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Reproachful, cringe-worthy behaviour by JFJ and JTA

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, June 17, 2014    

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THERE is nothing like violating its own brand to show up an organisation as untrustworthy at worst, or fraudulent and hypocritical at best. The news that Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) has sneaked into several children's homes to teach a sexual and reproductive health course, unknown and unapproved by the Child Development Agency (CDA), falls into that category and it is repugnant enough to warrant them being deregistered as an organisation with any direct contact with children.

State institutions are no substitute for a loving home and caring families. Furthermore, children are typically in state care because they have experienced a life trauma, whether physical or psychological, such as the loss of a parent or guardian, have been abandoned, or have suffered physical, sexual or psychological abuse. This means that they face the dual problem of having to resolve those issues in the relatively sterile institutional atmosphere.

The fragility of their situations dictates that barriers are erected between them and individuals or organisations, no matter how well-meaning. It cannot be a free for all because they are minors with special vulnerabilities; the State, therefore, has the responsibility of making those decisions that parents typically would make in their interests. It is unconscionable that anyone should so completely bypass the responsible agencies to introduce material on the sensitive issues of their sexual and reproductive health.

The nature of the course content or the aim of the programme is beside the point. What matters is that the CDA was bypassed to advance a curriculum which, reports say, are similar to one rejected by the Ministry of Education last year for use in the general population. Other than in areas where there are identified special needs, educational material for wards of the State should not be significantly different from that approved by the Ministry of Education or other relevant State agencies.

Interestingly, JFJ says on its website that it “has been advocating for improvements in the situation of children in State care for over a decade… The organisation has now changed its child's rights portfolio to include direct intervention…” How is it possible that a nongovernment organisation can “directly intervene” in the care of wards of the State without permission from the overseeing agencies? Aren't there some fundamental ethical principles that are being violated here?

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that the reason for bypassing the CDA is the strong likelihood that the programme would not have been approved? And, does this not mean then that what the JFJ is doing is exploiting the vulnerability of these children? The language on the JFJ's website, and reinforced by comments from Executive Director Kay Osbourne, offers a rationale steeped in arrogance — the suggestion that the “superiority” of its posture is its own permission; like churches believing that just because they are worshipping God, they are free to disturb others however they choose. Such positions are based on arrogance, ignorance and disrespect, less than we should expect from a crusading human rights organisation.

Those who teach...

Like the JFJ, the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) seems to think it is a law unto itself. I cannot say I am disappointed, because I have never had much faith in them. In fact, when I graduated teachers' college in the summer of my 21st year, and began my first job teaching at Knox College, I was surprised when I received my first pay cheque and realised that a deduction was made payable to the JTA for membership fees.

I promptly instructed the bursar to make no further deduction because I had no intention of joining the organisation. I disliked the automatic assumption that, just because the organisation existed, I should join. But, more than that, I recognised, even then, that the JTA lacked a positive focus — that its most noteworthy role was routinely leading strikes on behalf of the teachers and disrupting the system.

While I support workers' rights and believe that even strikes have their place, I took a jaundiced view of a professional organisation that seemed to use them as primary leverage in an industry as vital as education. Their recent response to the ministry's request for teachers to return money they were overpaid was unfathomable. The fact that the overpayment must have occurred as a result of some mistake on the ministry's part makes no difference; returning what does not belong to you, however you come by it, is what decent people do, and that is a value we are supposed to teach our children.

Then came the textbook issue. For years, I have compared my children's booklists in the United States with that of their cousins in Jamaica and wondered why we were using the education system to exploit our people, whether through forced purchase of unnecessary textbooks, ridiculous and costly graduation exercises, or “extra classes” substituting for what students should be learning in a normal school day. All this on top of necessary expense, like transportation costs, that the rural poor must pay to send their children to “good schools,” located mostly in urban centres. The ministry's long overdue directive that it must approve all textbooks was met with the absurd counter-directive from JTA President Dr Mark Nicely to “proceed until you are apprehended, and when you are apprehended, the Jamaica Teachers’ Association will be there to treat with the matter”.

Note that I will never blame teachers alone or even mostly for the current problems in education. I mostly take the position that the system was designed to produce exactly the kind of results that we are getting. Attaining significantly different results, therefore, will require hugely expansive redesign. Toward that end, I would expect that the JTA would be leading a constructive and visionary discourse on what a relevant education should look like. Instead, it remains emblematic of a mostly ‘direction-less,’ testosterone-driven organisation, and that translates into nothing more than humbug.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a social justice advocate.

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