After almost a week of public allegations of sexual abuse in one of the country’s top schools, some decisions were arrived at on Friday by a committee set up by the Ministry of Education. The allegations centred on a teacher of Economics and Business in Bishops’ High School, who was accused of grooming young girls in the classroom and other predatory sexual offences. It had been reported that this had been going on for some time, but it came to public attention because Advisor to the Ministry of Education Ruel Johnson posted it on his Facebook page, although in a letter to this newspaper yesterday, he said he did not name Mr Coen Jackson, the teacher involved, until after first writing Chief Education Officer Marcel Hutson.
As with many of these kinds of cases in Guyana, this story has complications, the major one in this instance coming in the form of Bishops’ headmistress, Ms Winifred Ellis. She displayed a lamentable inability to grasp the gravity of the allegations, and instead of focusing her attention on Mr Jackson, in a vulgar tirade at a school assembly at which only the girls were present, she accused them of being “slack” and “loose” and of not defending a good teacher.
As for Mr Jackson himself, he held a rather bizarre press conference in the presence of his lawyers, in which he attributed the allegations – which he denied – to a grudge on the part of Mr Johnson. Whether Mr Johnson harbours a grudge against him or not, is not the primary issue; the issue is whether the allegations in and of themselves are sufficiently well supported by prima facie evidence as to be worthy of investigation. And that, it seems, is undoubtedly the case.
Bishops’ High School is technically overseen by a Board of Governors. However, in 2016 various powers were removed from the boards of secondary schools following complaints about how they were functioning, and handed back to the Teaching Service Commission. One of these was discipline. This may be the reason why the President of the Board has been silent on the issue to date. As for the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU), in their communications to this newspaper their particular concern seems to have been the fact that Mr Johnson chose the Facebook route to make his concerns public. It was an issue, General Secretary Coretta McDonald told this newspaper, that should have first been taken to the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Protection. In her view, if that proved unsuccessful, then Mr Johnson should have taken the matter to the police, rather than place it on social media.
One can only remark that while putting it on social media might have been to bypass the protocols, it produced much swifter action than would otherwise have been the case, and swift action, not dilatoriness, was what was needed in this instance. In any case, Ms McDonald is living in a different century if she seriously believes that it would have been possible to keep it off Facebook and similar platforms for any length of time; once a letter had been written, it would have reached the public long before it would have reached the police.
As it is, the Chief Education Officer set up a committee comprising himself, the Education Ministry’s Legal Advisor, a GTU representative, President of the school board, President of the PTA, Co-ordinator of Health and Family Life Education and the two head prefects of BHS. Their decision was to hand the case of Mr Jackson to the police, while the headmistress was to be reprimanded and apologise to the students and teachers of the school. The Ministry of Education said that she had been found guilty of breaching the regulations under Section 35 of the Education Act, titled “Inappropriate behaviour by teachers in school.” Such a breach was liable to a first warning.
As we reported on Friday, it was also recommended that the ministry provide training and support to teachers on how to deal with children on sexual issues, and counselling for the students.
If this case can achieve anything, it could potentially provide a template of how to start going about changing the culture of a school. Mr Jackson has been removed from the environment, but we are still left with the headmistress and what can only be described as a teaching cohort, some of whom, like her, have a deformed notion of what their responsibilities are in terms of keeping children safe. They also have no concept of priorities.
On Friday, Ms Ellis met the PTA, and as we reported yesterday, there was no overt confrontation with her, and to outward appearances, at least, therefore, she seemed to have the parents’ support. She duly apologized for what she had said to the girls at assembly, and blamed it on the fact that she was ‘upset’.
It was not so much the apology which was the problem, but the entire setting of the meeting which gave rise to unease. In the first place, there were students present with placards indicating that the headmistress did not fail them. The inappropriateness of having students present at a PTA meeting, let alone having them campaign on a matter the parents were there to discuss, does not appear to have crossed Ms Ellis’s mind. The tenor of the meeting from the outset seems to have been that the headmistress was right, a position which, impliedly, at least, might suggest the promotion of Mr Jackson’s innocence ‒ which has not been determined. Inevitably the media and social media were castigated for creating this situation, and those who spoke, tended to follow the line it was necessary now to move on.
The Ministry of Education has to go back to the drawing board. The meeting on Friday was to all intents and purposes intimidatory, not because anyone was threatened or anything remotely of that kind, but because the atmosphere with its placards, etc, relayed the message that no accusations against Mr Jackson – or presumably any teacher in a similar position – would be entertained by the school. Which parent is now going to encourage their child to come forward with their complaint? Even those who have current evidence will be unlikely to come forward. Ms Ellis has opened herself to allegations that she is anxious to silence those under her charge who have traumatic experiences to relate, as well as her critics while she is at it.
The ministry can send in as many counsellors as it likes, and as many trainers for the teachers as it can spare, but will it make any difference to the school culture if Ms Ellis is in place and along with some of her staff, at least, goes into laager mode and counters their efforts with an entirely contrary vision? The children – and by extension, their parents ‒ need an environment where they can feel safe reporting sexual abuse, and where they will not be accused of being the guilty party and traducing a ‘good’ teacher.
The reason for this aberrant behaviour is not far to seek: part of it, it seems, is related to the shortage of good teachers, and as far as the subject aspects of his job were concerned, Mr Jackson appears to have been regarded by the Bishops’ management as a good teacher. But even that is not the primary reason. That was identified in the SN editorial of last Thursday, which pointed to what was described as the bourgeois instinct to protect the reputation of the school at all costs. It might be added, that by extension, the reputation of the school reflects on the reputation of its head, which is why Ms Ellis is so concerned about her judgment being accepted as right.
What the headmistress does not understand is that the reputation of her school will not be rescued by shutting down Facebook, say, and ignoring complaints of a sexually predatory nature from her students. The fastest way to get BHS back on track – an institution, at least, for which she obviously has a great affection – is to let justice take its course, and work with the ministry to change the school culture. Teachers’ attitudes, not to mention hers, need to change, and there must be someone who is identifiable to whom children can go with their complaints and anxieties. The new watchword of the school should be ‘No impunity’ where sexual offences are concerned.
Ms Ellis has said she will apologise at assembly this week. Everyone waits to see what she will say.