Wed | Sep 27, 2023

Rescue them!

St Michael’s Primary assists children affected by gun violence

Published:Saturday | February 19, 2022 | 12:05 AMSharlene Hendricks/Staff Reporter
St Michael’s Primary School, Kingston.
St Michael’s Primary School, Kingston.
Oshane Bailey, guidance counsellor, St Michael’s Primary School, Kingston.
Oshane Bailey, guidance counsellor, St Michael’s Primary School, Kingston.
Juliet Campbell McPherson, principal, St Michael’s Primary School, Kingston.
Juliet Campbell McPherson, principal, St Michael’s Primary School, Kingston.

RESPONDING TO the learning gaps in students returning to the classroom has been a challenge for teachers at St Michael’s Primary School, where an upsurge in gang violence in surrounding communities have left students doubly impacted.

The school sits next door to Parade Gardens, the newest community to be declared a zone of special operations, and flanked on the east by the Tower Street Adult Correctional Facility, popularly called GP (General Penitentiary).

In recent times, the school has seen tremendous growth in population and academic success of students matriculating to a number of traditional high schools, compared to previous years of low growth and performance.

But teachers faced with the task of re-engaging students who have returned to the classroom from neighbouring Southside communities that have seen the escalation of a bitter gang feud over the last two years, also now have to cope with the mental strain this has put on students.

“The children come to school and they talk about the violent things they see happening in their community,” grade one teacher at St Michael’s Primary School, Natasha Grant, told The Gleaner during a visit to the school on Tuesday.


“They talk who they see and what happened to so and so. They not only talk, but they also imitate what they see and I have to try to explain to them that it’s not okay.

“Some of the things that they say, I have to carry them one side because they don’t understand. And at times, it seems as if it’s the norm for them. For some of them, if they were to hear a gunshot they would be scared, but for others it’s the norm,” Grant explained.

The teacher admitted that in dealing with some of her more traumatised students, she has oftentimes felt ill-equipped to meet their needs, relying heavily on the school’s guidance counsellor who then refers the students for external professional intervention.

“Although we know it’s traumatic for the students, where would we get the time to address those things?” the teacher asked frankly.

“Sometimes I can’t handle it, so I have to do the referral sheets and send it to the guidance counsellor. I don’t think the regular classroom teacher is trained to deal with the trauma of these children.

“We are not specialists or trained psychologists to deal with these things. The little training that we have we try to guide them, but we have to refer them for outside help,” Grant concluded.

“I have my days when I get overwhelmed but I’m not totally beaten down,” said Camecia Vassell, a grade six teacher at the school.

Vassell expressed concerns that her students were not ready for Primary Exit Profile (PEP) exams, but was more optimistic than overwhelmed by the task at hand.

“The reality is that this is Southside, this is where we work, and there is always ongoing violence. Not much has changed, it’s just that the learning gap, playing catch up, and getting them back to a point where they can perform is the big challenge.

“They’ve been locked up and now that they are back at school they want to let loose. They are not even in the frame of mind of preparing for exit exams,” said Vassell.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Education announced that the Performance Task component of the PEP exam has been cancelled, amid concerns about student readiness to sit these exams.

Meanwhile, the mental toll on educators at the institution has been observed more closely by guidance counsellor, Oshane Bailey who has played an active role in addressing the behavioural problems of students.

According to Bailey, there have been seven referrals made for children to receive professional academic and behavioural intervention.

“Some of these go to child guidance and others go to the Mico Care Centre,” said Bailey.

“But the trust is that the teachers need the counselling too. So, we have asked the Victim Support Unit to come in for session with the teachers to identify the more critical teachers and then see how we can refer them because there are resources within the Ministry of Finance for all government workers to have access to counselling,” said Bailey.

A June 2021 study by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute has revealed a significant deficit of mental health professionals trained to meet the needs of children.

Referrals for traumatised children are sent to Child Guidance Clinics at provided under the Ministry of Health and Wellness. But according to the titled, Mind the Gap – The Inadequacy of Mental Health Services for Children, attendance at these clinics had fallen by nine per cent since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study also revealed that more and more of the nation’s children are in need of specialised and consistent mental health services, as only about eight per cent of children are having their mental health needs met.

Only about 12 clinicians provide services predominantly for children, with a total of 23 Child Guidance clinics located at health centres and hospitals throughout the island.

So far, support for teachers at the school has come from the Child Protection and Family Services Agency, with more to come from the Victims Support Unit that operates under the Ministry of Justice.

“There is no doubt that the teachers have been impacted. With them being at home and not getting all their students online. They also have families who have been affected by COVID. And with those things now compounded by the violence in the community, and the impact on the children coming back to school, there is that need for psychosocial support for the teachers themselves.

“Talking with the teachers and evaluating the situation, I decided that they really need the psychosocial support. And so, we have invited professionals from outside to come and offer that support,” said school principal, Juliet Campbell-McPherson.