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A system that has disgraced itself!

fighting goliathAs I sit to write this column, some nine weeks have now elapsed, and the 15-year-old daughter of Ms Elecia Weekes is still out of school and being deprived of an education.

Can it really be the case that for refusing to adhere to the order of a teacher and/or the principal of her secondary school to pick up a piece of litter, a 15-year-old daughter of our nation has been subjected to:

(1) Suspension from school for one week;

(2) Deprivation of her lunch period;

(3) Being barred from attending any classes for some seven weeks;

(4) Being required to sit on a chair outside of the guidance counsellor’s office every time she reported for school over a seven week period;

(5) Being the subject of a public tongue-lashing by the Minister of Education;

(6) Being escorted off the school premises by the principal of the school;

(7) Being made the subject of a transfer to another school against her will; and

(8) Being made the subject of negative public comments from a variety of personages as powerful as the Governor General, secondary school principals and ministers of religion.

If this is, in fact, the reality of the treatment which has been meted out to the 15-year-old daughter of Elecia Weekes, then one would have to conclude that this combination of punitive acts constitutes a grave injustice to the child.

One would have to seriously question whether the Minister of Education, the Chief Education Officer and the board of management and principal of the Springer Memorial School are not guilty of having lost sight of their overriding duty to this child who has been entrusted to their care. One would also have to question why none of the national organizations that purport to represent the interests of women, girls and students, nor any of the organizations that claim to be upholders of justice and humanity have made any effort to come to the assistance of this victimized child.

Clearly, something is seriously wrong with the moral condition of our society! It would appear that the national inclination is to jump upon and intensify the victimization of an unfortunate, defenceless person, rather than to show compassion or to rally to the defence of the victim of injustice.

But aside from questions of morality and fiduciary responsibility, one is also forced to question the very legality of some of the treatment which has been meted out to this child. Let us begin with the child’s suspension for refusing an order to pick up a piece of paper.

The power of a principal to suspend a student from school is governed by Section 29 of the Education Regulations, 1982, which provides as follows:

Where any pupil of a public school commits any act that causes injury to a teacher or another pupil in the school or where his conduct is such that his presence in the school is likely to have a detrimental effect on the discipline of other pupils of the school, the principal may suspend the pupil from the school for a period not exceeding ten school days.

Can we really say that a 15-year-old teenager’s refusal to pick up a piece of litter that she herself had not placed on the ground is in the same category of misconduct as an act that “causes injury to a teacher or another pupil”? Or can we really maintain that the mere presence of this child at Springer Memorial School would have had such a detrimental effect on the discipline of other students at the school that it became necessary to remove her from the school for a week?

I, for one, don’t think so! If the child had been guilty of misconduct by refusing the order to pick up the piece of paper wouldn’t “detention” have been the appropriate punishment rather than suspension? As far as I am concerned, school authorities in Barbados are far too ready to impose suspension as a punishment on students.

A species of punishment that has the effect of depriving a child of his or her education is a punishment that should be used extremely sparingly and for only the severest of infractions.

Secondly, since when are the school authorities entitled to punish a child by barring her from attending classes for over a period of several weeks? Where in the Education Act, Chapter 41 of the Laws Of Barbados, or in the Education Regulations, 1982, is a principal or any other officer of the school invested with such a methodology of discipline? Once again you are seeking to “discipline” a child by depriving her of her education. With all due respect to all of those concerned, this is not a very sensible or righteous thing to do.

And finally the question of the transfer.

Under Section 59 of the Education Act, the Minister of Education was granted the power to make regulations “respecting the admission or transfer of pupils to public educational institutions”. And the regulations made by the minister, and contained in the Education Regulations,1982, provide as follows:

Section 25 (2A) –– (3) A pupil who (b) . . . writes the Barbados Secondary Schools Entrance Examination and obtains the qualifying mark and grade . . . for admission to a public secondary school shall, subject to the availability of space, be admitted to the school for which he qualifies.

Section 25 (3K) –– (5) Any child over the age of 12 years whose parents or guardians make an application for the child’s admission to a public secondary school or seek a transfer of the child from one such school in Barbados to another may be accepted for such admission or transfer.

In light of the fact that this child had sat the Barbados Secondary Schools Entrance Examination, had obtained the qualifying mark for admission to Springer Memorial School, and had been admitted to Springer Memorial, she can only be transferred away from Springer Memorial to Ellerslie Secondary School if her parents had applied for such a transfer. The Ministry of Education cannot unilaterally impose such a transfer on the child! The child’s parents would have to first request such a transfer.

When all is said and done, however, the ultimate responsibility for this debacle rests not with the child; nor with the principal of Springer Memorial; nor with the mother of the child. Rather, the ultimate responsibility rests with Minister of Education Ronald Jones!

It should be clear to all and sundry that all too familiar human emotions and egos got in the way of both the principal and the mother, and made it difficult for them to even communicate with each other, much less to come to any sort of rational resolution of the matter in the best interest of the minor child.

And this is where the Minister of Education –– in his capacity as one of the highest representatives of the people of Barbados, and a presumed repository of ministerial power, discretion, judgement and responsibility –– was required to exercise leadership, and to intervene in a mature, balanced, responsible and humane manner to help resolve the matter in the best interest of the minor child. This, Mr Jones spectacularly failed to do.

Furthermore, even after it finally dawned on Mr Jones that the ultimate responsibility for dealing with the matter rested with him and he met the child’s mother and agreed upon a solution, he has permitted a further two weeks to elapse without the said solution being actualized.

It is really tragic that a 15-yea-old daughter of our nation has been made to suffer so much as a result of the failings of adults who should have known better and done better.

Our education system has disgraced itself!

(David A. Comissiong, attorney-at-law is president of the Clement Payne Movement.)

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