Optimism generated by Education Minister Anthony Garcia's claim that violence and indiscipline in schools have declined dissipated quickly when the ministry's permanent secretary, Lenore Baptiste-Simmons, wondered aloud why victims of school violence were not making reports. Both cannot be correct, for if victims are not coming forward to make reports, how did Minister Garcia determine school violence is on the decline?
The ministry has also banned pupils from using mobile phones in school, which means fewer incidents are videotaped and circulated—but not that violent incidents occur less frequently. The minister has to reveal evidence of his claim.
The video showing extortion, bullying, beating and cursing at Siparia West Secondary School reportedly “incensed” Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and disturbed National Security Minister Edmund Dillon. The population no doubt shares their outrage, but understands outrage alone is not enough.
Youth violence manifested in or out of school is a tricky problem; and a nuanced, well-resourced and integrated approach is required of the Government. The big-stick, punitive tendency, endorsed only yesterday by La Brea MP Nicole Olivierre in her contribution to the budget debate, must be coupled with meaningful efforts at rehabilitation, not only of offending children, but of their parents and guardians who create the environment in which the children live.
Thankfully, after two years of work, the judiciary has made significant progress with its Juvenile Court Project, realising the opening of the Children Court this month. In his address at the opening of the 2017/2018 law term, Chief Justice Ivor Archie announced that the Children Court component of the Family and Children Division of the High Court will hear its first case this month.
He said judicial officers had been recruited and were being trained, while customisation work on buildings in North and South Trinidad will have been completed this month. Protocols to govern the court have also been signed and launched.
The judiciary is to be lauded on this initiative it is undertaking with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the National Centre for State Courts (NCSC). The project has at its core the de-emphasis of retribution and a greater focus on restoration.
Children who interface with the criminal court system, including, potentially, pupils from Siparia West Secondary School, will now interact with professionals sensitive to child development and rehabilitation of youth offenders.
To successfully change the paradigm of how institutions deal with troubled youths, however, leadership must speak with one voice. Progressive thinking in the judiciary that resulted in the Children Court must be supported by political leadership and other public officials who far too often reinforce punishment and militarised training solutions.
Minister Garcia cannot describe youth offenders as “animals” and still be credible when he speaks about rehabilitation. Delicate problems require nuanced solutions and those solutions can only be activated by proper, professional human and material resources.