A group of concerned citizens yesterday staged a protest against the principal of the Bishops’ High School, accusing her of victim blaming after she berated female students for their conduct in wake of allegations that a teacher engaged in sexual predation for years.
Armed with placards, protesters gathered outside the school at lunchtime yesterday and called for the firing of headmistress Winifred Ellis.
Their chants included “Stop protecting abusers,” “Break the silence,” “Victim shaming must end,” “Fire Ellis now” and “Students we support you.”
But while those who joined the demonstration were there in support of the students, a few students held a demonstration of their own in support of Ellis. They made placards, which they displayed through the open windows of the school building. “Think of our future #ThisAffectsUs” and “Our HM DID NOT FAIL US!!” were the inscriptions on the pieces of cardboard they displayed.
“We just had the students up there saying that their HM did not fail them and I think that says a lot about what will actually happen in this school because a lot of it is actually about protecting the reputation of the school rather than protecting the students,” Akola Thompson, who led the protest, commented yesterday.
Thompson was joined by private citizens and members of civil society, including a few past students of Bishops’ High School.
Notably, no parents affiliated with the school were present for the demonstration. When contacted, Sandra Lowe, the head of the Parent-Teacher Association, related that she will not be speaking with Stabroek News on the matter.
The protest was held just one day after an audio recording of Ellis, apparently in conversation with a group of female students during an assembly, surfaced. In the recording, she is heard accusing the students of being “slack” and “loose” in their conduct and admonishing them for not standing up for their teacher, who it has been alleged preyed on young students at various institutions over the course of his teaching career.
“…if you know that someone is being victimized, you don’t single them out in front of an entire group of people, you try to create a safer environment. So we know for a fact that this teacher, she was not trying to protect students, she was slut shaming them and blaming them…so the point of this is to alert the administration that they need to do something, and also to call for the immediate dismissal of the headmistress, Ms Winifred Ellis,” Kemol King, a past student, said.
“…after the allegations about Coen Jackson would have broken, one of the first things the head mistress would have did was call an assembly and basically slut-shame, victim blame and castigate students for not coming to the defence of a predator. That is a very dangerous message to be sending to your students, particularly when it comes to female students because we already have a high rate of persons not coming forward with victim allegations,” Thompson stated.
Thompson posited that student-teacher relationships have become normalized so much that it is no longer seen as an issue.
The protestors were vocal, with many sharing personal experiences, or alluding to the experiences of close friends who would have encountered predators during their tenure at school.
“I’m a former student at the University of Guyana [UG] and I know what it feels like to have somebody in authority try to use that power to get sexual favours from you, and so I was totally disappointed, totally outraged, and I know a lot of students are not as strong as I am to say, ‘Okay, I don’t want this, you need to leave me alone,’” Elsie Harry, this year’s valedictorian said during the protest yesterday.
“I’m totally disappointed in her [Ellis]; I think she needs to just do us all a solid favour and pack up and go home because you’re in the position where you’re supposed to protect your students; you’re their first line of defence…when you hear and see the things on social media, instead of saying to your students, ‘I’m proud of you for coming forward,’ ‘I support you,’ you castigate them for doing that?” Harry questioned.
“I can’t say that I’m completely surprised because stuff like this has been happening for ages… when I was going to school I had friends who had experiences; you knew the teachers who were involved with students, it was talked about but nothing was ever done… So I can’t say that I’m surprised but what I’m happy about is that it is now being exposed and I hope this means that there would be a change in the way we handle these things…,” Mosa Telford stated, while adding that she hopes something comes of the matter and it is not swept under the carpet like has been done with other issues.
Cynthia Massay, the administrator of the Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre and a past student of The Bishops’ High School, made a brief stop to observe the demonstration.
“I really find there’s a typical thing of shaming and blaming the victim…. Why blame the victim?” Massay asked. “I agree that we should not kind of pass judgement until you do a proper investigation and you get all the facts, but what she said is totally, totally out of place. You don’t blame the victim.”
Massay related that while she is not sure resigning is the answer in this case, she believes Ellis should certainly be disciplined.
Activist Nicole Cole, who was also on the picket line, felt that Ellis should go. “We’ve got to do better in this society. We have to name and shame even those who are condoning the abuse. She should no longer be in the realm whereby she is the headmistress for any school. She is unfit and improper…,” she said.
Commenting on the way the report of the allegations was made, quite publicly on social media, protestor Don Singh opined that the process would take much longer if people were to wait on the school administration to see and to act.
The protest will continue again at midday today and it is expected to continue until some action is taken.