Education Minister Not In Favour of Armed Guards In Schools.
LAST Monday night’s break-in at St. Mary’s College has further intensified the debate on security at schools, fueled in part by the fact that such incidents have spiked recently.
According to school principal, Rowan Seon, four thieves entered the school compound, beat and tied up the two security guards on duty and proceeded to burglarize the school before evading police who showed up while they were still on the premises.
President of the St. Lucia Teachers’ Union (SLTU), Julian Monrose, told The VOICE that the situation is “very disheartening” for his union, adding that authorities should have by now understood the importance of students earning a good education in a safe learning environment.
“One would think that a school would be the last place that anyone would want to target for mischief. Right now, even students are being attacked. As a society, we need to stand up and say we’ve had enough,” Monrose said on Tuesday.
However, Monrose conceded that it cannot be left only to the police to protect every home and the island’s 106 schools. As a society, he said, people need to also assist the police in identifying criminals so as to demonstrate “that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable.”
“With the rate at which these incidents are happening now, my big fear is that as the criminals become emboldened whether they’re going to stage daylight robberies during class time. Once they do that, the whole question of loss of life becomes clear. So we need to arrest that situation,” Monrose, who visited the school on Tuesday morning, said.
Monrose said the Ministry of Education needs to do better as it relates to hiring security personnel at schools. He said the days of hiring watchmen are long gone and that authorities need to ensure that those charged to provide security on school compounds are properly trained.
“So we cannot let a group of people who perhaps feel they have no stake, or whatever their problem is, think that they can target our schools,” Monrose said.
Despite expressing his union’s concerns about safety at schools to the Ministry of Education for years now, Monrose said the time had come when “we must stand firm on it.” He said the teachers’ union will be requesting a sit-down with education ministry officials to not just discuss the problem but for which a concrete action plan must be put in place to manage that situation.
Minister for Economic Development, Guy Joseph, said government was “very concerned” about the issue of safety at schools, adding that the issue of crime goes beyond break-ins at schools.
The Minister said the country was experiencing a level of criminal activity beyond what people were used to in the past and that government hopes to deal with the matter “very seriously”. He said he has had discussions with Prime Minister Allen Chastanet and Minister for National Security, Hermangild Francis on the matter, and steps are being taken to remedy the situation.
Joseph said that apart from increased security manpower, the use of technology, such as CCTV cameras and other communications systems, needs to be beefed up at schools. Nevertheless, he said Francis has the capability of formulating a plan that would include back-up support systems to security personnel stationed at schools. Despite all these efforts, he said, government’s resources remain limited.
“Financially, we are constrained,” Joseph lamented. “Can we get the ideal (solution to the problem)? Not necessarily.”
Minister for Education, Dr. Gale Rigobert, called in to RCI’s “News Spin” on Tuesday to express her concerns on the recent spate of vandalism at schools, saying that prior to the opening of the new academic year, security at schools had already been a priority area for government. However, she said Monday night’s incident signals the need for “a very holistic response to this callous behaviour on the part of thieves or would-be thieves.”
Dr.Rigobert said she has been in contact with Principal Seon since the incident, as well as with Acting Police Commissioner, Frances Henry. She said police officers were sent to the Vigie-based school after the alarm was raised and remained there until sunrise on Tuesday as a short-term measure.
Medium-term measures, the Education Minister said, include Police Commissioner SeverinMoncherry’s indication that heightened surveillance at schools. However, officials are mulling the assigning of police officers at schools, which is worrisome.
Dr.Rigobert said that while she has since asked her ministry’s technical team and the Police Commissioner “to consider options outside of having an individual with a gun at his/her side” serving as security guards at schools, arguing that armed security at schools sends a bad signal to students. Nevertheless, she conceded that the recent break-ins “mandate that we do something”.
“That is the consideration before us now: whether it is that we have to install surveillance cameras and outfit schools with more armed guards. But there are a host of options that we can consider,” the Education Minister said.
She also called on the citizenry to alert authorities if they notice any suspicious behaviour: “There’s no way that thieves can be breaking into schools, collecting property, housing them somewhere and in our small beautiful island somebody does not know (about it)…Somebody must know.”
Dr.Rigobert expressed her sympathies to the affected teachers, students and especially the security guards who were attacked on Monday evening. She also said that in an effort to correct the security situation at the school, officials are already finding it difficult sourcing personnel.
Since the new school year began in September, some schools have been burglarized, including Carmen Rene Memorial, which was targeted by thieves during the passage of Tropical Storm Matthew.