Taking the terror out of schools
Despite 40 assault cases in two years, police, educators say SROs making a big difference
Tyrone Thompson, Staff Reporter
Education stakeholders are expressing confidence in the Safe Schools Programme despite statistics that suggest that violent incidents are continuing on school campuses across the country.
The Safe Schools Programme was initiated by the ministries of Education and National Security in 2004 in an effort to reduce antisocial behaviour among secondary-school students.
The programme involves police personnel being placed in 134 secondary schools across the island as school resource officers (SROs) to prevent and de-escalate violent confrontations between students, and according to the coordinator of the programme, Corporal Tanesia Johnson, it is fulfilling that mandate.
"Schools are much safer now than ever before, because we have been proactive in the schools, mentoring and interacting with students and preventing serious injuries to them. Even recently, we were able to prevent one youngster from committing suicide on his school compound, because our presence makes that difference," Johnson said.
However, figures obtained from the Jamaica Constabulary Force's Statistical and Information Management Unit show there remains a major problem. Between January 2012 to November 1, 2014, there were more than 40 reported cases of aggravated assault on secondary-school compounds.
The police also report that there were also three cases of shootings at schools, while five students were killed while in school.
Among the fatal incidents were the 2013 stabbing of 13-year-old Jamelia Dawkins, who was killed after an altercation with another student of Anchovy High School in St James; and 15-year-old Euric Brown, who was stabbed to death at the Institute of Academic Excellence in St Andrew.
FIGURES JUST PART OF STORY
However, Johnson argued that figures do not tell the entire story.
"What I do know is that there has been a significant improvement in terms of [a decrease in] school violence," she said, insisting that the programme was significantly reducing violence on and off school compounds.
"Once we get wind of conflicts in the schools, we are there, because the schools are not sweeping these under the rug anymore. So we go in to diffuse the situation and to prevent them (students) from getting their communities involved," said Johnson.
The police corporal further argued that the programme enabled students to confidently give intelligence to SROs, and this has led to numerous weapon and ammunition seizures.
"Even this year when a student was held at the Half-Way Tree Transport Centre with a gun, that seizure was possible because of the information we had received from other students. Because one of the things we do is to ensure the students have our personal cell phone numbers, so when there is any issue, they call us directly."
Holy Trinity High School principal Margaret Brissett-Bolt agreed that the programme has been making a significant difference. She said not only has it been able to significantly reduce violence in her school, but it has been instrumental in helping students to build relationships with members of the police force.
"I think what has happened now is the SROs have become a part of the school, so whenever the students have any conflicts among themselves, they will approach these police and inform them of what's going on, and this is a very new thing in this school," Brissett-Bolt told The Gleaner.
NOT OUT OF THE WOODS
While emphasising that Holy Trinity High was not yet out of the woods in terms of school violence, Brissett-Bolt said the decrease in the number of weapons being taken to the school was a measure of the success of the programme.
"Two years ago when I just came here, at the end of the year, we could have staged a knife auction because our random searches had seized knives of all sizes, shapes and designs that you could imagine, and now, I can tell you that if we find two knives during searches, we find plenty."
Lorenzo Ellis, principal of the Haile Selassie High School in Kingston, also believes his school is moving in the right direction because of the Safe Schools Programme and the management of the institution.
"The truth is we still have isolated incidents, but compared with many years ago, there is definitely a significant reduction in violence and the possession and use of weapons," Ellis told The Gleaner.
"We have also recognised that the very presence of SROs on campus further makes the students aware that when you have or use a weapon in school, or [participate in] any other illegal action like gambling or using drugs, these are police matters and charges will be pressed against them and so that, in itself, is a major deterrent."