By Lara Pickford-Gordon
There are primary school children familiar with the sound of gunfire and violence. Whether it is in their communities, in the vicinity of their schools or both, these children face this environment daily while trying to get an education.
The Catholic News spoke to a few persons on the ground with knowledge of the particular challenges of RC schools located in so-called ‘hot spots’. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Many times they come to school and by looking at their posture, their composure you can see that things are bothering them; sometimes my lesson was planned in a particular way, I would have to backtrack and just have a discussion just bring up general things to calm them, settle the tone and what not,” said an educator at a school in downtown east Port of Spain. She added, “Sometimes if things are happening in the area, they do not come to school the next day and if they do, they are distracted.”
The trauma is real and in their faces. The educator explained, “Many times it may be a relative or a neigbour who has been shot in front of them or some sort of domestic violence. Sometimes they must pass the person who has been shot along the way while they are coming to school so of course they will be very distraught.”
When children share what they have seen, the educators must try and calm them. An observable change is also seen in children’s behaviour when the streets are “on fire”. “If their parents or this one and this one warring there would be difficulty,” another educator at the same school disclosed.
There is a lockdown drill at this school when safety concerns arise. The school bell is rung three times. “They know they have to go quietly and quickly to their classrooms; they have to go under their tables and sit and wait for the all clear”. On several occasions there were rapid gunshots and men have been seen “walking brazenly and bold with weapons”.
Last term the main gate of the school was opened to allow the garbage truck entry and a man fleeing attackers ran on to the compound. He was stabbed in front of the children. The school has taken the precaution of installing razor wire, cameras and strengthened the perimeter fencing to have a level of safety and comfort for staff and pupils.
This is what another educator said, “We give them homework, the children come the next day and say ‘las’ night was hot’.” Parents have told teachers of diving to shield children with their bodies when they drop to the ground. There are those “glad to send children to school, the child is safe at school”.
Lessons during the July–August school break were halted, even the extra-curricular pan programme could not get off the ground because of the risk to male pupils when they are not in uniform. The pupils cannot use the nearby recreation ground because of its proximity to an active spot. When gunshots are heard the children run to the safe spot which is surrounded by walls. Afterwards, back in their classrooms, they are agitated, and it takes them time to settle.
The school has developed a ‘strategy’. The first step is to contact the police to find out where the gunshots were coming from. If the episode happened before classes were dismissed for the day then pupils and parents are warned to exercise caution on the routes taken home. If things are bad, then pupils are escorted in groups. The Catholic News was told regular police patrols or police stations adopting schools can help alleviate the fears.
In 2018 an analysis was done at an RC school listed as underperforming. Of its over 100 pupils, 100 per cent were exposed to extreme violence at domestic and community levels, more than 69 per cent lost a loved one through violence, death or migration, over 90 per cent were in homes that are not nuclear families where partners were in a relationship more than five years. A majority of pupils were not practising Catholics or engaged in any religious or church activities.