Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Get flat! - Books and bullets: A frightening reality for West Kingston students

Published:Sunday | September 4, 2016 | 9:10 AMCorey Robinson
Cherine Francis (forefront) and principal Battick Smith hard at work with back-to-school preparation at St. Anne's Primary School.
Eugenie Brown, principal of Denham Town Primary School.
Aldrick Durrant, principal of Tivoli Gardens High School.
Little Mikaylah Taylor, with mom Samantha Samuels, on her second day of school.
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Back-to-school preparations at St Anne’s Primary School in Kingston not only includes cleaning desks, chairs and ensuring that the school is ready for the new school year, it also involves teaching new staff and students the drill of getting flat when recurring gunshots ring out in the surrounding Denham Town community.

Principal Battick Smith chuckled at the reality last week, her tone depicting a fearlessness probably gained from decades of teaching in the war-torn community. Parents, Smith agreed, are easily horrified by the drill; but that shouldn’t stop them from sending their children to the school next week, she urged.

“We teach the children how to deal with an outburst of gunfire. This has become the routine for them. As soon as they hear the sound, teachers and students just go flat. They know that they are to hit the floor; the lowest point is the safest point. Then what we do is we ask them to sing calming, soothing songs and that helps. This has become the routine,” Smith, who has been teaching at the school – located at the intersection of Bond and North streets – since the 1980s, told The Sunday Gleaner.

She added that often the children are so terrified, they are shaking and blurting out the words of the hymns, trying to drown out the jerking sounds of high-powered rifles and handguns.

The principal shared that more than two dozen students at her school have lost at least one parent to gang violence, and students are repeatedly traumatised by shootouts around the school compound. In fact, the situation is so bad that parents usually opt to send their children to schools outside of the war-torn communities.

That option was being considered by an elderly Tivoli Gardens woman as she sat along Spanish Town Road last week. She had secured a breadfruit for roasting but feared sending her 17-year-old grandson only metres away to buy coal.

“Him can’t go buy the coal out at ‘Grass Yard’, is me have to a go. Me have the pressure and the sugar and everybody say me need rest, but me have to go cause me nuh want dem kill me pickney!” she hollered, her brows creased from concern. She said she dread his travelling back and forth school in the coming weeks.

Thugs in the Denham Town and Tivoli Gardens communities have been at loggerheads since the extradition of former strongman Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, leaving dozens of persons murdered and several others with gunshot wounds.

Donovan Samuels, councillor for the Tivoli Gardens community, explained that the warfare involved “some friends who have fallen out; some from the Denham Town and some from the Tivoli area, and they just decide to draw lines.”

“It has now turned out to be people saying men from Tivoli and men from Denham Town, but there are some people who where they live is neither here nor there; it’s just the side they take,” he said, adding that the public tends to falsely link violent incidents in West Kingston to the rivalry between the two communities.

A more serious Smith bemoaned, “It doesn’t speak well for the community. It doesn’t speak well for the schools; certainly not us. It means that our numbers are going to go down in terms of administration for the year.”

“We are really hoping that parents will realise that yes there is violence but they should not only look at the violence but also the programmes that we have here. They are no less than anywhere else,” she said.

At the Denham Town Primary School on Spanish Town Road, Principal Eugenie Brown had almost finished her back-to-school sprucing up activities and was busy trying to source uniforms and books for students whose parents “just don’t have the money to buy any.”

“No, I’m not fearful of the violence because generally the children run here to school. School for them is home. When there is shooting and so on outside they stay here and they know that we will keep them as safe as possible,” said Brown.

“I have no fear that the students will come out or that the parents will send out their children come Monday morning.”

Meanwhile, Aldrick Durrant, Principal of the Tivoli Gardens High School, said he is confident that the turnout for the new school year will not be affected by the ongoing violence between the rivalling communities.

“Put it this way, the residents of both communities know the importance of good education. The school is a secure place. Whenever the violence starts, the school is never impacted. In fact, you have never heard of a teacher or student being injured because of the rivalry,” he said.

corey.robinson@gleanerjm.com