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Gang of fools

Published: 
Sunday, February 28, 2016

Kevin Baldeosingh

School gangs in central Trinidad now enjoy a power and prestige they didn’t have two weeks ago, thanks to Education Minister Anthony Garcia, National Security Minister Edmund Dillon and Prime Minister Keith Rowley. Moreover, if there is a gang problem in the Chaguanas North Secondary School, none of the measures taken has solved it; rather, the authorities’ overwrought response will probably exacerbate the bullying, robbery and other intimidation faced by students in that institution. And I emphasise the conditional “if”, because it is quite possible that there never was any threat of gang violence in the first place.

This whole thing started when a student flagged down a teacher who was driving to school through the Enterprise area. The student is reported to have warned the teacher to not go to work because gang members had disguised themselves as students to get into the compound either to exact revenge against another student or to kill a teacher.

So here is my first question. What is more probable: that gangs were planning to commit murder inside a school, or that the student was winding up the teacher? After all, there never has been any such incident even at the hotspot schools in Laventille, Mucurapo or Arima. As far as I can recall, there have been just three gang-related incidents, only one of which took place on a school compound as distinct from just outside. On the other hand, students have been fooling teachers since the days of Plato. Nonetheless, TTUTA president Devanand Sinanan in recounting the issue in a radio interview thought it was “divine intervention” that a Defence Force soldier happened to stop off at the school with his colleagues when the lockdown occurred: which tells me that nobody involved took a rational or even measured response to the supposed threat.

Now it may seem that the “better safe than sorry” approach was the optimum one in these circumstances. But, when it comes to gangs, this response only helps them. Marcus J Felson, one of the world’s leading crime analysts, in his book Crime and Everyday Life (co-authored with Mary A Eckert) notes that, “Squads of social workers and SWAT teams fall into exactly the same error: enhancing the gang’s nasty image, hence augmenting its service to members.”

In other words, the hysteria that started with media coverage due mainly to the soldiers’ presence was then heightened by the involvement of Ministers Garcia and Dillon, culminating in Prime Minister Rowley’s description of delinquent students as “monsters”. What better noun could a group whose very survival depends on fear hope for? “Like other youths, gang youth are unfocused offenders, largely aimless, committing a variety of ordinary offences,” Felson and Eckert write. “The image of the gang exaggerates their bad reality, scaring everybody in the process. Gangs don’t try to reassure people, since scaring them is the main service they provide.”

And what is this service? The usual perspective on youth gangs is that its members are evil and the gang provides a family structure that the youths lack. But the reality may be far more prosaic. “A juvenile street gang offers its members a special service—a promise to scare others,” write Felson and Eckhart. “The defining and driving force behind a juvenile street gang is its ability to intimidate through numbers and a threat to fight outsiders...The gang offers this special service to members for a reason: many youths confront a real problem from living in a dangerous local area—or even from having to go to high school with other youths. Young people are especially vulnerable to personal and property attack, and many feel a need for protection that simply cannot be provided by parents, teachers, or police.”

In this context, there is no doubt that the Chaguanas North Secondary School has problems. My daughter attends a kindergarten a few miles away, and several mornings after dropping her off I have passed through Lange Park and seen students wandering about as though classes have already been dismissed. So it seems that the principal and teachers often have reasons for not working. However, whenever a school has problems, it is always the children and the parents who are blamed, as though no student could ever have a good motive for being angry at a teacher. In this context, it is not at all surprising that Minister Dillon should have suggested resuming corporal punishment as a solution or that Dr Rowley should have blamed parents for making monsters.

Behind all this is an assumption that, if indiscipline in schools is contained, students will learn. Yet the opposite is more likely to be true: that, if students are learning, indiscipline will be eradicated. Seigfried Engelmann, inventor of the Direct Instruction pedagogical method, holds to this credo: If the child has not learned, the teacher has not taught. 

I doubt such a perspective was raised by anyone in the recent National Consultation on Education Reform, however. And as long as educational reforms are not truly child-centred, schools will continue to set problems rather than make solutions.

Kevin Baldeosingh is a professional writer, author of three novels, and co-author of a history textbook.