work and actions. Strategies can include:

  • Portfolios and/or work sample files
  • Peer tutors and the buddy system
  • Group and partner work
  • Rubrics and rigorous standards to premise students’ work
  • A print rich environment displaying students’ works, process charts and the like. Students can be involved in creating the charts and in designing the environment.
  • Using students to re-teach concepts and demonstrate problem solving to their peers.
  • Literature Circles, reading and writing journals, writing entries, reading evidences.
  • Integration of technology in the teaching/learning process.
  • Focusing on higher order thinking skills and implementation of strategies to foster learned intelligence.

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