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Violence in schools? What violence?

BY ERICA VIRTUE Sunday Observer writer virtuee@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, June 17, 2007    

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APPARENT feelings of insecurity over their stewardship have sent some secondary school principals into denial that school violence is worsening, the main teachers union and police have said.

"Principals feel that if it (violence in their schools) is discussed publicly, it will smear their schools and hence lower their ratings," said Hopeton Henry, the outspoken president of the 20,000-strong umbrella Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA).

"This is so especially of the 'brand name' schools. Some administrators deny that a problem exists in their school and so fail to seek help until it's almost too late.," Henry complained in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

"Some principals will deny that they have a problem until it is almost too late, but the body count is growing and violent attacks on students, by students are also growing," he insisted.

Official statistics put the number of students murdered on school grounds last year at 12.

Henry's comments were supported by Deputy Superintendent of Police Neville Knight, who told the Sunday Observer that many principals were merely wishing the problem away, instead of seeking help.

"Schools, especially those in the parish of St Catherine, are consumed by violence and many of the principals in these schools are deluding themselves into believing the problem will go away," said Knight.

Knight recently informed Justice Paulette Williams that police lockups were becoming overcrowded with secondary school students who were remanded in custody after committing criminal offences.

Among those remanded were at least three boys from Kingston Technical High School, for allegedly assaulting a female teacher earlier this year.

Knight emphasised that the violence problem was not confined to secondary or newly upgraded high schools, but was also in traditional high schools.

"When I was sub-officer at Constant Spring, I was asked to deal with issues involving violence in schools. I remember being called to Calabar (High School) on a matter involving the use of a knife...," Knight said.

He also disclosed that when the Safe Schools Programme (SSP) was first introduced to help rein in growing violence in schools, some principals had rejected the programme.

Under the SSP, a police officer trained in mediation issues is dispatched to schools, which are participants.

"Initially, some of the schools rejected the police presence in the schools. I think they believed they did not need us. Some also believed that if the police were stationed in their schools, their institutions would be in the limelight. But the fact is, if you have bad students, you have bad students," Knight emphasised.

JTA's Henry suggested the problem of violence in schools and head-in-the-sand teachers was nothing new, as he had addressed it in a 2005 article he titled Uncovering the Underworld in your schools, before he took the helm of the teachers union.

In the article, he said many principals feared being called "weak administrators".

"And while principals worry about their stewardship, their compounds which were once a fountain for innocent youthful experiences, have become deadly playgrounds... Now, police lockups have become the new recreation centres for school age children, mostly boys who have breached school rules and find themselves waiting on a judge to determine their future."

But the JTA president argued that the violence in the school was a mirror image of what was happening in the society and suggested that not all incidents of violence made the headlines.

Henry's comments also came against the background of incidents such as the stabbing of a Kingston College third form student by Calabar High School students, who claimed that he was on their turf. Kingston College students had to be counselled about reprisal attacks.

Several weeks ago, two students from Ardenne High School were attacked, beaten and one stabbed by Jamaica College students while walking to Half-Way-Tree. The boys were also robbed of their cellphones. One managed to escape and the other was admitted to hospital in a critical condition.

Ardenne's Parent Teachers Association flew into a rage, hastily convened a meeting and decided to ban the use of cellphones, effective the following term.

In his 2005 article, Henry blamed endemic violence in the society for the problem in schools, saying that in some schools, gang-related violence resulted when students gravitate towards a 'bad-man' for protection - an argument previously put forward by former co-ordinator of the policing aspect of the Safe Schools Programme, Deputy Superintendent Mervin McNab.

McNab, noting that young gangsters were active in the schools, cited Innswood High School in St Catherine as one with junior "One Order" and "Clansman" gangs.

One Order and Clansman, two criminal gangs, are affiliated with the two major political parties - Clansman with the ruling People's National Party (PNP) and One Order with the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

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