TUCKED between two warring gangs, one in the Beetham and the other in the Laventille hills, the Success Laventille Secondary school is an institution which daily, Monday to Friday, doles out lessons in fear for both teachers and students.
The issue of the safety of students and staff was recently raised when a nearby shooting left holes in the school's walls. There were calls to have the school moved but the Minister of Education Anthony Garcia said that is not possible and that he is discussing the matter with the National Security Ministry.
But is Minister Garcia or the technocrats at that Ministry aware of what a day is like in Success Laventille Secondary? Is the National Security Minister, Edmund Dillon aware? Do they think it can be business as usual in terms of education for both teachers and students of this school? A teacher, speaking on strict anonymity, sought to paint a picture to Sunday Newsday of a day in Success Laventille Secondary.
MURDERS IN BROAD DAYLIGHT
“I think the Ministry just doesn’t care. Obviously we need a police post. There is no way they could say it can’t be done. They are just not willing to. Honestly, the police probably don’t want to come there and I could understand that because they are also at risk. They too have families and it’s not like they’re the best paid workers.”
The teacher recalled that in January 2016, when students Denilson Smith, 17, and Mark Richards, 15, were dragged out of a PH taxi and killed minutes after school was let out, a police presence was requested before and after school. He said the police were there for about two months but the staff was told it was not sustainable.
The teacher said constant presence is necessary as “everything was going unchecked” and the weapons being used by criminals are getting more sophisticated. He admitted that many of the people in the area do not respect police officers, and even some students expressed this same sentiment.
However, he said, residents respect soldiers and he believes a small contingent of the military, on rotation in Laventille would make a massive difference. Things have been getting worse.
Recalling the stabbing of a student by another in February 2008, the teacher said there has always been a history of fighting at the school. However, he said, over the past few years “things have gotten a lot scarier.”
He said he did not believe gang rivalries are prevalent among students but what is happening outside of the school is affecting them in different ways. He said if a fight breaks out in school, it could incite other fights.
“The students come from a culture of fighting. It’s as if there is something boiling inside and the slightest trigger brings it out. We can’t say for sure it has something to do with gangs but we know these students talk about their allegiance with gangs.”
He said very few students do not live in the areas of Laventille, Beetham, Sea Lots and Morvant and some are affiliated with or outright members of gangs. This scares many teachers out of their wits. “They come from the areas gangs control and they often get involved, sometimes because they feel the pressure of having to be protected, and that leaves teachers in a serious predicament especially when it comes to things like discipline because teachers always wonder who would be waiting for you when you step outside the school gate.”
DROP AND ROLL
Because of this, students were not allowed to have cell phones at school although he said he often found ways to sneak them in. He said even laptops were a risk as they had internet access which would allow the students to contact gang members outside.
Explaining the reasoning behind the restriction, he said about five years ago a student who was on suspension was loitering outside the school, supposedly waiting to kill another student. “The student he came for got wind of it and he contacted his people on the Beetham. They crossed the main road, came up just as school ended and killed the boy.”
He added that, because of the location of the school on the Eastern Main Road between Beetham Gardens and Laventille, the school is exposed. He recalled once during a Parents’ Day meeting, most of students and their family members were assembled in the Hall, which faces the main road and has no wall.
He said when gunshots started, he was amazed by the reaction of residents. He said while he stopped to listen, wondering if they were gunshots or firecrackers, residents immediately dropped to the floor and others got under the table.
“Their instinctive reaction was amazing to me. They could identify real gunshots without stopping to think. From their accounts, this is their response at home when gunshots are fired outside. Imagine watching television or washing wares and then having to drop to the floor and roll under a table. This is the reality of home life in Laventille, in Beetham, up on the hill over there," the teacher said.
He believes residents are more used to such occurrences and are nonchalant about it while some teachers, new to the school were left traumatised, shaking life a tree in a storm, when first they experience the sound of rapid gunfire outside the school walls.
Because of this, there is a “pretty fast” teacher turnover at Success Laventille. “The staff turnover at Success is unbelievable. When they come in, students who left five years ago could barely identify ten teachers. Teachers keep asking for transfers because they are completely vulnerable to the elements and there’s nothing in place to protect them.”
He added that if staff members wanted something off premises, during the day, they used to walk to the main road and get a taxi and head to town. Now, if they do not have to, no one leaves unless they do so in a car. “At any point, at anytime during the day, anything is possible. There is no time of the day when we the teachers and our students feel safe. Any number can play...including as they say in Play Whe...dead man,” the teacher said.
He said it was very difficult for students to learn in such a volatile environment. “At home they have a very unstable, unsettled life and at school, it is no different. At home, they have to drop to the floor and roll under a table or behind a couch, when the shooting starts. How can a child learn or study in such an environment. So they are disadvantaged from both sides, at home and in school,” the teacher said.
He told the story of a student confiding that she had to wake up very early in the morning to do her homework because her family had to turn off the lights early on evenings. That was because gangsters would lime on the block and if the police raided the area, it was assumed that whoever was awake and had lights on, they called the police.
With school on a break for two months, the teacher called on Minister Garcia to carefully think over his stance on not wanting to relocate this school from that area. Come September, a new batch of Form One students will enter secondary school life at Success Laventille and the teacher opined, lessons in fear will start from the first day of the new term.