Marcus M. Mottley Ph.D
Wednesday, 23 November 2011 02:30
By Marcus M Mottley PhD
As the recent incident at one of our secondary schools suggests, not only are we faced with violence involving youth in the community, but such violence has weaved its way into our schools.
One would hope that the school is the place where society can expect to be violence and drug free. Sadly, that is not the case not in Antigua and certainly not elsewhere.
There are countries around the world where schools are fortified with metal detectors, cameras in the hallways, guards patrolling hallways, policemen at the doors and in patrol cars circling around the block, and a general sense of fear by everyone students, teachers, and administrators. This worst case nightmare scenario has not yet arrived in Antigua.
But is it far away? If there is a threat of that, then something must be done quickly to slow and then halt the progression towards that frightening scenario.
However, knee jerk reactions by teachers, parents, school officials, and government leaders will only provide temporary, feel-good band-aids.
Expelling students from school – be they 13 or 18 – will potentially turn youths who are inclined toward violence into hardcore, violent adults. The act of expelling students is one that also turns them loose into a society where there are no formal (or informal) programmes that could help to turn them around – plus give them another chance at being educated. In expelling them, we are literally – not figuratively - abandoning them.
The young men involved in this incident could possibly be incarcerated. If this happens, they will be shoveled into a prison where they will be mentored and coached by older, seasoned, and even more violent criminals. And who knows what other experiences they will be exposed to there.
Yes, I know that there are many people who will say this is what they deserve. Their behaviours do need to be addressed. But how we address them and the behaviours of other youth who increasingly exhibit similar tendencies will mean the difference between influencing them to adopt socially acceptable behaviours or forcing them to degenerate into hardened, lifetime criminals.
Let’s think this through.
• If we shunt them off to prison to punish them (as their behaviours seem to deserve), what effect will that have on them and on their future?
• Do you think that this experience (expulsion, and potentially prison) will "teach them a lesson" – a lesson that will transform them into "good" young men?
• Are there behavior modification programmes in the prison that will help them to "see the error of their ways" and teach them to adopt more socially acceptable behaviours?
• Will they be taught (in prison) the knowledge and social skills they need to contribute meaningfully to their own development and to the development of a nation that needs positive, skilled, creative, resourceful, and energetic young people?
• Are there community-based programmes that will help them to modify their behaviours, teach them pro-social skills, and help them not only to continue their education, but motivate them to be more academically successful this time around?
• Are there community-based programmes that will teach them work-related skills if they are not doing well academically?
Zero Tolerance Policy
Certainly, without question, a Zero Tolerance policy in schools is the way to go: Zero drug use; Zero drug activity; Zero violence; Zero guns or other weapons; Zero threatening behaviours! Zero… Or else!
One of the things that perturbs me is the "or else"!
I don’t think that we have thought through the ramifications of the "or else," and what it will do to these youth – who no matter their behaviours of today – represent our nation’s tomorrow. Frightening… isn’t it? To shunt them off to an institution where there is no proven intervention or rehabilitative programme is to further deny them the possibility of contributing meaningfully and positively to our future, and more importantly – to their own future.
It is because they represent our nation’s tomorrow that we must go beyond our angry assertion that punishment is the answer to this troubling issue.
Yes, they must be held accountable for their actions. But we, adults, must be held accountable for our non-actions. What do I mean?
I know that many of you have questions about the phrase above: “Further deny them." What did I mean by that?
Well, this is not the first violent activity related to that school and many other schools in our nation. The issue of violence and criminal activity among our young people (in or out of school) has been in and out of the public spotlight for years.
So what have we done to address the slow, yet constantly encroaching violence, drug involvement, and other criminal activities in and around our schools? Where are the intervention programmes? Where are the prevention programmes?
Where is the training for teachers and other school officials? Where are the community programmes that would empower our youth to adopt more pro-social thinking, behaviours, and lifestyles?
Where are the training programmes for parents so that they are tooled with the skills and techniques to help them in their increasingly difficult task of parenting?
Where are the programmes to boost the efforts of community groups and churches and to give them the kinds of training they need to help in a synergistic and integrated island-wide effort at prevention and intervention?
Our failure to put these things in place is a failure at our level to recognise that these problems will not go away on their own. The public angst that has shown up around the current violence should be accompanied with public shame at the fact that we have not developed sustained, serious, and proven attempts at helping youth who may be headed in the direction of, and the destination to which these young people seem to have arrived.
Did anyone see it coming? What were their behaviours like prior to these incidents? Are there any records that document prior negative behaviors? How were they doing academically? What was their attendance like? What were their relationships like with teachers and other students? Did any of them have sessions with the school counselor?
As a former official with the District of Columbia Public Schools, and a former teacher at the Greenbay Government School and as a parent, I can unequivocally say that these behaviours did not just show up on the day of the violence. It was a long time coming.
The question is: Who noticed? And what could they do about it? What was in place to help these young people address their growing destructive behaviours?
Let me put on another hat. As a clinical psychologist, I can also say that there is a possibility that such behaviours are themselves cries for help. Just like in cases of suicide, subtle cries for help, when they go unnoticed, can grow into full blown violence (at self or others) and other destructive behaviours.
In failing to notice cries for help – and in failing to address such cries for help… we adults fail our young people.
I want to be clear that I am not pointing at any specific individual or institution. I am not criticizing any government agency or official. I am saying that we all must hold ourselves accountable.
And, rather than seeing such violence only as a chance to punish, we should see such violence as cries for help by youth who need help… who know they need help… and who know they are not getting the help they need.
Rather than seeing the youths involved in this incident as the only ones who need help… we should look around – open our eyes and see that potentially there may be tens of other youths in each school (including elementary schools) who are crying out for help.
Madame Minister, locking “the thugs" up will send messages to other youths. You are right. But are you sure that the message that you intend to send is the message that they will receive?
I strongly disagree with identifying these youths as "thugs". That kind of labelling of misguided youth who commit violent acts will not help them or other youths. While their behaviours might be "thuggish," I am sure that if you meet with some of those young people one-on-one, you would be left with a different perspective of them. And if you dig deeper, what you find might surprise you.
I have worked as a clinical psychologist with youth in a juvenile detention facility housing at times over 400 young men. Many of them had committed atrocious crimes (including homicides).
However, when I met with them individually, I could not but privately lament to myself that somewhere, at sometime, someone had dropped the ball. Individually, these were misguided, and yes, often violent young people who had committed serious crimes.
Many of them had failed in schools. Most of them were from poverty stricken homes and neighbourhoods infested with drugs and violence. Most of them were already using drugs. Many of them had parents and family members who were already involved in the criminal justice system. And, some of them had been diagnosed with mental health disorders – after they were incarcerated.
But one thing stood out. All of them aspired to something better – something different. They just didn’t know how to get there. My job – our job – was to have them understand that what they were doing would not get them what they wanted… and then to get them to buy into using more pro-social methods of achieving the "success" and different life and lifestyle that they secretly wanted.
Would I call those children thugs? No.
Let’s reserve words like "thugs" for hardcore criminals with a long history of violence and mayhem. I have also worked with "thugs" – some of the worst criminals from the District of Columbia: drug kingpins; serial murderers; serial rapists; serial child sexual abusers. Thugs? Yes.
These kids in our schools are not thugs.
Let’s not drop the ball with the young people here in Antigua who are involved in violence and other negative behaviours… whether they are your children, someone else’s children, or mine. They belong to us… negative behaviours and all.
In November 2006, I wrote an article entitled “Violence and Drug Prevention Needed”. As a matter of fact, I thought it was so important that I included it in my latest book: Radical Thoughts & Empowering Perspectives. In that article, I indicated what I thought needed to be done to prevent us from getting to where we are today. (I will republish that article on Caribarena.com in a few days as part 2 to this article.)
In that article, I give a brief outline of the school and community based prevention programmes and strategies that I suggest we implement across the nation to stem the slowly increasing tide of violence and drug use among our youth.
In another upcoming article, I will outline school- and community-based intervention strategies and programmes.
In the meantime, I suggest that the authorities look for best practices and demonstrably proven, successful programmes from across the world that will help us in the effort to foster resilient and law-abiding youth who are focused on their educational, professional, and personal development. I also encourage them to develop critically needed intervention programmes to help youth like those who were recently involved in that violent incident.
Marcus M. Mottley, Ph.D. is an Executive Coach, Organizational Consultant & Clinical Psychologist