By Naicelis Rozema-Elkins
It is about time, past due in fact, that the problem of sexual assault by teachers in our school system is addressed. However, as a society, it is important to acknowledge that this is no surprise. Cases of rape and sexual assault do not only occur in our schools, but also in our government, our law enforcement agencies and other institutions whose mandate is to protect the people they serve or have direct authority over. What is different this time is the severity, in terms of the length of time and number of survivors of the alleged sexual predation.
Ruel Johnson, the person highlighting the alleged crimes, is a government official. I am not a fan of Mr. Johnson, due to an unsavory experience with him, but it is commendable that someone in a position of power in our government has chosen to publicise the alleged crimes of Mr. Coen Jackson. Here, the word “alleged” is problematic because it could be interpreted by survivors as a disbelief of their experiences at the hands of abusers. At the same time, the word is necessary as it is representative of the public’s trust and belief in the incorruptibility of the law. Unfortunately, for this same reason, it is also necessary to ask: is it official government philosophy to bring swift justice only when it affects them?
As a woman and a former teacher forged in Guyana, I welcome any and all investigations of sexual abuse. With deep respect and apologies to those impacted, I hope that future public and official concern is more effective. It is outrageous that there is only public discourse on social offences and injustices when the crimes become abnormally barbaric. The next critical questions are, how far are we going to take this? Will this uproar result in a national effort to change policies and public attitudes?
This brings us to the next diseased issue that is in danger of not being fully addressed: the crass behaviour of the principal of the school, Ms. Winifred Ellis. Just as we must not pretend that Mr. Jackson’s behaviour is surprising, we must not pretend that the proclivity of authority figures to shame and degrade their charges or subordinates is anything new. The cycle of men oppressing women and women oppressing children, or anyone in a position of power oppressing those beneath them, is alive and well in Guyana. Sexual violence in our schools is unacceptable—and to support the sentiments of citizen activist in the prevention of child abuse and gender based violence, Mr. Vidyaratha Kissoon—we must also address the physical, psychological and other forms of abuse our students are faced with each day. It is a national tragedy that students from high schools are subjected to further abuse in both methods of instruction and quality of school life. Although there are tangential issues here, teachers have little to no training on change management, sensitivity, or leadership. I, too, have been complicit. For the last 7 years, I have been tormented by my silence after seeing a Godly teacher slap a student across the face for a harmless retort in full view of the entire staff room. (Inconsequentially, it was a relative of the teacher). I should have ignored my paralysis and defended her. My cowardice in that moment will forever haunt me with the image of seeing a teenager flinch and her spirit recoil and deflate. I have seen a teacher brag of destroying a child’s antique collection of cards. I have seen children, drenched in rain, who walked 5 miles to school, flogged for arriving late. The broken leadership of our schools in the heart of our country is tragic and the similar state of our educational facilities on the outskirts and is downright grotesque.
In my experience as a student, I have encountered behaviour of the type Mr. Jackson is alleged to have engaged in. As a former teacher in both the public and private school systems, I have encountered our broken leadership. On my first day of reporting for duty at a school, a senior teacher refused to shake my outstretched hand. I have been sent home because my shirt did not have long enough sleeves. I remember going home to the convent where I lived, changing, and returning to teach my classes. I have had a principal shove her fingers in my face and berate me in the presence of my fellow teachers. (From recent news reports, that former principal now holds a different, but equally influential, position in our education system). It does not make sense to talk about the abuses we subject our children or each other to, if educators and leaders in our country are desensitised to their destructiveness. Our normalisation of sexual offences and acceptance of flawed leadership has brought us to a point where we no longer recognise forms of abuse. The best among us argue about what constitutes predatory behaviours but the subtleties of abuse of power can no longer be distinguished or categorised by the majority of our society. Can we not see that our high suicide rate (29.0/100,000 according to this year’s WHO report) is directly related to the relentless trauma we experience at home, at school, at work, in our communities, and on our streets?
In my early years at different schools in voluntary and professional capacities, I personally knew two students who took their lives. Just before sitting his CSEC exams, a young charismatic student, Davenand Mahadeo, poisoned himself. And as our entire country was barely recovering from the shock of young Aliya Bulkan leaping to her death off of the Kaieteur Falls, a brilliant fifth former, Lisa Prashad, shot herself. Is it too much to ask that we honour the memory of these young people by treating their surviving peers better? For these reasons, we cannot afford to have new leaders without new leadership.
Our country was created through severe trauma: slavery, forced immigration, and displacement. Yet, more than 50 years into independence, our governments have not implemented psychological programmes to redefine our cultural identity and experiences. The extra dose of oppression meted out to indigenous students or people like myself is hardly ever addressed. We fight for the rights of Black and Brown people in America and elsewhere, but not for ourselves or our vulnerable minorities.
It is a natural biological reaction for organisms to adapt to their environments in order to survive; we can see this in our cynicism and lack of trust towards each other, our law enforcement, and our leaders. In Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon writes that former colonised people are inherently at risk of turning into oppressors themselves. Even though in some instances we are already there, we must resist this metamorphosis.
Guyanese women and girls cannot join their American counterparts in #MeToo movements because the hashtag fails miserably in encompassing the hopelessness of our violated women and girls. I cannot talk about the time I was kidnapped and dragged towards the tombs of the Le Repentir Cemetery. Or about being choked during a robbery and an attempted rape at the seawall and thinking that the next day’s headlines would be, ‘Nude body of QC teacher found floating at seawall.’ Even so, my experience pales in comparison to Kescia Branche’s. She is gone. And yet, even in death we mutilate her.
Maybe, we, us women and you, you men, could try to talk, or better yet, try to act. Maybe the revelation of our experiences could herald some profound cultural changes. If we can’t quite talk, we can write—even if it’s only for the record. Let’s take advantage of the technologies available to share and distribute information and ideas that are important to us. Yes, it is hard and seemingly hopeless, it could very well be in vain, but it could also, possibly, result in changes. I do not want to write this or talk about certain things. Because I know what it is like to be dissected. But, sometimes, it is necessary to stand in the trenches of our experiences to let others know that they are not alone, to let the leaders in our society know that they are responsible for the crimes committed against us. There must never be another young Mr. Leonard Archibald. There must never be another young Ms. Kescia Branche. We must never allow another parent, brother, sister, or son to go through what these families have suffered.
There are two ways national change is possible: through constant public resistance or through transformational leadership. In nascent democracies such as ours, immediate change is only possible from the top down. Who in government is willing to see this one through?
(Naicelis Rozema-Elkins is an independent researcher and former teacher at Marian Academy and Queen’s College. She is a past student of Hauraruni All Age School and North Georgetown Secondary, a Hinterland Scholarship Awardee and winner of the 2009 Lilian Dewar Award for Best Graduating Student in English at the University of Guyana.)