Charles Young is a Jamaican Youth Ambassador for the UN General Assembly. He is travelling to South Africa this week to participate in the drafting of an #ENDviolence Youth Manifesto, along with hundreds of other young people from across the world. The Manifesto is the result of a global effort by UNICEF, conducted between July-November, to have children and youth share their perspectives on what they need from others and what they can do themselves to feel safe in schools.
I am very honoured to represent the voices of Jamaican children on the issue of violence for UNICEF’s global #ENDviolence initiative. It is vastly important that we hear their concerns, as well as their solutions. On World Children’s Day, I listened to over 120 students from across the island as they shared their experiences and ideas at UNICEF Jamaica’s #ENDviolence “Youth Talk”.
However, I wanted to hear more from younger children. So I visited St. Richard’s Primary School in Kingston to talk with a group of Grade 6 students. We talked through the same issues that were raised at the Youth Talk.
First question: do you feel safe at school? The class erupted in unison: “Sometimes!” I asked if they meant that they felt safe most of the time or infrequently. They told me they feel safe most of the time, but since the school is located near to two violent communities, they often think about the possibility that violence can spill over onto the school compound – and this affects their peace of mind.
Sometimes it’s what they (bullies) see or hear or adapt to because of the parents or people around them.
Some of the students said that they get scared when children who live in violent areas threaten to bring people to the school to hurt another student. They also feel unsafe when parents intimidate other students verbally and physically, and when residents from the adjoining communities manage to enter the compound and pick on some of the students.
Second question: what do you do, or suggest to your peers, to feel safe at school? Laughter filled the air when one of the students quipped: “I would just say smile, because when you smile, it’s like you have this super power, nothing will affect you really. Just keep smiling!”
They are very aware, however, that many students can’t muster a smile when they face violence at school, especially when they are being bullied. The students had a lot to say about how they respond to bullying. One said she encourages her peers to steer clear of bullies and not to pick up their tendencies, noting that sometimes students become bullies because of who they associate with. Many of them said they would verbally stand up for students who are being bullied and encourage them to report the incident to the teacher.
Third question: what can stakeholders do to make schools safer for students? They had great answers for this one! One student noted that there needs to be more guidance counsellors in schools, or more teachers who are better equipped with material for when a child is being bullied, because they need teachers to comfort them and address these situations. Sympathetically, the same student also acknowledged that sometimes it’s not the bully’s fault. “Sometimes it’s what they see or hear or adapt to because of the parents or people around them,” she said.
Teachers need to start listening to students because when you go to them, they block you out. So they need to listen because some of these students can be in a situation where they are being constantly bullied.
She went on to suggest that the government can start by helping parents to be less aggressive, explaining that by helping the parents first and not the students, they will be going home to a reformed household which can prevent students from being bullies.
They turned to the teachers next. One student enthusiastically pointed out, “Teachers need to start listening to students because when you go to them, they block you out. So they need to listen because some of these students can be in a situation where they are being constantly bullied.” Other students agreed and pointed out that teachers also need to listen to both sides of the story, consulting with both the bully and the victim as a part of the resolution process.
One of the most startling and revealing comments came towards the end of our discussion. One student shared that both parents and teachers need to learn to “hold their tongue”, because they’re often unaware of how their remarks affect children. “Sometimes it is very tempting because it makes you feel like you want to commit suicide.” That was difficult to swallow, but it is a reality we must confront.
These students were impressive. Not only could they clearly articulate their issues, but they did a critical analysis of the necessary solutions. If there is one that I have learned, it’s that parents and communities have a colossal role to play in the violence that occurs in schools. This must not be understated.
Sometimes it is very tempting because it makes you feel like you want to commit suicide.