GTU General Secretary says too early to pronounce on Bishops’ teacher

-criticises damaging use of social media to address allegations

Protesters gathered in front of the Ministry of Education yesterday. (Photo by Keno George)

General Secretary of the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) Coretta McDonald says that it is too early to pronounce on the allegations made against Bishops’ High School teacher Coen Jackson and she has criticised the very public means used in the reporting of the claims.

When contacted yesterday, McDonald opined that the right approach had not been taken in addressing the allegations and, therefore, the pain of the alleged victims has been “compounded by social media.”

The allegations against economics teacher Coen Jackson were first presented on Facebook last week by Cultural Advisor to  the Ministry of Education Ruel Johnson, although neither Jackson nor the school had initially been named.

On Monday, an official complaint was submitted to the Chief Education Officer by Johnson.

McDonald advised that the correct course of action would have been for the complaint to first be taken to the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Protection. If that were unsuccessful, she said, Johnson should have taken the matter to the police, rather than place it on social media.

She noted that the Teaching Service Commission has no authority over the school because it is governed by a board and so it would not have been able to intervene.

Calling the situation “sad,” she said that the pain of the alleged victims has been compounded by the use of social media. She stated that the children as well as their parents, staff and officers are traumatised by the events, while school children are being taunted on the streets by strangers.

While McDonald yesterday stated that the organisation does not condone abuse in any form, she also said that it is too early to pronounce on the allegations surrounding Jackson. She acknowledged that there have been instances of abuse within the school system and added that while the GTU will not bury their heads in sand, it can only pronounce on the matter after an investigation has taken place.

‘Meant well’

Speaking on the comments made by Bishops’ High head teacher Winifred Ellis during an assembly, McDonald’s opinion is that the principal “meant well” but her approach was wrong. She stated that she believed that the words uttered by Ellis were used merely out of frustration, but remarked that the principal had the children’s “best interest at heart.”

But at midday yesterday, protesters who opposed the comments made by Ellis took to the streets again, moving their demonstration from the Bishops’ High School to the Ministry of Education’s Brickdam office.

The need for a demonstration was triggered by a leaked audio recording of Ellis berating female students for their alleged conduct and also criticising them for not taking a stance for Jackson on social media when allegations were raised against him.

It was related to Stabroek News that the session in question started as a general assembly but afterwards the male students were asked to leave.

The protesters had earlier called for Ellis’ removal.

Akola Thompson, who has been leading the protest action since Tuesday, said that the demonstration is about rallying for an environment where people feel safe coming forward when they experience abuse; one where they feel they will receive justice. “I feel like it’s a much bigger issue than just Bishops’ alone, because if you look at any other school, you always have allegations against teachers. So this is more about the education system and the way it kind of stifles persons coming forward about sexual abuse rather than just a particular school,” Thompson stated.

“It’s basically to put some pressure on the ministry to deal with the matter properly so they don’t brush it under the carpet, and it’s to keep the matter in the public eye,” protester Josephine Whitehead added.

When contacted yesterday, the Education Minis-try’s Public Relations Officer Brushell Blackman related that the matter is still being investigated, and no decision has been made in regards to Ellis at this time.

The Bishops’ High School Board of Directors and the school’s Parent-Teacher Association is yet to speak out on the matter. Chairman of the Board, Ruth Lee, could not be reached for comment.

Jackson has been accused of sexually grooming and preying on young female students and entering into relationships with them while under his care. During a press conference on Tuesday, Jackson stated that he had only shared relationships with two former students, one of whom he is currently in a relationship with.

Asked yesterday to clarify that the two females referred to previously were the only sexual relationships Jackson has shared with former students, Jackson’s lawyer, Jerome Khan said that he could not pronounce on the nature of Jackson’s relationships with the women, but said that those were the only two he would have dated, based on his client’s account. “I didn’t use the word sexual… I am not admitting to Mr Jackson having a sexual relationship with anybody. What I’m admitting, he had a relationship—we could call it dating, whatever—it would be presumptuous of me to assume that the man had a sexual relationship because I didn’t see it,” he said. “My instructions are he has never had a sexual relationship with any student…He had relationships with former students, which he said so himself. Those relationships occurred beyond the time that those people were students at Bishops’ High School,” Khan said.

Access to personal files

Asked about his client having access to the personal records of students, Khan stated, “I don’t think that is true,” before proceeding to address a Facebook post made by lecturer Dr Mellissa Ifill, who claimed such, based on a report she had received.

“He was clearly protected by successive school administrators. They knew of his activities and did nothing,” Ifill wrote, speaking to the role those in authority at the Bishops’ High School had allegedly played in stifling the complaints of students.

“I first found out around two years ago when a prospective 6th form student went to register at the school. He went into her file, copied her number and started calling and texting her—sickening gross conversations that her mother discovered then answered the phone and heard him herself one day,” Ifill wrote.

“I was contacted and asked how to address the situation. I immediately indicated that the school should first be notified. I fully expected the teacher to be removed at the very least. However, noting was done. The young lady didn’t feel comfortable attending the school anymore,” she added.

She went on to state that she made further enquiries and learnt of Jackson’s conduct, relating that even first formers allegedly knew of his behaviour.

“…now, for her to make that statement, surprises me. She is an educator and she claimed in her statement that she became aware of some communication between Mr Jackson and some student and that she reported that to the HM…and nothing was done. Now here is a highly, highly, educated person, some professor or something, she should know that if she got no answer from the HM, the next step would be the board of governors of the Bishops’ High School and if they fail to act, then the next step, if she is really interested, is to report it to the Chief Education officer,” Khan stated yesterday in response to Ifill’s post.

He added that if that course of action failed, the complaint should have been taken to the Office of the President, and then to the police.

“So by saying that I became aware, blah, blah, blah and so, so, so, and she did not do anything to follow up, it amazes me. When I read the statement, I said this can’t be right,” Khan said.

Khan also argued that Ifill’s allegations are based on hearsay and not direct evidence, and added that he is not surprised that she is making such claims as she is one of the persons recommended by Johnson to serve on the Sexual Predation Investigative Committee. The formation of such a committee was also one of the recommendations made by Johnson.

“…So it raises great suspicion as to what motivates her. She didn’t see the interests of students because she had the opportunity to do so at that time and she didn’t,” the lawyer stated.

 

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