Wed | Sep 30, 2020

‘Disgraceful’ - Transportation system brutal to rural students

Published:Sunday | February 23, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Observation at town centres revealed that many taxis that carry children will pile in up to 12 students in a car that should take five.

Rural-area schoolchildren are constantly brutalised by the public transportation system.

Taxis rarely take them in the morning and afternoon peak hours and bus operators come up with an arbitrary quota system, limiting the number of children who can enter each unit.

Observation at town centres revealed that many taxis that carry children will pile in up to 12 students in a car that should take five.

In Oracabessa, St Mary, The Sunday Gleaner team recently saw 16 primary school-age children being taken in a Toyota station wagon, most of them in the back, to a local school. That’s a daily occurrence, according to a parent who brought the matter to the attention of this newspaper.

Conductors on minibuses with four rows of seats sometimes, under the informal quota system, allow one row – the back one – to be filled with up to eight students where four or five should be. This often involves ‘lapping up’.

TRAGIC OUTCOME

Overcrowding has been painful, emotionally and physically harmful and costly to students, too.

The levels of overcrowding as well as the dangers faced by students were portrayed in two recent, well-publicised incidents – one leading to the death of a schoolboy and another to the long-term injury of a 12-year-old girl.

On May 8, 2019, a taxi that often takes students from Belcarres district, Clarendon, to the busy transport hub of Spaldings, on the Manchester/Clarendon route, was making one of its usual morning trips. There were 11 students aboard. In Spaldings, they would have had to hustle and compete for more taxi space to get to Edwin Allen High School, near Frankfield in Clarendon.

The children didn’t get to school that morning. The taxi plunged over a bridge, injuring all, plus the driver.

The students were treated at Percy Junor Hospital in Manchester but two were transferred to Kingston. One had spinal injury and seven months later remains in the care of the Mona Rehab in St Andrew. The young lady, Kimone Hayles, is to begin occupational therapy soon.

One of her sisters said Kimone is slowly recovering, not yet able to walk or make a fist. It has cost the family dearly in expenditure, time to visit Kingston and emotional distress. The girl has not been back to school. Whatever claim they are to make on the insurance company for the taxi is yet to be determined.

Less than two weeks later, a minibus bus ran off the road near Black Hill in Portland, killing Titchfield High School student Pranjil Jasti Kamar. The boy’s parents took his body back to his country of birth for burial, and after months, returned to Jamaica where his father is a doctor at Annotto Bay Hospital.

That bus with a capacity of 16 had 25 passengers, 23 of whom were students, the majority from Titchfield High and others from Port Antonio High. Titchfield High was unable to say whether there had been any compensation for the students, and although the Victim Support Unit in the Ministry of Justice was involved in counselling students, they do not advocate for, or provide, compensation.

Everton Walters, principal of Edwin Allen High at the time of the 2019 crash, said the public transport system remains “disgraceful” for students. He said though the school tries to enforce and encourage punctuality, that effort is undermined by the taxi service by which the majority of students get to school.

Shortly after the crash that left 11 of his students injured, Walters wrote to The Sunday Gleaner, stating, among other things, that: “The practice of lapping up, cramped/overloaded taxis, speeding and recklessness, lewd music and vulgarity and the infiltration of robot taxis are pervading the landscape.”

Now on pre-retirement leave, Walters said he was not blaming the taxi drivers because students attending a remote school such as Edwin Allen High wouldn’t get to classes without them. However, the children deserve better. He noted that the public taxi service causes children to be late for school, many arriving crushed, depressed and often tired.

EMOTIONAL SCARS

At The Sunday Gleaner’s request, the leadership of the National Secondary Students’ Council (NSSC) this month held consultations among its leadership across the country on the transport system. Their findings were that:

- The system was inadequate and discriminates against schoolchildren.

- It leaves them emotionally unprepared for school.

- It makes them late.

- It often affects students’ ability to engage in after-school or extracurricular activities.

According to a report from Region 6 – part of south central Jamaica: “Public transportation is hard on students because:

1. The bus drivers in the mornings are not carrying more than two rows of students, which in some cases is 12 students total.

2. In the evenings, the buses don’t like to carry students at all. One reason for this, according to them, is that the fare is too low and they won’t make as much as they want to. This affects students who do co-curricular activities and athletic training.”

One student from the region, who asked not to be identified, said: “Some students, like myself, don’t get home until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. because of the transportation system, and we have to get up from 4 a.m. to 4:30 a.m., or sometimes earlier in order to try to get to school early. It causes us to be deprived of proper sleep, which can be a direct reason for the poor performance of students academically.”

HIGH FARES

Rural-area students also pay much higher fares than Corporate Area children who use the Jamaica Urban Transit Company buses. For rural students, fares range from $200 to $600 per day, depending on which school the child attends.

A common experience for students throughout the island, including in the Kingston Metropolitan Transport Region, as cited by the NSSC, is long delays in getting transport, as well as crushed travel, which affect punctuality, their state of mind and ultimately performance.

Louis Barton, a long-standing representative of privately operated taxi and bus operators, said it is the responsibility of the Government to provide a reliable bus service for the vulnerable, especially schoolchildren, including those in the rural areas.

As it stands, there is no powerful advocacy group for rural-area students, and hence the age-old call for a reliable bus service has gone nowhere.

editorial@gleanerjm.com