It really must be Lent. Really! Because that is the time the Devil is at his busiest. For who else would have conspired to have highly respected exemplars exhibit to the world how little we know of youth justice principles. And this, a mere few days after I had facilitated a workshop on “Implementing International Standards in Youth Justice” for persons working in the youth justice system.
Responses to recent school violence have been strident and ill-advised. “They should be charged before the court!” shouted the head of the Victim and Witness Support Unit, oblivious to the fact that many countries of the world, including the OECS and the mainland Caricom countries, are not just talking about diversion, but are actively seeking to implement many diversion measures in their youth justice systems. Those countries recognise the negative effects of court proceedings on children. They know that the stigma of a conviction and sentence affects the well-being of a child and impacts his/her future prospects. That is especially true in Trinidad and Tobago, where we see no virtue in expunging youth conviction records, so a conviction is a badge of shame that our children wear for life.
“BAD GIRLS!” So, screamed the newspaper headline, providing blatant proof of the media’s lack of awareness of their social responsibility to act in the best interests of children. They are unmindful of the fact that labelling can act as a stimulant to further bad behaviour, that labelling children so frequently operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Chaguanas Magistrate, please note.
The media’s exposure of the children to the world is a breach of a child offender’s right to privacy, set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and our Children Act. Even if the children (yes, they are children) have not been charged and the letter of the law has not been breached, we must adhere to both the letter and the spirit of the Convention. Our Government agreed to this, by signing, in 1996, the Belize Commitment to Action For the Rights of the Child.
The Opposition Leader and Insp Mystar both spoke of “zero tolerance” for school violence. Dr John Bailie, Assistant Professor and Director of Continuing Education for the International Institute for Restorative Practice, states: “The American Psychological Association’s Zero Tolerance Task Force and numerous studies have shown that zero-tolerance policies implemented in schools over the last two decades have been shown to be ineffective in reducing violence and serious misbehaviour.” I invite them to view the DVD, “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Restorative Practices In Schools,” produced by the International Institute or attend my workshop.
Dr Rowley recommended “extracting violent children from the school environment and putting them into another controlled environment.” He called for “special schools for special children.” Removing children from school, whether temporarily (suspension), or permanently (expulsion), will not change their bad behaviour. Some had been suspended eight times. What more proof do we need of the ineffectiveness of these punitive measures? Brathwaithe, in Crime, shame and reintegration warns that grouping together misbehaving children may result in their forming a criminal subculture of rejects.
Sociologists, Shoemaker and Wolfe, in their book, Juvenile Justice, cite several studies which reveal: “Evaluation of boot camp programmes show no reduction in recidivism. Offenders placed in correctional boot camps will return to the communities from which they came… many of these communities are experiencing social disorganisation and poverty, providing the environment for one to easily recidivate upon return.” Sounds familiar?
An important principle of youth justice is that it is individualised justice. The special needs of each child must be explored and must receive attention. We must get to the root causes of the deviant behaviour before we can eradicate it. The Children’s Authority is now setting up Assessment Centres, so the vast majority of our children have not yet been assessed for mental health problems. Many children are victims of violence. Many more have witnessed violence in their homes and in their communities. Very few of those children have been treated for post-traumatic stress disorders, and when they act out, we condemn them. We are a violent people. My calls for the abolition of corporal punishment were, in the main, met with derision. Having sown the wind of violence in our children, we are now reaping the whirlwind.
While we should hold children accountable for their wrong-doing, we must, at the same time, accept the challenge of changing the culture of our schools, homes and communities from a punitive, retributive one, to one that embraces restorative practices. It is clear that there is no sense of community in the schools where violence abounds. We need to build relationships and teach empathy in our schools, homes and communities. This is essential to stem the tide of school violence, misbehaviour and bullying.
Shouting and marching against bullying is mere exercise for lungs and limbs. We need to stop talking at and talk to one another. We need to teach effective parenting skills and insist that schools nurture and reintegrate students rather than cast out misbehaving students and marginalise the weak ones. We must change social structural conditions which give rise to delinquency and crime. Are we prepared to deal with child abuse, debilitating malnutrition, poverty, chronic employment, underemployment, structural inequalities, racism and neglect of community playgrounds and other physical social spaces?
Will we revamp our educational system to one that caters for the development of the whole child, his mental and physical capacities, talents, social skills and personal character so that the child could realise his/her fullest potential and contribute to the development of society? If not, children’s escalating anger will continue to rise and the ensuing tsunami will overwhelm us.
But after Lent, comes Easter, a season of hope. The voices of reason from the National Security Minister and the Police Commissioner, which spoke of looking for root causes, give hope. I believe there are enough committed, caring and talented people, prepared to work hard to save our most precious resource, our children, on whose shoulders, the future of our nation rests.
— Hazel Thompson-Ahye is a child rights advocate