Thu | Jan 21, 2021

Editorial | Sex in schools

Published:Saturday | July 13, 2019 | 12:00 AM
The entrance to Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

Sexual abuse in schools has been widely discussed in recent weeks. The insistent voice of an alleged victim of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts has caused society to sit up and listen.

Even though sexual abuse of women and children is not new to Jamaica and is experienced in many other countries, one victim has placed the issue on the front burner. Reliable data are hard to come by, but there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that sexual abuse in schools, as in society more broadly, is nearing alarming levels.

For example, we have the word of commander of the Westmoreland Police Division, Superintendent Gary McKenzie, that rape is rampant in the parish, with particular concern on sexual offences against underage girls.

The Ministry of Education, which is already mired in controversy, must share some of the blame. First, the ministry’s practice of approving connected, but not necessarily competent, persons to serve on school boards should come to an end.

Then the ministry should create mandatory reporting protocols for complaints of sexual misconduct in schools.

Sexual education should also be compulsory so that everyone can readily recognise predatory behaviour and report it through the proper channels.

It takes courage for a child to make such reports, bearing in mind the possible repercussions, so it is important that complaints are taken seriously and are thoroughly investigated.

Appointment to school boards ought not to be a bouquet for party faithful. These positions should be reserved for civic-minded persons of integrity who are keen on ensuring that the school is a safe environment for teachers, students and everyone else who operate in that space.

Parents and guardians also have a huge part to play in helping to disrupt and punish the activities of these deviants. It begins with listening to the voices of children. The situation can only become worse if children are made out to be liars or ignored when they try to communicate unwanted attention and abuse by others. Sexual abuse and assault are a present danger for today’s students and many are made to feel unsafe at school.

Misguided school administrators, like those in many other institutions, often cover up criminal behaviour to the detriment of the victim who must suffer in silence. Sexual assault is a criminal offence and the perpetrators should be punished. But schools first have to acknowledge that the problem exists and be courageous in dealing with it.

Voice of condemnation

The Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) should come out in a clear and unequivocal voice to condemn those members who have been found guilty of sexual misconduct. The JTA needs to constantly remind teachers of their role as protectors of their charges.

Schools ought to be safe communities. The global #MeToo movement against sexual predators has revealed something rather disturbing: that sexual harassment and abuse are commonplace in society and involves religious leaders, teachers, politicians, actors and other authority figures.

The Ministry of Education and the nation’s teachers should acknowledge the problem by updating the curriculum to include lessons about relationships, definitions of sexual harassment, assault, rape and sex trafficking.

All of this should take place while the nation waits for the passage of the sexual harassment bill which has been tabled– not for the first time – in the House of Representatives.