Focus on physical, sexual violence in schools
BOWDEN... the laser focus being placed on grooming and the justifications being put forward are distracting from real issue.

THERE has been an incessant debate about students being locked out of schools, whether for tight pants, short skirts or hairstyles deemed as a breach of school rules.

The Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN) believes that more effort should be placed on more pressing matters affecting students, such as sexual abuse and physical violence in schools.

"The best interest of our children is to be in a safe environment where they can learn, with little to no interruptions. Emphasis should be on addressing the plethora of issues affecting children within the school setting — learning loss, their nutrition, sexual and physical violence in the schools, to name a few," Shannique Bowden, executive director of JYAN, told the Jamaica Observer in an interview.

"The laser focus being placed on grooming and the justifications being put forward are distracting from real issues more deserving of our attention," Bowden continued.

Last Thursday an argument between two female Kingston Technical High School students, over what was said to be gossip, turned fatal in the afternoon, leaving their schoolmates in shock and triggering a call for social workers to give more attention to children and their parents.

Grade 11 student Michion Campbell was stabbed during a heated argument on the school compound.

On Monday, September 19, the administrators of Oracabessa High School said they were conducting investigations into an alleged sex crime committed against a female student about 4 o'clock that afternoon, while classes were in session.

Attorney-at-law Kemar Setal agreed with Bowden, saying that it is distasteful and disheartening when matters are brought to the court regarding students.

"Just imagine, the 17-year-old female student who did the stabbing at KT on Wednesday is now in custody. It is saddening to see students having to go to court for any offence, not to mention murder. Also, there are many cases of sexual offences currently in the court which involve both accused and complainants being minors. These are children in school whose main focus at this age should be excelling academically," Setal lamented.

Setal added that effects on the families of these children, the schools, and society at large are vast.

"…Especially when they are my clients and the matter comes up and you know the possible penalties they will face could be one of serving prison time. These children are the future, and their lives are going to the wayside. It is just sad to see where our society has gone.

"Imagine a parent having to go and visit their child in police lock-up when they had sent them to school. The emotional distress I see them encountering isn't normal — and we haven't even explored the families of the victims," he told the Sunday Observer.

Last Wednesday at the Corporate Area Parish Court Criminal Division in Half-Way Tree, St Andrew, a mother fainted while court was in session. The matter that was being heard involved her 17-year-old son who was charged with murder.

One of the attorneys representing the young man had to rush to attend to the woman and sought medical attention on her behalf. She was eventually taken to a hospital.

Meanwhile, Bowden said JYAN has been noting, with increasing concern, the discussions around school grooming rules and reports of students being turned away because their skirts aren't long enough, pants are too tight and beads are being worn in their hair, among other reasons.

"Locking students out of school is a practice which needs to end. There is a fundamental right to education that all Jamaican children have, and JYAN has consistently maintained that the practice of barring students from entering schools is dangerous," Bowden told the Sunday Observer.

"Schools have a responsibility to account for, and to protect children. There are other sanctions schools can explore for alleged rules violations that would not place the child in a potentially dangerous situation or infringe on his or her right to an education."

Bowden pointed to the Ministry of Education's indication that it is working on a grooming policy for schools.

"We hope that this will give clearer guidance to schools on how to develop and enforce their school rules. More importantly, JYAN calls for the education ministry to ensure strict sanctions for schools that turn students away for rules violation as this runs counter to the policy of the ministry."

Reverend Canon Garth Minott said there has to be consensus on the message to be sent to parents, teachers and students.

"With the majority of students and parents conforming to the rules and regulations of the schools, those of my generation recall in the 1970s the children of Rastafarians being barred from school because of hairstyle. Thankfully, those days are behind us and show that we can make changes to policy for the benefit of minorities who are talking back and at the same time demanding a response."

Romardo Lyons

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