Following certain published media reports, I wish to share my thoughts on a situation of gravest concern.
I do so, not only as a commissioner and a member of the government of St. Maarten.
I do so, more as a St. Martiner, as a parent and as a member of this community.
The issue I wish to address is the ongoing phenomenon whereby children — our children, children of our community –find it necessary to arm themselves to go to school.
I am not here to lay blame; I am not interested in reprimanding the youth, nor the parents, nor the schools nor law enforcement authorities.
This is not the time for it and it does no good to do so.
This is the time for us, as a community, to really take stock of what is happening and to collectively decide what we are going to do about it.
Let us not wait until a child is killed during a fight at school for us to really decide that ‘enough is enough’.
Our children are our most valuable resources; they are our pride and joy; they are the ones which will guarantee our continuity as a people.
Our children are the ones who will be left behind to inherit all the good as well as all the bad we leave behind for them today.
So, the challenge facing us, as a community, is real; it calls for urgent action.
The published reports and photos of the sharp knives, scissors, machetes and other weapons found on our children travelling by bus to school, in past weeks, is reason for alarm.
It is a wake-up call; it tells us that while we may choose to go about our daily lives as usual, this too, is one of the symptoms of a community in trouble.
I believe that what is called for are, decisive measures, starting with the forming of a solid partnership between the public, the community, the schools, the churches, the community councils, parents and all other interested parties, including government.
We need to develop approaches and policies as a community effort.
It is vital that there is a sharing and supporting of the idea that it would be better to be engaged in preventive actions, so that not too much manpower and resources would have to be dedicated to merely reacting to incidents, which have already taken place and which could be avoided.
For this, community cooperation and input is necessary, considering that when it comes to one’s children and how they are likely to behave, parents or guardians usually know that child better than anyone else.
We cannot ignore some of the fundamental reasons, the perceived lack of prospects for the youth and a decline in moral standards, contributing to much of what we are now seeing.
Much of what I state is nothing new; you may have already heard some of it in the past.
If this is so, the question then is, why haven’t we resolved the situation?
Violence in and around St. Maarten’s (mainly secondary school) has long been a source of deep concern; now we have the additional component of dangerous weapons carried on school busses by boys and girls alike.
Today, many St. Maarten residents are touched directly or indirectly by violent acts, such as the tragic incident of last Friday, when a well-known St. Martiner lost his life.
Violence being displayed by our children is thus not surprising. And since violence is present in the wider community, our mission should be expanded to include avoiding violence across the life course.
In an effort to establish more complete violence-related policies, programs and practices, it is proposed to work from a multi-disciplinary platform on the subject of school violence and facilitating the building of bridges between the community, young people, parents, teachers, educators, policy makers and law enforcement agencies.
It is proposed to embark on a mission, which takes into consideration the following:
1. The collection of material and resources on the causes and prevention of school violence and providing direct information services to the public.
2. Offering assistance for the evaluation and development of school violence prevention programs.
3. Establishing prevention and intervention programs.
This point is of particular concern, since some children would tell you that they carry arms out of fear, for protection against other kids.
Of course, in such an environment children cannot excel; they can’t really learn in a setting where they don’t feel safe.
As a community coming together, we can do more to tackle the problem effectively.
It would be great, for instance, if we could draft some kind of partnership plan including the Insular Education Dept., the federal education dept., Public Prosecutor’s Office, W.I.T.U., School Boards, Parents-Teacher Associations, Christian Community Council, Police department, Court of Justice, St. Maarten Youth Council, community councils etc. etc.
But, any initiative would have to be supported by parents and the community at large.
The goal should be to create and maintain a positive and welcoming school climate, free of drugs, violence, intimidation and fear—an environment strongly supported by the community in which teachers can teach and students can learn.
It should be an environment wherein no child travelling to school by bus has any need to carry a weapon of any sort.
As we continue with our preparations for country status, I would want to propose a ‘safe school plan’, as a framework for action that can be used as a guide for current and future planning.
As I said before, sometimes, we are so busy addressing our personal needs, that we tend to overlook what is happening to our community.
We simply do not have the luxury to continue with that kind of mind-set. As a community, we need to address the behavioral aspects of violence prevention.
Establishing a safe school plan is a long-term, systematic and comprehensive process. As with most successful violence prevention interventions, the best safe school plan involves the entire community.
In other words, we need to promote an ongoing relationship with local law enforcement authorities, local businesses and other community organizations.
We need to establish guidelines and procedures for identifying students at risk of violence toward themselves or others.
We need to identify effective violence prevention programs that meet the needs of the school community, including both in-school programs and community programs appropriate for our community.
That is one reason why I continue to champion the benefits of sports programs, as one way to get young children and the youth involved in wholesome activities and off the streets.
We should bear in mind that:
School violence is increasing and the type of violence is also changing. Where it used to be stealing a cellular phone, it has already turned into injury of students.
Why do students commit acts of violence and carry weapons? Some say that it is because of gangs and the lack of supervision by parents.
Studies have also shown that usually violence at school or on the streets is started because of an argument between two young people. So, if we want to avoid violence we need to do more to teach young people how to avoid arguments that grow into violence.
We have a unique opportunity to come up with our own ideas about how our community can start programs to help students work out differences without major arguments that could turn into violence.
A separate remark I would like to make is directed at our youth: stay away from gangs or so-called friends, who tend to use or say they want to use violence!! If you’re already involved in a gang or have any such ‘friends’ ask for help in getting out or get new friends! It is possible!
To the community – particularly to parents – I ask that we consider the five premises that have developed regarding school violence worldwide:
1. Violence in schools begins in the lowest grades. It is not a teenage problem.
2. Violence is not avoided by advertising harsher punishments.
3. Metal detectors and strip searches alone will not stop school violence and children carrying arms.
4. The most effective tools we have to avoid school violence are our ears – let’s try to listen some more.
5. Children who do not like and respect themselves cannot like and respect other children.
In other words: Violence among our youth is not an isolated problem that can be solved at the school or by the school. It is merely a reflection of a way of life of violence and intolerance.
The most important thing that a parent can teach their child is for that child to love and respect himself or herself. A child that is raised to respect himself can respect other people and other things. A child who feels worthless or inferior will seek a way to fill that void in his life- either by belittling other people to whom he or she feels inferior (hating), by aligning himself with a group that will offer him a substitute for self-esteem (such as a gang), or by blinding himself to his feelings of inferiority (such as drugs).
I hope to have contributed somewhat to the public debate of what to do about so many of our youth who need to be guided, protected and cherished.
Commissioner Frans G. Richardson