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Heed the warning

The killing of a 14-year-old schoolboy by another 16-year-old pupil may well indicate where this country is heading, unless effective preventative measures are taken soon.

Unfortunately, there is fundamental disagreement on what “effective” might constitute. Polls and popular opinion suggest that the majority of the population favour punitive strategies, ranging from corporal to capital punishment. On the other side of the fence, the minority of experts in pedagogy and psychology cite research showing that such policies either have no effect or exacerbate the situation.

That there are many disturbed children in the school system is received wisdom. Zena Ramatali, president of the National Parent Teachers’ Association, has warned that such children are “at risk”. Such a warning, while hardly new, should be heard loud and clear, not only by education authorities, but also by all parents and others who expect schooling to be an experience for cultivating responsible and learned citizenship, rather than being a breeding ground for criminals and their victims.

In a sense, however, nearly all adolescents, especially males, are “at risk”. This is a period of life when physiological and hormonal changes wreak havoc with emotional stability. What mediates adolescents’ behaviour is the wider cultural milieu, which allows relatively harmless expression of rage or depression or other negative moods. In Trinidad at this time, however, cultural norms encourage violent expression of such feelings.

Thus, what goes on in schools needs to be urgently scrutinised for the potential to foster a criminal culture, especially in cases where parents, so far from playing their part in the moulding of law-abiding youngsters, are either absent or, if present, show themselves to be unworthy role models. The immediate call from some quarters for metal detectors to be placed in schools treats only symptoms, not causes. And, in any case, the kitchen knife that was reportedly used in this latest teenager-killing-teenager case escaped detection by school security, demonstrating that routine schoolbag checks will not stop any individual determined to wreak violence upon others.

This killing confirms how much children are influenced by criminal attitudes and actions that, as daily reported, proliferate and go unpunished, and even undetected. And these children cannot be held responsible for their actions — that is both a legal and an ethical reality. As a society, we should be aiming to create an environment where nobody, especially young persons, feels the need to carry weapons. But the only way to do that is to engineer school environments where pupils feel safe, respected, and cared for.

Unfortunately, most schools are simply microcosms of the philistine society. And, as long as that is so, schoolyards will be breeding grounds for the crime and violence which plagues this nation.

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