BY CONRAD HAMILTON Sunday Observer senior reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
PLANS by the Government to open a multimillion-dollar complex that would accommodate boys deemed by their high schools and the Ministry of Education to be too unruly for the public school system appear to be in limbo as Education Minister Reverend Ronald Thwaites says he is harbouring second thoughts regarding the appropriateness of such a facility.
The Malvern Special High School, located in Potsdam, St Elizabeth is being built to provide residential behavioural management for between 40 and 60 delinquent boys who are too disruptive for the regular school environment.
The Potsdam facility was slated to be the first of several similar institutions that would have been rolled out by the education ministry in response to demands from school principals across the country, some of whom view the delinquents as threats to both staff and students.
The minister's admission comes amidst intense public debate over the use of corporal punishment in schools and against the background of claims by some stakeholders in the education system that indiscipline and cases of deviant behaviour are on the rise, particularly in secondary schools.
His disclosure also comes at a time when the Government is coming under intense pressure over its housing of children in adult correctional facilities and the treatment of others in State-run facilities.
Many observers, including children rights advocates, maintain that the rights of many children in State care have been violated, and that many of these children are not benefiting from any form of rehabilitation.
Those comments escalated just over a week ago when a female ward of the State, who along with other girls was being held in a section of the maximum security Horizon Adult Remand Centre, reportedly committed suicide after being involved in a fight.
The girl's family has since requested permission from the Government to obtain an independent pathologist to conduct a post-mortem.
But speaking with the Jamaica Observer, Thwaites said he was not sure of the merits of sending 40 to 60 delinquent boys to the Potsdam facility, and questioned whether such a move wouldn't be tantamount to the creation of a juvenile prison.
According to him, whatever programme is to be offered to the delinquent boys should be rehabilitative and would best be offered to them in their communities or in the communities where their schools are located.
While acknowledging that no firm decision had been made, Thwaites said he will be speaking with local behaviour change specialists before he gives the all-clear.
The education minister's position is being supported by one of the country's leading psychiatrists who is convinced that any decision to send children to the Malvern Special High School or to any similar facility could be disastrous.
In an interview with the Sunday Observer, consultant psychiatrist at the University Hospital of the West Indies Dr Wendel Abel asserted that no child should be sent to the Potsdam facility as the programme would be of no help to them.
"Some of these students are children with complex behavioural and mental health problems. What we also notice is that these children have several things in common, such as a history of abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual. The majority of the boys use drugs and lots of them are underperforming academically, and therefore the intervention that is required for these children must be done at several levels," said Dr Abel, who pointed out that he has worked with scores of students who display behavioural traits that would make them prime targets for placement at the special high school.
"In one year we worked with close to 400 children, doing counselling and behavioural intervention at the community level, with excellent outcomes. All of them, except three, were returned to their schools without any major problems," said Abel as he called on the Ministry of Education to place more emphasis on alternatives such as its Programme of Alternative Student Support (PASS).
Abel added that there are legal considerations that could prevent the education ministry from proceeding with the opening of the special school. "From my understanding, it is not within the remit of the Ministry of Education to operate such a programme," he said. "There is no legal basis for it and it's in contravention of several conventions on the rights of children. The Ministry of Education's responsibility is to educate children, not to treat them, that is a Ministry of Health responsibility.
"You do not treat these children by putting them away. If you are an adult with marital, behavioural or emotional problems you would not want to be locked away, why should we do it to our children"? he asked.
"What the ministry needs to do is to ensure that these students are assessed to find out what is happening to them, ensure that they receive counselling and you also have to involve parents in the process, because the parents also need counselling," he added.
The noted psychiatrist also threw jabs at the country's health ministry and argued that it should have established a facility to treat children and adolescents with complex behavioural problems.
"In this country, we do not have a facility run by the Ministry of Health to treat adolescents with behavioural problems and that is the heart of the problem," Abel maintained.
Despite the development, Thwaites is indicating that the facility — brainchild of former Education Minister Andrew Holness — will not go to waste, as the Munro Dickinson Trust, which operates the nearby Munro College, has expressed an interest in managing the facility on behalf of the education ministry.
The sloping three-acre property, which boasts a bird's eye view of the Pedro Plains and the southern St Elizabeth coastline, was bought by Government from the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) for just over $30 million.
The purchase was made after the JFF abandoned plans for a football academy at what was once a private development known as Munro Villas.
The Sunday Observer was told that the education ministry has spent close to $50 million to rehabilitate and retrofit the buildings on the property in preparation for the establishment of the school, which was slated to begin operations earlier this year.
However, Sunday Observer sources say more funds are needed to complete and equip the facility.