We must become the people who look out for each other

Dear Editor,

The growing societal concern that surrounds the evolving story of sexual grooming, sexual abuse, and other sexual offences committed against students allegedly by a teacher (Coen Jackson) at The Bishops’ High School has demonstrably seen an individual’s right to his reputation become overwhelmed by free and open confrontation on a matter of undeniable and rightly placed public interest.

Notwithstanding the obvious criminal implications, in the context of defamation, the right to free speech often finds itself jostling with the right to one’s reputation. This strain is even now more pronounced and tested when the beast of social media can quickly be induced into the mode of full feeding frenzy. No profession or discipline is out of reach, in the sense that everything is open to the expectations of even those untrained in any particular discipline. I suppose the more progressive perspective would be that every discipline must now contend with the requirement of being aware of the ease with which onlookers can understand its work or suffer the fate of public disapproval. Perhaps it is a good thing. Perhaps it is an opportunity even, but it certainly requires sound strategy, precise messaging and most importantly a timely attention to issues, so that the right information meets the receiver at the right time, before he is completely inundated by a one-sided view.

The matter itself, as represented by the purported facts and peculiarities are provocative to the sympathies of well-meaning and right-thinking members of society. It is on this premise that I believe the Ministry of Education has significant opportunity, some of which it has already embraced. I can understand that this might be new ground for the ministry, in light of it being the first sexual scandal, purportedly, it has endured of this magnitude.

So far there has been the announcement of an investigation that is being done. Additionally, on the 23rd November 2017 there was also a reactive comment made by Minister of Education, Nicolette Henry, who revealed that Coen Jackson was sent on administrative leave, and not that he “took a leave of absence” as he claimed at his news conference held on Tuesday 22nd November 2017. It is commendable that the Minister was able to quickly counter this bit of misinformation. The most recent development is that the investigation of the ministry and its findings were turned over to the police. Further, the investigations found the Headmistress of The Bishops’ High School guilty of breaching the regulations under the Education Act 39:01 section 35 “Inappropriate behaviour by teachers in school” which is liable to a first warning.

The legal route, if and when that is triggered, in no way prevents the Ministry of Education from taking the necessary course of action that befits this situation, that is concomitant with responsible public office bearing conduct. There must be a standard operating procedure which the ministry can deploy in dealing with these matters. That procedure must be known to the people. The people must also be kept updated on the matter as the different stages of the procedure are triggered and unfolded. It follows then, that a communication plan must also be a part of that procedure.

My hope is that the Ministry of Education remains open to suggestions since this is an event that will either allow or dissuade other such incidents that are still unknown, to be brought to light.

There is also instructive opportunity for the Ministry of Education in observing the approach used by the Headmistress of The Bishops’ High School in handling the matter. It is clear that the training teachers would have received thirty, twenty, ten and maybe even five years ago, is not adequate to deal with the realities of today. I believe that the world of children has been flooded with sexuality, but I will not get into that in this letter. In the schools of today, children are far more sexually aware and are inescapably developing their sexual identities, as do all children of that age in every part of the world.

How are our teachers trained to deal with sexually exploring teenagers? Is sexual education a component of our school curriculum yet? Do we have counsellors in our schools? Are we prepared to include in our school programme due care in relation to the psychological well-being of our children and teachers? Are our teachers competent in non-violent communication? Is schooling in Guyana at that point where it is counterproductive to the open minded, investigative and peaceful outlook that some of us try to inculcate in our children at home, only to have it not accommodated and even undone in school?

I ask all these questions to invite consideration, that teachers in Guyana must receive continuous training.

It is also my belief that this matter will prove to be even more contentious as it develops. The Sexual Offences Act of Guyana has been progressively developed and several amendments were made, albeit prospectively, and not retrospectively. The implications of this may very well be that persons who suffered before the amendments were made will be treated differently in law than persons who suffered after the amendments were made. The Sexual Offences Act itself is not without its areas of contentions, particularly Section 69(1) which will no doubt come under the usual scrutiny as it pertains to the trial judge not being entitled to advise the jury on considering evidence that does not require corroboration. Further, there is also the denying of defendants the right to cross examine witnesses at the magistrate court level.

I do believe that this matter will stay with us for a while and test our emotions and most regrettably, compel those who have been hurt to relive their agony. I really decided to write this letter mostly out of that concern and also out of the hope of reducing my own anxiety. In my mind, there are many voices which must all be heard in addressing the far reaching implications of this matter. What is important is that they must all boldly occupy their space for our society to work. For all its magnificence, the eye cannot see itself. We must truly become the people who look out for each other.

Yours faithfully,

Arun Sudesh Richard

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