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Our children are looking on

By Keith Subero

It was the photographs in last weekend's newspapers of both the Prime Minister and her Minister of Education at the Phagwa (Holi) celebrations, organised by the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) at the Tunapuna Hindu Primary School, which sent me in search of Justice Sebastian Ventour's recent judgment.

According to the judgment of last January, Justice Ventour, in a matter involving a teacher, Kamla Jagessar, the Presbyterian Board of Education and the Teaching Service Commission, was asked to determine the role of the Commission and its relationship with denominational school boards.

Since the ruling, the country has heard the general secretary of the SDMS declaring the judgment "a victory" for denominational boards, and trumpeting his right, based upon the judge's conclusions, to debar the Tunapuna school's principal, and even determine her hours of work.

He also announced his decision to produce thousands of copies of the judgment for distribution to school principals throughout the country.

Why?

Because "we control education, and provide education to our children". Interpreting the judgment further, he telegraphed clearly to the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers' Association and the Ministry of Education: "This is what the judge says, so everybody must understand quite clearly, those who walk into our schools and pretend to be the owner, it has been demonstrated that the assisted schools are the property of the respective denominational bodies."

What the general secretary ignored in the judgment was what could be interpreted only as the judge's direct reference to his lockout of the principal late last year.

First, Mr Justice Ventour acknowledged the constitutional rights and freedoms of all stakeholders.

"Accordingly, in our day-to-day living, we must show respect for each other and respect for the rule of law, if we are to grow as a democracy. Having said that, within recent times the country has witnessed a level of disrespect, not only by some officials and leaders within the assisted school system, but by parents as well.

"I feel constrained to make the following observation. The citizens of this country have to learn how to resolve conflicts and disagreements, without being disrespectful to each other. If the law sets out a procedure for resolving some problems that confront those within the Teaching Service, then that procedure should be followed. Alternatively, if the procedure proves to be unsuitable, then one should advocate for changing the procedure.

"The threat of violence and other forms of misconduct are unacceptable in a civil society. Moreso, those who are affected ought not to take the law into their own hands. As adults, we have to set a good example. Our children are looking on very closely. As adults, we must think about tomorrow."

Clearly, it was a censure of the SDMS general secretary, a severe reprimand for his behaviour in locking out the principal. And although not her employer, he still proceeded to determine her on-the-job performance.

That censure could be seen also as speaking to the president of the PTA who, based on the behaviour of the SDMS board, was impelled to make issue threats publicly — during the recent State of Emergency.

The judge also addressed the question of whether the denominational boards should have a veto over the appointment of teachers at assisted schools. Again, contrary to the public trumpeting of the SDMS general secretary, the judge wrote: "I do not interpret Regulation 133 (3) as a veto power of the Board in the appointment of teachers in assisted schools.

"(It) does not say that a person shall not be appointed to hold an office of teacher in an assisted school, if the board signifies its objection to the appointment of that person to that office. If the intention was to vest such a power in the board it would have stated so expressly in the rules."

many questions arise, for example: • Why does the Minister of Education allow the SDMS general secretary to claim the judgment publicly as a "victory", after the judge's rebuke?

• What are the reasons for the Minister's continuing hands-off approach to the situation at the school? Why is he reluctant to attend to this national issue, which the SDMS general secretary continues to use to empower himself?

• Why in the face of that "disrespect" would the PM, accompanied by a number of her ministers, accept an invitation to attend a function, organised by the SDMS, at the Tunapuna school?

• Should we be surprised? That same "disrespect" played out at an ASJA school in San Fernando last year, with the board chairman blocking a teacher from entering her classes. The PM's response? Weeks later, she presented ASJA with a $1 million donation.

Phagwa, the Prime Minister said during the celebrations, is "a season of hope". I agree — but I fear the malignancy seeping into our values. And worst, as Justice Ventour wrote, "our children are looking on very closely".

• Keith Subero, a former Express news editor, has since followed a career in communication

and management

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