A dark day

A dark day

Salvation Army School for the Blind's boarding facilities facing closure

Senior staff reporter

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

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THERE is growing tension at the Salvation Army School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in St Andrew, where Ministry of Education (MOE) staff and Salvation Army representatives have locked horns over several issues including the closure of the dormitory.

MOE staff are contending that the closure of the boarding facility, which houses mostly students from rural Jamaica, would be unprecedented as most boarding students are unable to commute between home and school without difficulty and would, therefore, be placed at a disadvantage.

Approximately 65 students board at the school.

The institution, which caters to children aged three to 20 years old, is the only one of its kind in the country. It is a partnership between the education ministry and the Salvation Army.

In a memo sent to chief secretary for the local branch of Salvation Army and board chair Paul Main, a copy of which was obtained by the Jamaica Observer, school principal Iyeke Erharuyi urged Main to intervene and impressed upon the school's administrator, Major Rodney Bungay, to “exercise restraint in the attempt to close the boarding facility”.

According to Erharuyi, such decision should only be made based on the reality on the ground as well as collectively with stakeholders, including the school's administration, board, Parent/Teachers' Association, staff and the Ministry of Education.

“This is the only school in Jamaica for children with visual impairment. They do not have another school. Some are preparing for exit examinations such as PEP (Primary Exit Profile), CSEC (Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate), CAP (Career Advancement Programme), and City and Guilds,” Erharuyi's memo said.

“Above all, there are some integrated students who attend traditional high schools, whose programme is outside our control. They certainly would need the boarding facility. As a Christian school, we must be like a candle that burns itself out to give light to others, especially for my students.

“I construe the decision to close the boarding facility was long designed by the administrator and the boarding director. This has been said louder for every student and staff to hear since they assumed duty, showing unjustified suspicion mistrust of other people,” Erharuyi added.

The principal also referred to a petition signed by the school's ancillary staff, expressing concerns about the leadership style and practices of Bungay.

Erharuyi said, to date, nothing has been done to address those concerns.

Several attempts to reach Bungay for a comment were unsuccessful.

Erharuyi also did not return the Observer's calls.

“The interest in the children's welfare should obligate us to act now. The materiality of the concerns of parents and staff should not be ignored. We have to be very careful that we do not stymie the interest and productivity of our staff that are becoming restive on this matter. The administrator keeps moving the goal post to justify the closure of the boarding facility. First, it was the compulsory closure for the midterm. Then it became the issue of water, fire and others which are paranoiac than particular,” Erharuyi pointed out in his memo.

But in a response by e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by the Observer, Main reminded Erharuyi that it was not unusual to close the boarding facility for the midterm break and also that the Salvation Army was not operating a children's home.

At the same time, he suggested that the school's boarding facility will not be permanently closed as noted by MOE staff and students, but said several existing issues, including water shortage, have crippled the school's ability to effectively function.

Main also said that it was important for students to have the opportunity to return home and be with their families.

“I remind you that all property and building matters are managed by the SA (Salvation Army) and only through our property secretary can matters be addressed. The MOE has no say in these matters. They may wish to support us financially but they do not make decisions about our property...,” said Main.

He added, too, that the principal was incorrect in assuming that the concerns raised by staff were not investigated.

“That matter was addressed and closed following our procedures,” Main noted.

But Erharuyi, in a subsequent e-mail, took issue with the Salvation Army man's position, expressing regret and disappointment.

“The issue of closure of the dormitory is more about being reminded that we should take into consideration that some students might not be able to go home. If we neglect that fact and continue to belabour other points we will be failing in our duty of care to our children... I remind you, Mr Chairman, that the chairman, principal and administrator owe both the staff and students a duty to care. Again, please permit me to further restate that there has never been a total closure of the dormitory, especially when some students have reasonable need to stay behind during such midterm break,” Erharuyi said.

Efforts to reach the education ministry's press officer for a comment on the matter were also unsuccessful.

The Observer spoke to two students, with their parents' consent, who claimed they have been subjected to poor treatment from Salvation Army administrators.

They have, however, asked that they not be identified.

“Attending the school is alright,” the student said before alleging poor treatment from one of the administrators. “At first, when she came she treated us nice, but after some weeks she started treating us bad. Right now she wants us to go home, but she must understand that some of the parents don't have the money to carry kids home. She's forcing [kids] and telling them about police station and CDA (Child Development Agency) and all of those bad stuff,” the student alleged.

“She said she's going to take us to the police station if we don't go home... It makes me feel bad because I'll have to be travelling from (parish omitted) to come to school here and that is hectic because the money is not there,” the student told the Observer.

“It's hard on my family, Miss. My father has to cut tree and board to send me here and it's hard to do that. My classmates feel bad too, because same as me it's going to be hectic for them to come to school. Some of them live in Clarendon, St Elizabeth, St Mary, MoBay and Westmoreland,” the child continued.

In the same breath, the student told the Observer that the school, which was established in 1927, has helped her tremendously.

“I wasn't going to any school and I come here and I get to learn a lot. Overall, they provide me with a brailler that helps me to read,” the student said.

Another student shared with the Observer that he had been asked to leave the compound or be taken to the nearest police station.

“My parents can't always find it, so that is one of the reasons why mi nuh waah go home. It makes me feel so sad. A pure cry mi a cry. Each time mi tell them mi can't go home them nuh waah listen. Them never usually tell us to go home, a just since them people here come them waah close down boarding. Them tell wi seh wi haffi leave or wi a go a police station,” the student stated.

“The treatment overall bad. Like for meal [in the morning] them give bread and butter and I don't eat it so I will ask for meat; in the days we get that and maybe in the night we get like rice and chicken. Like sometimes mi waah kill myself, honestly, like even how them talk to wi,” the student added.

The Observer contacted the Salvation Army Caribbean Territorial Headquarters and was told that the Protestant Christian church, as an international charitable organisation, cannot speak to the allegations.

The Observer also spoke to staff who, in a letter dated October 16, 2019 and addressed to Commissioner Devon Haughton, the man in charge of the Salvation Army Caribbean Territorial Headquarters, accused Bungay of demonstrating an autocratic style of leadership.

Staff members said the relationship with Bungay, who took office in July 2018, has become strained.

They are alleging that Bungay's leadership style has created a “toxic atmosphere that currently prevails at the Salvation Army School for the Blind.

“It is counterproductive to the efforts and mandates of staff members to facilitate learning and development of children in our care,” a part of the letter read.

The staff noted that the most recent incident which caused them to write to Haughton was the announcement about the closing of the boarding facility.

“It must be noted that this is the only institution for children who are blind and visually impaired in Jamaica. Mr Bungay unilaterally decided to close the facility despite temporary measures recommended and implemented to alleviate the water problem. The issue is now being used to close the facility which would disrupt the teaching-learning process.

“It is with these in mind, we see it of utmost importance that Major Bungay's conduct is brought to your immediate attention. The staff members have endured ill-treatment for far too long and feel it necessary to voice our concerns... Thus, we humbly seek your intervention into the issues raised herein to determine the way forward in the best interest of all stakeholders,” the letter read.

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