Mae’s Schools denies discriminating against student over indigenous wear

-after protestors urge apology, respect

The boy’s mother, Karen Small (left) holds a placard showing her son in his traditional wear, and quoting articles from the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Guyana’s Constitution, which speak to the protection of indigenous rights. Chairman of the National Toshaos Council, Joel Fredericks (third, from left), condemned the actions of the school, and called for the government to speak up on the matter, as he noted that events such as the one last week do nothing to promote social cohesion. (Terrence Thompson photo)

Following widespread outrage, including a protest yesterday, over alleged discrimination against a primary-level student in indigenous dress by the staff of the Mae’s Schools, the institution has broken its silence on the incident and denied engaging in any discriminatory behaviour.

In a statement issued four days after the incident, the school yesterday disputed the account of the nine-year-old student’s parent, while also turning attention to the fact that there is no national policy regarding what is acceptable with regards to exposure of children.

“We recognize that our first duty is to look after the best interest of the children we serve. We are particularly conscious of fostering social cohesion and encouraging children to be proud of their heritage, as well as learning of the different ethnicities that make us one Guyanese family, hence the willingness to host Culture Day,” the statement said.

The boy’s mother, Karen Small (left) holds a placard showing her son in his traditional wear, and quoting articles from the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Guyana’s Constitution, which speak to the protection of indigenous rights. (Terrence Thompson photo)

“There is, however, no clear cut national policy that is consistently enforced  on what is acceptable in terms of exposure for BOTH boys and girls when representing our very diverse culture, especially in this climate where gender equality is being promoted, and specifically in a school environment. This incident lends itself to a larger discussion amongst schools and government entities about what truly is the acceptable social standard in our evolving country. In the meanwhile, we will continue our mission to provide quality education to our greatest assets, our students,” it added.

Last Friday, Karen Small, the mother of the affected student, made a Facebook post relating that her nine-year-old son had not been allowed to enter his school fully dressed in his indigenous wear and that staff, including the security guard, teachers, and the headmistress had stated that his attire was inappropriate.

He wore no shirt and sported a beaded chain and a decorated head band, while his lower body was covered by a skirt made out of tibisiri.

Small said she later dressed him in a t-shirt after the same sentiment about his outfit being “inappropriate” was communicated by her son’s class teacher. Small said, however, that when she picked up her son later on, he was traumatized from the experience, as he was taunted throughout the day by students.

The school, however, challenged this account.

Protestors call for their Indigenous culture to be respected. (Terrence Thompson photo)

“The mother was told at the gate that there MAY be an issue with the fact that he was exposed, but he was nevertheless allowed to enter the school as-is. The student then ascended the stairs to continue to his classroom. However, we speculate that he may have been subject to gawking by students, because shortly after he exited the school building and met with his mother, who helped him don a t-shirt already in her possession,” the school countered.

The statement added that no teachers were engaged on the issue by Small or her son and that the child “settled into his classes without incident.”

“There was no crying or other discernible upset displayed by him that warranted the attention of the class teacher, Head Teacher or Administration of the school then or at any other time throughout the school day. The fact that this student is made the subject of national headlines is regrettable,” the school reported.

It also said that each class was expected to represent a particular ethnicity after they selected an option at random. It was said that the class the boy belonged to was expected to depict the Portuguese culture. It also claimed that the children were all advised to wear t-shirts, along with tights/shorts being worn under any clothing that would leave them exposed. This advice was said to have been passed through a verbal briefing which took place closer to the event.

But Small, responding to the statement last evening, said that she was guided by the letter sent to her home from the school, and opined that any additional advice should have been sent to the parents in writing if that were the case.

The letter, seen by this newspaper, plainly stated that “pupils will be allowed to dress in their cultural wear, depicting an ethnic group of their choice….” Apart from the date and the significance of the activity (Independence Day celebrations) nothing else was stated on the matter.

Small expressed disappointment and outrage at the statement released by the school, but at the same time she noted that she was not surprised that it did not accept culpability. She noted that it had been given an opportunity to apologize, but chose another route. She added that before the public release of the statement to the media, she had not been contacted by anyone at the school.

As a result of the situation, Small indicted that she would be removing her son from the school, where he has spent the last two years after returning home from abroad. She added that she would not allow her son to stay in such an environment.

In solidarity

After midday yesterday, nearly 40 persons had congregated outside of the school in Subryanville to show support for the young boy.

The Amerindian Peoples Association (APA), the National Toshaos Council, Red Thread and the CARICOM Youth Ambassadors of Guyana were among the organizations represented at the demonstration. Aside from those organizations, also joining the protest line were private citizens, who had gotten wind of the incident through social media, and took to the streets to show their support.

Many of the protestors were of Amerindian ancestry and some donned traditional wear on the protest line. But the demonstration also saw support from persons of other ethnic backgrounds.

Protestors yesterday also condemned the fact that the relevant ministries had been mum on the matter. However, Stabroek News was informed that the matter has engaged the attention of the Ministry of Social Cohesion and was being looked into.

There has also been no official statement from either Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs. However, Junior Minister of Indigenous Peoples Affairs’ Valerie Garrido-Lowe, during an interview on the television programme Indigenous Development in Focus, had opined that the school owed the student an apology, and stated that she saw nothing wrong with his attire.

“…I think that they should have thought about it some more and view it as his culture and invite him in and explain. If the rest of students don’t understand, take it as a teaching moment to explain about indigenous heritage and their clothing…I’m sorry that the little boy had to go through a terrible time because of who he is and I think the school owes him an apology,” Garrido-Lowe said.

The APA, in a statement sent out yesterday, called the school’s actions “disgraceful” and condemned the institution for exposing the young student to “cultural discrimination.” Like many, the organization called for a public apology from the school’s administration, and recommended that steps be taken to prevent a recurrence of a situation.

“The school’s administration last Friday impinged on the right of the student to practice his culture and freely express his identity through its discriminatory actions,” the statement said. “…The Association recommends that cultural sensitization sessions be conducted at the school so that students, teachers and staff understand the cultural traditions and human rights indigenous peoples possess. The Amerindian Peoples Association has capable personnel available to conduct such training and would be willing [to] facilitate such sessions should it be contacted to do so,” the APA advised.

Disrespectful

Meanwhile, a call for the protest had been made via Facebook by journalist Natasha Smith, who is also of Amerindian heritage. Smith yesterday deemed the actions toward the student, as well as the fact that there had been no response to the matter by any of the relevant authorities, “disrespectful.”

“The reason why I chose to go ahead with this protest today is because… this incident happened last Friday and this school did not utter a word to anybody. They did not apologize, they did not say it was a mistake…and that is a sign of disrespect. Growing up, I know that the sooner you make an apology, the better it is for everybody, but it’s been days, and Mae’s has not said anything,” Smith stated.

“I think it’s totally disrespectful to the Indigenous people of Guyana. That child is an example of who we are; he is a representation of the entire race of the First People of Guyana and I don’t think that they have been respectful to him and, therefore, they have not been respectful to this race because he represents our culture,” she added.

She related that the goal of the protest is to prevent a recurrence of last week’s episode, while noting that the actions of the school breached the constitution, and was a clear case of social cohesion not being present in certain aspects of our culture.

“…We’re very upset about that and we don’t want it to continue. If this is a culture at Mae’s, and they cannot teach their children tolerance and respect for other people’s culture, then what are they doing? If you are teaching children half-truths about indigenous culture, well then they will learn half-truths…are their parents paying for their children not to be taught respect? Those are moral values we have to inculcate in our children from a very young age and I totally blame Mae’s and the teachers for that,” Smith said.

The general sentiment shared yesterday was that in a multi-ethnic society such as Guyana’s, each culture should be equally accepted, celebrated and appreciated. Protestors spoke about the possible impacts such discriminatory treatment and humiliation will have on the child in future, and stated that the alleged actions of the school go against the country’s motto of “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” and its aim of social cohesion. They also expressed pride in their cultural heritage.

“I’m here to support my indigenous little brother. The treatment meted out to him on the day is downright disrespectful and unacceptable. We are a beautiful country with six races and we all have our own culture, and we all have to accept the culture of other people…We are proud to be indigenous people, like any other race in this country…,” said Jude Da Silva.

“…It penetrated deep down. As you can see, we are all here, because we are not satisfied with the way that our culture was treated, it was not accepted. And it should not have been…we’re here supporting the fact that we should be recognized just as everyone else,” protestor Collin Andrews, who related that he was on the picket line with his children, shared.

A similar sentiment was shared by Adrian Welcome, who related that he learned about the issue via Facebook and came out to lend his support. Welcome is also of Amerindian heritage.

“We will not stand by and allow ourselves to be socially complicit as this school, Mae’s Schools, castigates our Amerindian brothers and sisters based on petty social constructs. We think that it’s a time that when we’re focusing on national cohesion, we ought to embrace everyone and respect everyone, regardless of what we think and what might have been the previous status quo,” Vishal Joseph, CARICOM Youth Ambassador, stated yesterday.

Red Thread representative Joy Marcus stated that she was there to ensure that what happened last week does not happen to another child.

Acceptance

Meanwhile, Small expressed gratitude at what she described as “countrywide support” shown to her family in the matter.

“…Not only from the indigenous community but from every other civil minded Guyanese that saw that it was not right, it was an injustice on the part and I’m very, very happy that there is still hope because there’s a large fraction of Guyana that said that it was not okay and I really appreciate that…I’d like to thank persons for supporting [him], for letting him know that he did nothing wrong because he thought he did something wrong,” she stated.

Small noted that her son has grown up embracing his culture, and related that while he lived abroad in Europe, the attitude shown toward him was one of acceptance, quite opposite to what he experienced last Friday.

While she believes an apology is forthcoming, Small stated that beyond that, what she is seeking is for acceptance for her son and his culture.

“I envision that [he] will put on back his Indigenous wear, walk the same walk and be accepted how he’s supposed to be accepted in here…goes to the assemblies and they say this is okay, this is acceptable. Because, basically, what you told him [is] it was unacceptable, to the point where other students told him, ‘Well, you’re a stupid Amerindian boy, why didn’t you wear a vest?’ So this is what you’ve created, now you need to fix that. You need to fix that…,” Small stated.

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