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FIRING LINE: The right to know

Shantal Munro-Knight

FIRING LINE: The right to know

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I read with disbelief, sadness and anger an interview with Nigel Marshall which appeared in the last SUNDAY SUN.
Nigel Marshall, for those of you who might not have read the story, was a Louis Lynch Secondary School student and subsequent teacher who recently died of prostate cancer. 
Perhaps, for many of you, nothing extraordinary; a man dies of cancer, we empathise, thank God for life and move on.
However, if you have been following the SUNDAY SUN reports on the Louis Lynch School then you would know that Nigel Marshall is one of a number of former Louis Lynch teachers who have died or are ailing from cancer-related illnesses. 
He had spent the year preceding his death calling for the release of an environmental study which had been undertaken at the school prior to its closing but never released (actually subsequent stories seem to suggest that perhaps there was more than one study done that was never released).
Marshall died without any resolution to his questions about the seeming coincidence of deaths of former colleagues. The interview provides a recount from Marshall’s perspective of how teachers and students began to fall ill at the school and their attempt to get public officials to listen to and do something about their plight.
The story quoted Mr Marshall as saying: “When we went to the ministry we were told why don’t you teachers go and do your SBAs (school-based assessments) – you’re always late with the SBAs. What laundry you’re talking about? . . . We went back to the ministry formally and the attitude was they don’t know what is wrong with us teachers and the public fed into this. We decided that if we had any smoke or other issues we would just leave the school and that was what we did.”
I have no evidence to suggest that Marshall’s death is related to anything that occurred at Louis Lynch School and I am not attempting to make that case here. What I am suggesting is that clearly this was a major incident which has left some unanswered questions. We have had thousands of dollars spent on inquiries with fewer bases or substance – does not Mr Marshall and the others from Louis Lynch deserve some sort of hearing or some official conclusion of this situation?
The end for the officials concerned and the public came when the pupils and teachers were transferred and the school subsequently closed. The problem was neatly tucked away out of sight and the reports even more neatly stacked on the proverbial shelf to catch dust. This is how we treat such problems. What is that old saying, “out of sight out of mind?” However, I am sure not out of sight for the teachers, students and their families. 
What surprises and at the same time infuriates me that is Mr Marshall seemed to be the only one willing to speak out about the situation, to put his face publicly out there and call for answers. This is endemic of our of society; we prefer to grin and bear it as opposed to causing a ripple in the waters least someone look at us funny or, more dangerously, accuses us of wanting to destabilise the country.
Significant social issues time and time again seem to drift off the social landscape with nary a sound like clouds drifting along on a sunny day. This is endemic of how we handle issues of accountability and issues of social justice. We lack a well-functioning framework which provides for accountability to citizens and policy transparency.
We seem to make up the rules depending on the state of the weather or perhaps more importantly how near or far elections are around the corner. Issues seemingly only become treated with seriousness if one or more of the players are perceived as being socially important. What happens when it is just ordinary citizens doing ordinary things?
  What also struck me in the story was Marshall’s basic plea for information. He was quoted as saying: “We are Government employees. We are humans. We are Barbadians and I think if you do a study that is going to help me, warn me, I have a right to that information.”
The failure on the part of the Government to introduce a freedom of information act further undermines the rights of citizens to ask questions and seek relevant information in their own efforts for justice.
We remain at the mercy of officials until they deem it necessary to speak to us and provide answers or to when newspapers release an exposé. Unfortunately, judging by the one response to this story printed in the paper, this has caused not much of a ripple.
So as usual, perhaps, no one will be called to account, no more questions will be asked and no answers will be given and families of past students and teachers will continue to bury their dead and only wonder about the possible connection.
I came across this interesting quote from Tony Robbins: “By changing nothing, nothing changes.”
• Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.