ON REFLECTION - Bullying and school heads

luigimarshall, luigimarshall@nationnews.com

Added 26 September 2011

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AMID ALL THE NEWS about bullying in the last week, sparked by another local incident that has led to a frightened, scarred student having to be transferred, I was particularly saddened by the reaction of the principal of the school involved. He was well within his rights not to comment to the media about the incident that had occurred on the school’s basketball court. But this is a country where bullying in schools has got out of hand, and cannot therefore be approached by educators or education authorities with clinical hesitancy. Whatever “course of action” the principal said he spoke about to the boy’s mother, appears not to have given her the assurance she was seeking. So a transfer had to be urgent and immediate; and within a week he was in another school – presumably happier and safer. Sadly, however, the principal felt it necessary to convolute the issue in his own resentment that the mother had, after previous bullying incidents, “run to the media”. And instead of dealing with the perpetrators of this incident that would have been seen by several witnesses, he gave her “a course of action”. What effective action could this mother have taken but to remove her child as quickly as possible? Any course of action should have been the principal’s, because the bullying incident occurred on a basketball court, for God’s sake, not in the pitch-dark recesses of a remote cave! This is Barbados, where such reports occur nearly every month; so just as a presiding magistrate or judge must exercise ultimate authority over his or her court, so should a principal have similar power over his or her school. Schools in this country are no longer held as bastions of discipline, if even having a reputation for learning. They are becoming “war zones” as the Minister of Education described them last week, and cannot be overseen by principals who hesitate to show authority, maintain strict order, or show zero tolerance to violence. If anything good happens at a school – including the two caught in the vortex of bullying in the past week – their principals must surely be lauded and given the “photo ops” and other means to proudly publicize themselves. If a graduation or any other wholesome event is to be held at those schools, the principal again should eagerly lead the way in inviting parents, wellwishers and yes, the media. By all means, show off your schools when they do well! But by the same token, when bullying incidents occur, the principals must lead in stamping them out; not suddenly slink into silence, advise a parent to go to the ministry, or promise an “investigation” – while the injured and bullied child has to return to the stress-filled, fear-filled environment every day thereafter. In the meantime, the Minister of Education continues to be the one crying like a voice in the wilderness about the need for schools to be “oases” instead of war zones; and the Probation Department admits that drug use and bullying are widespread among local schools. Politicians, education officials, probation officers, the police, the church all have a role to play in maintaining an orderly society, but principals and teachers are much more hands-on and must therefore get back to being the source of discipline, the “parents” in the classroom. But it seems as though some principals – trying not to sully their schools or frustrated by those parents who are the first to publicly criticize when discipline is enforced – may be ill advised by well meaning people to sweep bullying, violence and other negatives under the carpet in the vain hope of maintaining the schools’ reputations. My advice to such principals is this: If the schools over which you preside are merely your transition points before that eagerly awaited retirement, then you should perhaps retire early. If the principal’s office is little more than your hiding place from annoying parents, then hide at home. If you feel your school’s reputation is more important than stamping out a societal scourge, you need a refresher course in teaching. And if you’re one of those teachers who have thrown their hands in the air and decided that young people are a lost cause, remember that they are the future which you have been given the privilege and responsibility of shaping.  

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