School violence epidemic

LESS than 24 hours after the latest video of a brawl at another of Jamaica’s schools hit social media, Minister of Education Fayval Williams has charged that the island is facing an epidemic of violence among our children.

“And that’s just a hard, cold truth,” declared Williams as she addressed a post-Cabinet media briefing at Jamaica House on Wednesday.

According to Williams, the plan is to reduce the level of violence in schools by 50 per cent by November 2023 — but that will need the active participation of all Jamaicans.

“This is a mammoth task that cannot just be left to the 1,198 guidance counsellors, our 139 deans of discipline, or the 41 senior teachers who act as deans of discipline, or the 257 school resources officers — which is another way of saying police officers — who we have in our schools.

“What we are witnessing in our schools is not normal; it is as a result of major psychosocial issues which include family problems, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sexual abuse, and the violence that our children are experiencing,” said Williams.

She added: “So if we were not convinced before, we are now. We have to treat with the emotional and physiological well-being of our children and their families in a more focused and concentrated way.”

Williams pointed to a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) 2018 situation analysis which showed that approximately 80 per cent, or approximately 300,000, of Jamaica’s children experience some form of physiological or physical violence administered as discipline.

The study also found that approximately 65 per cent of students are bullied at school, and that 79 per cent witness violence in the home or community.

“Given these figures we should not be alarmed that we are seeing violent behaviour among our children,” said Williams, as she pointed to a fight involving girls at a high school in Westmoreland which started circulating on social media on Tuesday.

According to Williams, the students fighting in the video are from the same community where their families are at odds, and a simple disagreement caused the fight.

“Our students are showing up at school physiologically and physically abused. Not only that, these same children also witness violence in the home and in their communities. The result of this is fights, instances of stabbing and other deviant behaviours at the slightest trigger.

“Given the situation, we have to scale up our efforts quickly to have a heavy-duty focus on psychosocial support for our children, especially the almost 300,000 who suffer some form of abuse,” said Williams who recently launched an initiative aimed at ending violence in schools.

Dubbed Just Medz It, the year-long campaign seeks to shift the culture of violent confrontations and responses among children and students and equip them instead with conflict-resolution strategies.

Williams said the campaign is a national call to action for every single Jamaican and organisation to support efforts to engender and sustain a culture of discipline and peace in the home, school, and community.

She said her ministry intends to consolidate its human and financial resources, which will be brought to bear on the campaign.

“This includes the Safety and Security in Schools Unit, the Guidance Counselling Unit, the Health and Family Life Education programme, the Character Education programme, the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA), and the National Parenting Support Commission (NPSC).”

Just Medz It will employ a multifaceted approach to reduce the incidence of violence in schools by improving the physical infrastructure; teaching and incentivising strategies to resolve conflicts peacefully; and providing psychosocial support to students and parents.

“The purpose of the campaign we launched is to shift the culture of violent confrontations and responses among children and to equip them with conflict-resolution strategies that are peaceful and healthy,” Williams told the post-Cabinet media briefing.

The education minister added that efforts are underway to have restorative justice practices at work in all schools.

“We know this works. It is an approach that seeks to repair harm by providing an opportunity for those harmed and those who take responsibility for the harm to communicate and address their needs in the aftermath of crime,” declared Williams.

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