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Sunday 26 May 2019
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Commentary

Putting children first

Does someone need to report David Simon to the Children’s Authority?

Hanif Benjamin, Safiya Noel and their team are busy repeatedly counselling parents: Put your children ahead of yourselves. Trying to change our culture. This Carnival season the Police Service has chimed in. Sgt Ancil Forde took to the airwaves this week reminding parents about their responsibility that any minor under 18 left at home needs proper supervision.

The Queen’s Royal College principal has sent home five of his students. For a week — maybe two — Education Minister Anthony Garcia told media. Despite Sgt Forde’s counsel, I doubt their parents will be staying home with them. According to available reports, it is because the school and its reputation are more important than them. They have brought it into disrepute.

I thought schools had a sacred mission: to protect and develop the young people whose parents entrust more of their waking hours to them than they get to spend with their own offspring. That mission ought to be the institution’s paramount concern. How could a school have any reputational concerns other than the welfare of its students and whether it treats them right?

How does a school’s leader place the institution above the children? Is Simon doing exactly what Forde and Benjamin are begging us not to: putting other interests ahead of our children?

This idea of upholding reputation might apply to a military service. Even a workplace, when duty comes in exchange for pay. But not a public school. In fact, it is dangerously pretentious for any post-colonial human service institution to see itself as bigger than the population it serves. People’s human dignity outweighs that of institutions in the modern state.

The problem is much bigger than these five boys. When we instil these values about institutions being bigger than people in children, they grow up to be the magistrates who don’t let poor people into their courtrooms wearing the clothes they have. The police who seek to discipline instead of serve. The petty clerk behind the Registrar General window who looks down her nose at my form eight, takes her pencil and circles the lower case letters of the neatly typed professions of my new board members, and instructs that I must return with the professions capitalised. Anthony Carmona’s concerns about “dignity of office” in protecting his wife’s midriff from Rachel Price’s ribbing was simply an alarm bell for presidential wine and housing allowance abuses.

Many of us watched the video. Several shared it to bring shame to the school, for sure: Bacchanal in prestige school. Queens in college. Some of us watch every school fight, every classroom sex scene. Some of us delight in spreading the scandal, relentlessly re-posting items as fast as they’re taken down. Some of us, like me, believe we’re morally superior, by watching, pretending we didn’t, and not sharing. We don’t take account of how our social media consumption violates young people and cruelly compounds their youthful mistakes. Our first instinct is rarely to protect children as if they were ours. After all, some of us like Helen Bartlett beat our children online to shame them.

Many of us assumed sexuality was in some measure the disrepute QRC sought to avenge. But the Education Minister put that to rest. By making it worse. It was obscene language, he declared. The minister who won’t reinstitute corporal punishment in schools despite the pleas from the PNM benches. Who stands firmly behind pregnant girls completing their education. Believes removing students from learning and putting them into danger unsupervised at home is a response to language parliamentarians routinely use in their tearoom being heard on a school compound.

And why is suspension a thing, anyway? Is it of any proven value as a disciplinary measure? I can’t imagine how.

Garcia’s deep concern with policing language that appears in some of the best literature landed in the middle of a national conversation Prof. Theodore Lewis, President Weekes, Andy Johnson and — who’d have imagined — Phillip Alexander have led us into, about all the misplaced priorities and wrong-headed values in our educational system. And about its fundamental failure to be child-centred.

But somebody is doing something right at QRC. Someone is responsible for the remarkable self-efficacy of those two young black boys in that video. I have more hope in them than anyone in the Parliament. And QRC teachers and old boys have confirmed that the video showcases one of the school’s best traditions: its encouragement of a culture of vigorous and heartfelt debate in empty classrooms.

I don’t want young people debating each other’s humanity, though. Also, it’s time we give school leaders more imaginative and scientific tools for moulding children into responsible adults than canes and suspensions.

And QRC needs to put its students ahead of itself.

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