Wed | Feb 21, 2018

Cash crisis - Clarendon scheme to save at-risk youths facing suspension

Published:Sunday | February 19, 2017 | 12:00 AMRyon Jones
Mediator for the Dispute Resolution Foundation in Clarendon, Sandria Watkis- Madden, having a fun time with some of the at-risk students who have been sent to her institution.

A lack of cash could lead to the Dispute Resolution Foundation (DRF) closing its School Intervention Programme (SIP) in Clarendon despite the good work it has already done in saving several off-track youths in the violence-plagued parish.

Youth Peace Facilitator and mediator for the DRF-Clarendon, Sandria Watkis-Madden, said this year is proving to be a real challenge with the programme, having lost its only sponsor, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

"From 2015 to 2016 it was funded by USAID, but that funding ended last December," Watkis-Madden told The Sunday Gleaner.

The SIP was introduced in Clarendon in late 2009 to engage at-risk high school students and provide them with child-friendly alternative dispute resolution services and training.

Since then, the target group has had to be altered to facilitate children ages 10-18 based on the demand from the primary schools within the parish.

The programme now serves 36 schools; 31 in Clarendon, two in Manchester and three in St Catherine, which are shared with the Spanish Town Peace Centre.

The DRF centre in Clarendon now has only two members of staff who are assisted by volunteers, as lack of funding has curtailed both human and physical resources.

"We would want more persons to deal with the students and be able to separate them according to age and the time they are coming in. But we don't have any staff, because we can't pay them, so we have to just meet with everybody at the same time," said Watkis-Madden.

"And we used to only take the students on Mondays and Wednesdays, but students are getting suspended every day.

"We have a lot of activities that we want them to do, but sometimes we are out of even ink and paper and stuff like that, and the literacy level for most of them is very low, so while we could write on the board and ask them to write it off, they have problems with that."

Clarendon, once known to be a peaceful and quiet parish, has long lost that reputation and last year recorded the third-highest number of murders in the 19 police divisions across the island, with just over 130 persons killed, included among them children.

The violence and aggression gripping the parish has found its way into the schools as fights and other unruly actions have become a regular feature, with students quick to mention the areas they are from as a means of intimidation.

This has resulted in a number of schools suspending some students while warning others that they are at the risk of suspension. That is where the SIP comes in.

"When the students have been suspended from school for violence and other antisocial behaviour, and/or identified to be at risk for suspension they are referred to the SIP," Watkis-Madden explained.

"Students on suspension spend the duration of their suspension at the centre, followed by a 10-week follow-up with the SIP curriculum modified to address the reason for the suspension and other issues identified.

"Students who are referred to the SIP for intervention are given a standardised duration of 10 evenings. However, the time can be extended, depending on the issues identified and the type of intervention needed."

The students, who must be accompanied by a parent or guardian on their first visit to the centre, are taught important lessons in conflict resolution, anger management, restorative justice, anti-bullying, self-esteem, peer pressure, goal setting, emotional intelligence, children rights, drug abuse, mediation, among other things.

With the programme currently without a sponsor, parents have been asked to contribute $2,500, which covers the duration of their child's suspension and the 10-week follow-up.

"But we still don't stop a student if they don't have it. We still work with them and find a way," Watkis-Madden pointed out.

Among the success stories coming out of the SIP is Mark Garret* who, after being suspended from school on five occasions, was sent to the centre as a last resort.

"The one-on-one therapy session has helped me to know myself better," said Garret, whose last suspension was for alleged involvement in a robbery of other students with an imitation gun.

"I have gained a lot, as they have taught me how to control my anger and to keep out of bad company. Even today (Tuesday) a guy was carrying false news about me and I was very upset, but when I looked into it I just laughed and said 'it wasn't worth my time'. If it was before that would be a sure fight."

There were several other testimonials from students who have been helped, with 16-year-old Keisha Bryan* being another success story.

She went from being a bully to one of the leaders of the Bully Interrupters Programme - one of the many programmes incorporated into the SIP to better meet the needs of the students.

She was suspended for three days after beating up a boy, something she would often do based on her dislike for males having been abused.

"I was aggressive, because I had a lot of anger in me and any little things would get me off; you could just past and step on my shoes and I would hit you down just for that," Bryan, who has abused alcohol, said.

*Names changed to protect the students.