THE administration of Kensington Primary School in St Catherine is coming under fire from the parents of a nine-year-old girl who are taking issue with the school’s use of corporal punishment in its administration of discipline.
However, the leadership of the school, which is arguably the best-performing primary institution in Jamaica, is hitting back, insisting that it has done nothing wrong, as the flogging of students plays a key rule in ensuring that they focus and display the behaviours that are conducive to learning.
The school administration is receiving strong support from the Parent Teachers Association (PTA). However, the small group of complaining parents is about to be joined by the Office of the Children’s Advocate (OCA) which maintains that corporal punishment is illegal, based on the provisions of the Child Care and Protection Act.
The OCA has indicated that it will be launching an investigation into the complaints against Kensington Primary.
The controversy comes amidst moves by the Government to outlaw legislation which permits the flogging of adult criminals. Just two weeks ago, Justice Minister Senator Mark Golding announced that Jamaica was taking steps to abolish flogging and whipping of prisoners.
“Flogging and whipping are in breach of our international obligations. Jamaica is a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the International Protocol and also the American Convention and these make the imposition of torture and inhumane punishment unlawful,” said Golding whose disclosure has been met with mixed reactions from members of the public.
Corporal punishment in schools has been a muchtalked- about topic, particularly since 2009 when former minister of education Andrew Holness issued an order for schools to end the practice.
However, Holness’s announcement was also met with mixed reactions from education sector stakeholders with some parents and school principals arguing that his position was flawed and could not hold up in court, as a teacher is justified in administering moderate and reasonable corporal punishment under common law.
Several local and international child development experts and development organisations have been lobbying against corporal punishment and have been promoting alternative forms of discipline.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), corporal punishment can impair a child’s lifelong physical and mental health. “Extreme stress can impair the development of the nervous and immune systems. Consequently, as adults, maltreated children are at increased risk for behavioural, physical and mental health problems such as perpetrating or being a victim of violence, depression, smoking, obesity, high-risk sexual behaviours, unintended pregnancy, alcohol and drug misuse,” the WHO says.
But the debate over the appropriateness of flogging seems to be sufficient fodder for the administrators of Kensington Primary School who, according to one irate parent, whip their students into achieving academic success.
Kensington Primary is a much-sought-after institution, which has been the subject of glowing accolades for its academic success.
“Started in 1996 with 125 students and a reputation in the community of being the ‘dunce school’, Kensington Primary has surpassed all odds and now boasts the prestige of being one of Jamaica’s best-performing primary schools. A whopping 99 per cent mastery in literacy and 94 per cent in numeracy in the Grade Four Literacy and Numeracy tests at the last sittings were welcome changes for a school that, up until a few years ago, was unknown to many,” read a section of an article published in the May 20, 2010 edition of the Observer.
But while acknowledging the school’s academic achievements, Aretha Miller- Walker and her husband are among the small group of parents who refuse to support the claim that the end justifies the means.
“My daughter joined Kensington Primary in January, 2010 at the grade one level. She performed well, receiving an award for academic excellence at the end-of-year prize-giving service. She continued performing well at grade 2. Grade three was not as smooth after her class teacher went off on maternity leave. On May 30, 2012 she sat a mock exam for the numeracy and literacy papers. She was very nervous about the tests as she declared it was announced to all Grade 3 students that nothing less than 95 per cent would suffice, and anyone obtaining a lower grade would be slapped by the principal. Unfortunately, she got a grade of 52 out of 60 and was lined up along with classmates that did not make the ‘target’ and taken to the principal, who used a ruler to beat them in their hands for their ‘failing’ grades. This was the first time she reported being slapped at the school, even though she did mention other students being beaten before,” wrote the angry mother in a letter released to the Sunday Observer.
Miller-Walker said things got worse in September this year when her daughter was promoted to grade four. “On September 4, 2012 school reopened and my daughter was to discover her grade four class placement. Her name was called out as one of the students to be in Mr X’s class. She was on the brink of tears, explaining that he was feared by all as he was known for beating his students. I reassured her that she may not suffer the same fate of others and to make a character judgement from her own experience and not others. For the first week she reported classmates being slapped by his ruler that he tells them he had specially wrapped. Her preconceived fear of him was changing however as she said he seemed ‘OK’ and ‘funny sometimes’. The second week was not as good for her though, as she felt the wrath of the ruler for holding up her head during rest time when they were instructed to keep their head on the desk,” the mother complained before outlining three other occasions in September during which the feared teacher utilised the ‘rod of correction’.
The child’s mother said she decided to raise the issue at a planned meeting of the school’s PTA but was surprised by the tone of school principal Carlene McCalla-Francis as she addressed the PTA.
“She spoke of the grades for literacy and numeracy test results she had recently received; and as much as the overall performance for the school was good the individual grades were not as good, as the previous year and that they would need to work harder with this set of grade 4 [students]. She got intense and stated “wi going to be putting it on dem, come January, when di flogging will start. Anybody dat have a problem wid dat need fi talk now, so mi wi know wah fi do! Is 100 per cent wi going fah, 100 per cent!”, said the parent as she relayed how the principal allegedly addressed the PTA.
Miller-Walker explained that after the PTA meeting she approached her daughter’s teacher and complained about the use of corporal punishment, but was shocked when the teacher told her that he had been doing that for nine years and had no intention of ending the practice.
She said that within days of the discussion with the teacher she received a call from the school’s guidance counsellor inviting her to a meeting with the principal.
The principal, Miller-Walker said, “started by saying she summoned us because she received a report from Mr X that I spoke of my dissatisfaction with the beatings. She expressed her dissatisfaction with my position, saying when we enrolled my daughter we would have been asked in the interview if we had an issue with flogging, as they only take persons that do not have an issue with flogging. She reminded me of the package she spoke of at the PTA meeting the evening before. The principal went on to explain that the questions she got incorrect were simple and only students with learning disabilities should be getting 38/40 on that paper,” the angry mother complained.
“As the meeting carried on without progress, the principal said ‘ok, so I hear what you are saying, you don’t want your child slapped, and here at Kensington we slap, is not like I can move her to a next grade four because dem all beat, Mr B actually beats the least, so what now?’ I felt cornered, as if I was being presented with a take-itor- leave-it option. I asked if that was their only solution. To which she responded ‘no, we wi no affi beat her, but as soon as she does something wrong, like being disruptive, by talking when the teacher is talking, we will write up di white slip of paper and suspend her’.
“I pointed out that I think that would be victimisation. The teacher at this time chimed in saying ‘I don’t need [her] to go to another grade four, thank God mi not vindictive, I will teach her, dat is wat ministry pay mi for. But yu si dat extra mile, I will not be going there for her’.
“He then turns to the grade 4 co-ordinator, saying ‘in case I am not here and another teacher needs to take my class, please let everybody know that she is not to be slapped. If I had known she was an egg shell I would not have slapped her’.
According to Miller-Walker, her husband became upset by that characterisation of their child.
The parent complained that after the meeting with the principal, the class teacher reportedly went back to the class and rehashed the complaint that was discussed in the principal’s office.
“This form of ridicule and humiliation was the last straw for me,” said the parent, who told the Sunday Observer that she withdrew her daughter from the school that same day. “I took her to a preparatory school in the area and the principal accepted her immediately. I had to purchase cloth for uniform, get a dressmaker to do them in three days, buy blouse, additional books as per the new book list and pay school fee at private school rate. I had opted for a public school, to which I contribute by paying my taxes. I feel as if my rights were violated when I had to make the choice between having the Kensington Primary School staff and principal victimise and humiliate my child or remove her to a place of safety,” Miller-Walker asserted, even as she expressed concern about the treatment of other children, whose parents either support the position of the school or are afraid of challenging the institution.
“I find the accepted race horse mentality appalling. Whipping our dear children to constantly produce 100 per cent so that Kensington can be named top primary school,” said Miller-Walker, who complained that her daughter is being haunted by nightmares.
Despite the claims by Miller-Walker, the president of the school’s PTA is adamant that there is a place for “slapping” and cautioned against any moves to eliminate corporal punishment in schools.
“There are times when you give the children homework and the homework does not come, it can’t be just a nod. It doesn’t make any sense that we stay here and behave as if we are in the United States, we are not in the United States, this is Jamaica. A child should get a slap. I am not saying you should murder the child, but children must get slapped,” said Anthea Ramsay who suggested that only a few parents had an issue with the flogging of their children.
Ramsay added that the school administration has the full support of the PTA and asserted that this support is manifested in the large turnout for PTA meetings, where more than 1,000 representatives of the 1,300 students are normally in attendance.
The school principal said the latest outcry has got to her nerves and is leading her to question whether she should continue as an educator. McCalla-Francis, who said she was familiar with the specific complaints, informed the Sunday Observer that she has gone to court on three occasions to stave off challenges from parents who had accused the school of beating their children. While all three were thrown out by the courts, McCalla-Francis said she has no intention of going to another court hearing.
For her, many parents are not paying attention to key aspects of their children’s development, leaving teachers and school principals with the burden of enforcing discipline, including the use of corporal punishment, on wayward and poorly socialised children, many of whom show little interest in their schoolwork.
The outspoken school leader defended the school’s position on “slapping”, insisting that no teacher at the school is interested in harming any of the students.
“We are working under pressure here as we are given targets, so if you have a class where children have ability you can’t just sit there and say who pass, pass, you have to do what you have to do. Two little slaps in the palm of the hands is not abuse,” said the principal, who indicated she was fed up with the complaints and the failure of some parents to assist the school.
McCalla-Francis, who said she has been in teaching for more than 20 years, is warning the Government to be careful as it moves to eliminate corporal punishment as the move will backfire and result in an alarming increase in crime and violence, as too many children are not benefiting from any form of parental guidance.
However, in light of the furore, the principal asserted that she has stopped administering corporal punishment and will be proceeding with plans to leave the country as Jamaica faces a dim future based on poor parenting, high levels of youth maladjustment and moves by successive administrations to make it more difficult to sanction children.
When contacted for the agency’s position on corporal punishment in schools, deputy director of the Office of the Children’s Advocate Justice Henderson Downer said that corporal punishment is illegal and should not be administered to any child anywhere in Jamaica.
“My position, which I have put clearly on paper, is that corporal punishment is abolished in Jamaica, not just in schools, so I am saying that it is not to be administered, even by parents. The law doesn’t go to say that it is abolished, what you have got to do is look at the Act, and if an Act prohibits something, and in fact imposes criminal sanctions, the clear inference is that it is abolished,” argued Downer in reference to the Child Care and Protection Act.
“The other thing I wish you to note is that Section 1b of the Act says assault, and in law you don’t even have to hit the child — for that is what the law calls battery — assault is putting the child in fear and in my interpretation corporal punishment is abolished in Jamaica by virtue of this section,” Downer explained as he indicated that the agency will be intensifying efforts to advise Jamaicans of the provisions of the Child Care and Protection Act.
He added that as more persons go to the courts with their complaints more Jamaicans will become more aware of the seriousness of the offence.