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Wednesday, February 15, 2006
A disturbing series of incidents
Kaieteur News

A disturbing series of incidents at Saraswat Primary School in De Willem raises serious questions about the way schools in Guyana handle socially sensitive issues, such as allegations made by students regarding inappropriate or criminal conduct by teachers.

It is worthwhile to retrace the sequence of events. It began with a student's allegation that she had been sexually molested by a teacher at the school. The matter was particularly sensitive because the accused and the accuser are of different ethnic origins. Reportedly, the child's mother immediately notified the police and the Regional Education Officer. She and her daughter also contacted the school's Headteacher to apprise him of the incident privately.

The mother later claimed that when she reported the incident to the Headteacher, who is of the same ethnic background as the accused, he reacted in an unsympathetic and antagonistic manner and made remarks that shocked and offended her. She also alleged that, while she and her daughter were there, he summoned teachers and students and told them of her daughter's allegation, and embarrassed the child in front of the entire student population.

The police investigated the matter and charged the accused teacher, Lynsdale Renville, and the case is before the court. But to the chagrin of the mother of the accuser and some parents, the accused teacher was back at work at the school shortly after he appeared in court. These parents staged a protest demanding the removal of the accused teacher as well as the Headteacher, whom they accuse of siding with the accused against the child.

Subsequently, the school's Headteacher as well as all other teachers of the accused teacher's ethnicity left the school last week claiming they feared for their lives following the parents' protest. The protesting parents maintain that their action was not based on the teachers' ethnicity, but to register their lack of confidence in the Head and the accused teacher, and their disgust at the way the accusation was handled. The matter is being addressed by the Ethnic Relations Commission.

It certainly seems as though something has gone horribly wrong with the school's approach to this incident.

It also seems to be clear that the Ministry of Education needs to establish a distinct and appropriate procedure for handling such cases and ensure that all schools are not only aware of this procedure but also follow it without exception or deviation. There should be severe penalties for non-compliance.

The interest of students must be paramount in the school system, especially with regard to their physical and emotional well being. In this case, the school seems to have failed the young accuser. As a minor, she was entitled to an investigation that was structured in a way that put her interest as a child and student first. In other words, she was entitled to a hearing that took into account her status and vulnerability as a child. It does not matter whether the child was indeed molested or whether she fabricated the story for some reason. In either case, the child was entitled to the full protection of adult society and in either case, she would need help and protection.

The incident also makes a compelling case for more stringent regulations regarding teachers' interaction with students. Systems should be restructured to eliminate situations that could lead to one on one interaction between teachers and students. If there are approved student counselling sessions, these should be used as structural safeguards to preserve the propriety and safety of students. The school system should also include measures to safeguard younger students from inappropriate interaction or exploitation by older students.

The Ministry of Education has a good opportunity to use this case to improve the handling of sensitive incidents by schools and reassure parents that their children are safe from abuse or exploitation by adults or older children in schools.