Wed | Dec 7, 2022

Editorial | Need JAMAL-style mobilisation for schools

Published:Sunday | November 20, 2022 | 12:07 AM

It requires no great leap of imagination to arrive at Hilary Robertson-Hickling’s position that Jamaica’s schools are ticking time bombs of social and mental health crises, or Damion Crawford’s view that we aren’t being aggressive or creative enough in efforts to defuse them.

That is why this newspaper continues to insist that the problem be declared an epidemic, the reversal of which demands national mobilisation, akin to the 1970s attempted assault on illiteracy through the then Jamaica Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL).

The JAMAL campaign didn’t rely only on trained teachers. Any educated person could volunteer to teach illiterate people to read. Many thousands did. They had an impact.

We appreciate that the socialisation and related crises now faced by schools are far more complex, and harder to fix, than the mechanics of teaching that confronted JAMAL volunteers. But with minimal training and the benefit of their life experiences, tens of thousands of volunteers could, we believe, offer vital support to an army of schools’ guidance counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists who should be committed to this crusade.

Violence by, or against, Jamaican children isn’t new. And neither is it prevalent only in schools. In one study two decades ago nearly 80 per cent of high school students reported witnessing violence in their communities. Six in 10 said they had seen violence in schools, and over four in 10 in their homes. Approximately 30 per cent admitted to having, at some point, used violence against others.

Indeed, school resource officers (SROs) – police assigned to help provide appropriate security intervention to the institutions – have long been a feature of some schools. However, the anecdotal evidence suggests that with this year’s return to face-to-face teaching, after two years of closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a sharp upward spiral in schoolyard violence. In at least two incidents, students have been killed.

PARENTING ISSUES

Many Jamaican children, especially those from poorer homes, confront parenting and socialisation issues. Schools are often safe havens for many of these students, which they lost during the pandemic. That vacuum was exacerbated by the damage left by the pandemic, according to Dr Robertson-Hickling, a psychologist and chairman of Meadowbrook High School in Kingston, scene of a recent, highly publicised brawl among female students.

“I knew when the pandemic came it would have dire psychological consequences,” Dr Robertson-Hickling told The Gleaner. “This is happening all over the world.”

Jamaica, Dr Robertson-Hickling felt, hasn’t adequately prepared for the “post-pandemic situation”. It is against this backdrop of the trauma (many children lost family members to the virus), economic stress at home, and living in communities plagued by violence, that schools have become the place where students find outlets for their aggression.

Before the pandemic, UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, estimated that 16.4 per cent of Jamaican adolescents (age 10-19) suffered from some form of mental health disorder. The island’s health authorities put the figure at one in four for all Jamaicans, at some time in their lives. Some private researchers estimate the prevalence at least 40 per cent.

In the context of the situation in schools, Mr Crawford, the shadow education minister, has asked the authorities to do more to support, and shield, students against violence on school campuses and in classrooms. Closed-circuit television monitoring of campuses and corridors is feasible and should be done.

WORTH CONSIDERING

Creating new departments of socialisation, consisting of guidance counsellors, deans of discipline and form teachers, is, on the face of it, an interesting idea. It is worth considering, as are many of the other proposals Mr Crawford tabled last week.

However, expanding the cadre of guidance counsellors for quick deployment would be undoubtedly problematic, given that guidance counsellors are generally trained teachers who specialise.

Mr Crawford’s suggestion, though, for the establishment of a department of volunteerism in the education ministry, with the job of “encouraging, vetting, coordinating and deploying well-thinking Jamaicans’’ who want to volunteer for mentorship and other services in schools is a compensatory proposals that fits into this newspaper’s call for a JAMAL-type mobilisation to address crisis. It would dovetail quite easily, too, with the justice ministry’s efforts to train thousands of Jamaicans in dispute resolution and restorative justice skills for use in communities.

The ministry recently signed a memorandum of understanding with 13 Christian denominations to train 25,000 of their members under this scheme. The target should be multiples of that figure, with some sent to schools as monitors, supporting guidance counsellors and deans of discipline in resolving disputes and conflict. It’s an area in which retired people, including teachers, can be engaged – and paid for their services. This wouldn’t be expensive to do, especially if the cost is measured against the crisis in schools.