Editorial | Children at the precipice
The good news is that there has been a sharp reduction in violence in Jamaican high schools over the last seven years. For instance, the likelihood of a student being in a physical fight is nearly 40 per cent less likely today than in 2010.
But, as good and as welcome as these numbers are, there is no room for complacency. For, the reality is that Jamaican schoolchildren remain in crisis and in need of more help, more urgently.
The cause for this newspaper's celebration, yet deep fear, is last week's release by the National Council on Drug Abuse of its latest Global Youth Health Survey among students aged 13 to 17, conducted with support from a slew of United Nations and other international agencies.
Apart from that drop in physical fights, the number of students saying they were attacked at least once in the year before the survey slumped by a similar amount, as did those students who faced bullying in the 30 days before the survey. But students, parents, school administrators and policymakers have to be wary of a false sense of security. For behind these numbers still lurk big dangers.
For instance, 38.9 per cent of grade eight to 12 students reported having been seriously injured in the year up to the survey, with the ratio being even higher (43.8 per cent) among boys. Among all grade ranges, the prevalence is worst (43.2 per cent) among grade eight students.
Further, more than a fifth (26.6 per cent) of these students were subject to physical attacks during the previous year, including approximately a third of all boys, while one in four grade nine students - nearly 10 percentage points more than for all students - was involved in at least one fight. Moreover, nearly a quarter of all students (23.9 per cent) had been bullied in the previous 30 days.
Any parent or guardian with a child in high school, or any policymaker perusing these figures, has much to agonise over. Yet, from our perspective, there is even more disturbing data that represent part of Jamaica's hidden, but potentially major, crisis. There has been, recently, an uptick in the discussion of suicide among children, but few people consider it a big problem.
Yet, that's not what the data are telling us. Approximately a quarter of all high schools' 13- to 17-year-olds considered suicide over a one-year span, but the number rose to nearly a third (32.3 per cent) among girls and was relatively even, hovering around 25 per cent across all grades. Worse, a quarter of the students made specific plans to attempt suicide, with the figure rising to 31 per cent among girls.
We are perhaps fortunate that more of them appear not to have followed through on those plans, but that so many children should have even passing contemplation about taking their own lives, much more thinking seriously of how it might be done, suggests that many of our young people have been driven to the precipice, believing that there is no one to help.
We see this consideration of suicide as a piece of the narrative of high levels of physical altercations in schools, violence in the wider society, high levels of experimenting with sex (48.1 per cent of students), and weaknesses in parenting, about which there has been so much discussion recently. Indeed, only one in three (30.7 per cent) students said that their parents or guardians always, or most times, understood their worries or problems. And the parents/guardians of fewer than two in five (39.4 per cent) mostly know where their children were, or what they were up to, during their free time.
Clearly, there is an urgent need for massive social intervention targeting young people, starting in schools and involving parents. But it can't be done primarily through intellectual spiels and formal classroom curricula. A major part of the approach has to be political-style mass mobilisation.