Our responsibility to our nation's children


Friday, May 23, 2014

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QUESTION of the week: Will we ever be able to make the world entirely safe for our children? How can we protect them from the dangers which lurk everywhere? Anybody who knows children can tell you that it is not easy to protect them every waking hour, but we will always try.

When we win, it is the greatest feeling. When there's fatal loss, unexpected and cruel, there's nothing more heart-rending. It becomes a concern for a community, for a nation.

This week, the tears began in Montego Bay with the tragic death of nine-year-old twin brothers Brandon and Brayden Jones, swept away by flood waters in a storm drain. They were on their way home from school after a heavy downpour when one brother, according to reports, decided to walk through the water. While an adult would choose dry land, a youngster finds it far more interesting to splash and slog along. Water is both challenging and liberating. The boys were not unusual in their behaviour.

One of the twins didn't know that the concrete surface of the drain was slippery. Reports say he slipped in the water. His brother did what any brother would do. He rushed to his twin's aid. The water's force was strong. Both boys were washed away. Their drowned bodies were found next morning in the sea into which the drain emptied. Their story ended in tears of grief, not only for their family, but the community. As word spread, it became everyone's concern. There was also the usual response of curiosity and speculation which accompanies tragedy. Not surprisingly, the question followed: Whose fault? Someone, some agency, must take the rap.

People rushed to judgement against the teachers at the school which the boys attended. Via call-in shows, questions were raised: Why didn't the teachers call the parents to come and collect their children? Why were the children allowed to leave for home in the heavy rain? The principal responded, her voice heavy with the burden of loss and the futility of trying to deal with criticism as she refuted the allegation of neglect. A classroom teacher also explained how she tried to get the boys to stay until the rain eased; but first one, then the other, left on their own.

Montego Bay city officials were called to give an accounting of the way the municipality has been dealing with the long-running challenge of flooding in the city. The mayor responded, outlining what had been done and what was left undone. Who can satisfy the questions of the bereaved family, especially the boys' mother, who had been overseas working to maintain her family?

One question which haunts the community is: Who has the ultimate responsibility for our children's safety? All across the country, children of all ages can be seen morning and evening getting themselves to and from school, sometimes accompanied by adults or older siblings, travelling alone more often than not. In an ideal world, all children should be provided with an organised system of transportation and care. We haven't got that yet, so until it evolves, the question will continue to be asked.

Our children must be among the most sophisticated for their age. Four-year-olds set out on their journey every schoolday, laden with huge school bags on their backs, like little beasts of burden. Oftentimes, young children pilot siblings even younger than them, and do so with remarkable calm and confidence. It is amazing enough on rural roads but heart-stopping on crowded urban streets.

Since the sad incident involving the Montego Bay twins, a father was heard reflecting: "There must be a special angel watching over our children on our roads." While we live in faith and trust, we should be taking lessons from communities which organise to protect their children. More often than not, basic schools operate on strict lines, insisting on the involvement of parents and guardians. There is insistence that the children must be delivered to school by adults who accept responsibility for accompanying them in the morning and again at the end of the day. By primary school, the children are on their own.

There are two areas of Kingston through which I often travel at the time basic schools in the community end their day. It is an affirmation to see parents -- most of them young -- taking home not only their children, but others. It is a common sight to see a group of youngsters being shepherded by one adult. It is a given that no child is left unprotected. Both these communities are in what is regarded as poor neighbourhoods. Their wealth obviously lies in their sense of responsibility for all the children.

The assumption of the wider society has been that child neglect is confined to the poorest. It is generally accepted that the middle and upper classes have no such difficulties. Not necessarily so. Live and learn. I have heard stories from caretakers of prep schools, of children left behind till as late as 7:00 pm because mom or dad, bogged down with business, forgot to collect their offspring. I've seen it myself in other settings. Uptown, downtown, country, or town, the care of children is no easy matter. The solution does not come from one source. When the twins stepped into the water the other afternoon, was there any adult nearby who could have warned them of the danger and moved them to safe ground? Imagine the difference it would have made.

We return to the issue of who has the ultimate responsibility for the care and safety of our children. The current tragedy of the twins has us asking the same questions and getting the same responses. Opinion is divided, as usual. Some insist that the school's responsibility ends with the schoolday and parents must come forward and assume responsibility for their offspring. Another school of thought (an edict of the Ministry of Education) requires the school to make contact with parents and summon them to come and take care of their children after closing time. It sounds good, but parents do not always keep their end of the deal. So we head back to where we started.

As a community, we have a distressing habit of getting all fired up when a tragedy or some other disturbance occurs, especially involving children. We preach, we pray, we lay blame on one another. We argue back and forth. We offer new ideas, we shout for change, then the heat subsides and it is back to the usual routine...until next time.

The invading social media

Another cultural aberration newly come among us, is the fixation with social media. Imagine an individual taking pictures of the lifeless bodies of the Montego Bay twins to post on Facebook where it can be seen by adults and children alike. Have we lost our compassion? When did we become heartless and insensitive? We seem to have no shame. Nothing is sacred. Even worse, are those who shared the pictures Re-circulating them at home and abroad without a thought for what they were doing?

SOS: Another young boy in St James loses his life. Where do we go from here?





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