'It's like we're running a daycare' - Principal incensed as parents tardy in picking up young students from schools
Dozens of primary-school students, some as young as six years old, are being placed in danger by their parents, who use educational institutions as day-care centres and even employ street-side vendors to babysit their children hours after school has dismissed.
This issue is of much concern to one primary school principal who last week launched a probe to determine how a six-year-old female student last Tuesday managed to bypass the school's security guard and ended up on North Street in Kingston asking strangers for directions to her home in gritty Denham Town, west Kingston.
"It is not supposed to happen. We have a policy and whenever parents come in to sign up, they have to disclose how they intend to pick up the child after school. Children from grades one to three are not allowed to leave the school unattended," fumed the principal, who expressed shock that the child left the school by herself and was on the road seeking assistance from strangers.
The Sunday Gleaner has chosen not to identify the school or its principal.
"The child passed the security guards and ended up in the care of three adults. We don't know the history or intent of any of them. We don't know if any of these persons is a paedophile," said the principal, noting that there would have to be sanctions against the implicated security guard, and that other measures would have to be implemented to prevent a recurrence.
She explained, however, that such incidents stem from a greater issue of some parents' tardiness and delinquency in collecting their children from school after dismissal.
"You have some parents who believe that once the child passes basic school, he or she is old enough to find their way home. And I warn them over and over that this is not so. They must come and collect their children or make other preparations for them to go home," she said.
On Tuesday, the child, behind a squeaky voice and with panic in her eyes, explained that she grew anxious and left school after waiting for "long long" for her aunt who was to collect her in the absence of her mother.
This was some time after 5 p.m. School was dismissed at 2:30 p.m., and neither the child's teacher nor the school administrators were advised of any delays by the guardians, the principal later fumed.
The child was led by a woman to North Street, passed on to a man who assisted her to the rear of the Kingston Public Hospital, and then put on to a woman, who claimed she was a resident of Denham Town and who opted to follow the child to her home in the community.
The Sunday Gleaner made checks with the child's grade-one teacher last week, and the teacher reported that the student was in school and safe.
"We are not only serving as a school. It is like we are running a day-care centre here as well. You will be here hours after school dismisses and you still see students on the compound," said the principal. "There are instances where we have even had to take the children to the police station when the school gate is about to close and there is no parent."
She continued: "Some parents go as far as to pay the vendors outside to keep their children for them until they come in the afternoons. So you will see children running in and out of the school to the vendors in the afternoons or see them sitting on the sidewalks in their uniform."
The principal said the school discourages parents from the practice "but most of them don't listen".
She said a strategy proposed to pay a caregiver to stay behind and tutor the children until their parents arrive was scoffed at by some parents who were unwilling to pay a small fee.
This leaves the school's authorities no options, she said, as technically, the institution is not responsible for children after dismissal.
When contacted by The Sunday Gleaner, Byron Buckley, director of corporate communications in the Ministry of Education, said that, in public schools, after dismissal, the parents have a duty to pick up their children.
"The school is only responsible if those students stay behind to participate in co-curricular activities or extra lessons," Buckley said.
"In the latter regard, the school's duty of care extends to the time when the extra lessons or co-curricular activities end and the children are picked up by their parents."
On Thursday, at least three vendors outside another primary school agreed without hesitation to take care of a six-year-old girl whose father was said to be turning up to the school two hours after dismissal.
All of the vendors prefixed their names with 'Auntie', though they did not know the man, and one of them responded with enthusiasm when asked how much money it would cost to look after the child.
"Charge? I don't charge. Is babies you talking about, you know. You know how much of them I have to look after here in the evenings? Many times, all hours after we pack up, we still have to be out here waiting on their parents to come for them," said 'Auntie Janet'.
"I'm not charging you, but if you want to come back and use your discretion then that is all right," she added with a smile.