The simple act of attending classes can be a dangerous undertaking for some students in this country. There was a chilling reminder of this on Wednesday when a student of South East Port-of-Spain Secondary narrowly missed being hit by a stray bullet which passed just centimetres from his head as he sat in a classroom writing an end of term exam. A teacher was grazed by a bullet in the same incident.
What should have been an ordinary, uneventful day turned into a near tragedy because a short distance away from the school, gunmen on the rooftops HDC apartment buildings were firing warning shots at each other. Some of their bullets landed up in classrooms, ricocheting off walls and putting students and staff at risk.
The incident was an escalation of activity that happens quite frequently in the vicinity of South East Port-of-Spain Secondary where, on any given day, classes can be disrupted by gun battles between rival criminal gangs. Not too long ago, a man was gunned down a short distance from the school.
This school isn’t the only one located in a danger zone—there are quite a few of them located across the country, including Success Laventille Secondary, a school frequently caught in the crossfire between warring gangs from Beetham and the Laventille hills.
Who can forget that horrific incident in January 2016 when two Success Laventille students, Denilson Smith, 17, and Mark Richards, 15, were dragged out of a PH taxi and shot dead as they headed home at the end of the school day. That was one of many eruptions of violence in the vicinity of that compound, most of them gang-related, that have prompted calls for the relocation of that school.
On this issue, the response from the Ministry of Education is far from reassuring. No rational thinking person would disagree with Minister Anthony Garcia’s assertion that “students and teachers must be allowed to operate in an environment that is safe and conducive to the effective implementation of the curriculum.” However, while the efforts of the Student Support Services Division in the aftermath of these incidents are commendable, the more urgent need is for measures to prevent these incidents from happening in the vicinity of schools.
What is needed from Mr Garcia and his technocrats at the ministry is a solid plan, developed in collaboration with the T&T Police Service, to establish all places of learning as safe zones, with security measures and systems to prevent the collateral damage caused by gang warfare.
It cannot be emphasised too much how difficult it is for students to learn in such a volatile environment. They and their teachers shouldn’t have to worry about surviving the school day.
Apart from being harmed psychologically, socially and emotionally, studies show that this frequent exposure to violence can cause difficulties with concentration and memory.
If nothing else, the high risk to life and learning should trigger a swift response from the authorities.