Allegations of misconduct in the local education sector have been around for years. Unfortunately, for a very long time, the culture of secrecy, which holds elements of shame has seen accusations reduced to mere whispers. This is compounded by the fact that within the education system there exists a false bourgeois attitude, in which the protection of the reputation of an institution takes precedence over everything else, including the psyche of children.
Accusations that have been made public in recent times would have caused untold grief for the complainants, caught up as they are in ponderous disciplinary commissions that are slow to act and in instances where it’s required, a justice system that is yet to truly embody the word. This is not helped by the fact that this is a society that strangely seeks to justify crime by casting blame on the victim.
In 2011, a teacher attached to a West Coast Demerara school was arrested after he was accused of having sexual relations with a nine-year-old boy, who had to be hospitalised following the alleged abuse. At the time, Mr Mervyn Williams who was an opposition parliamentarian and a member of the PNCR, had claimed that earlier complaints had been made about the same teacher’s conduct, but had been ignored. Reports were that the child had gone to the teacher’s house where the alleged assault had taken place and the inevitable, foolish question as to why he had gone there was asked.
Just days prior to that incident, a West Coast Berbice teacher had been arrested after he was accused of sexually molesting more than one schoolgirl at the institution where he taught. According to reports, police were tipped off after a cellular phone was found containing videos of the teacher involved in sexual activities with students.
In December 2015, a teacher was arrested after he was accused of impregnating a 14-year-old girl at the Berbice school where he taught.
Last year, after parents complained that a teacher at a Berbice secondary school had allegedly been using drugs and encouraging students to ‘take a pull’, the Education Department in that county had launched an investigation. Other teachers at the school in question had also welcomed the investigation stating that they had noticed inexplicable changes in the teacher’s behaviour, including the use of indecent language during school hours.
Not long after, however, the chairman of the board of the school had complained that that “many noble and good institutions’ names are being lambasted by people with erroneous information.”
Meanwhile, one of the worst cases in this country’s history, which is still pending, involves charges against Mr Neezam Ali, a teacher at the Turkeyen Masjid. He was accused of raping nine boys between the ages of four and ten years old during December 2011 and January 2012. Legal battles have been ongoing for years, but there has been no trial and no resolution in the matter.
Over the past few days, allegations of sexual misconduct made against a teacher of the Bishops’ High School in Georgetown have taken centre stage, partly because the school has long been regarded as one of the more prestigious public learning institutions in the country, and because it has long been upheld as one of academic excellence and as a bastion of discipline. The teacher in question, Mr Coen Jackson, who has previously held posts at several schools around the country, has denied the allegations, which are being investigated.
What has compounded the Bishops’ incident is the reaction of its Headmistress Ms Winifred Ellis to the allegations. In a recording, reportedly taken at a school assembly following the accusations, Ms Ellis can be heard publicly berating schoolgirls, accusing them of being “slack” and “loose” in their conduct and admonishing them for not standing up for the teacher. Calls have been made for her resignation.
It is in fact Ms Ellis’s conduct rather than that of the students under her tutelage, that should be called into question. An investigation must follow allegations of any sort made against any person, moreso a teacher who has control over students’ grades. In any institution worth its salt, that would have been the first course of action and would have signalled the impartiality of the school and the professionalism of its administrators. Hysterical denial and blaming and shaming the students point to the opposite. Furthermore, in a school prided for its discipline, if students are indeed “slack” and “loose” that is an indictment of its administrators.
During a protest against Ms Ellis outside the school, 2017 University of Guyana (UG) valedictorian Ms Elsie Harry made reference to misconduct by officials at UG. She was quoted as saying: “…I know what it feels like to have somebody in authority try to use that power to get sexual favours from you… 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.’”
Sad to say, Ms Harry’s experience is not an anomaly and we would be foolish to pretend that it does not also occur in the high school system. The onus is now on the powers that be and all of us to ensure that it is stamped out for good by investigating, and where necessary, allowing for justice to take its course. The focus has got to be on changing the culture, protecting children and ensuring that institutions of learning provide a safe environment for them to attain the academic qualifications that will impact their future as well as that of this country.