The Star (St. Lucia) - - FRONT PAGE - By Kayra Wil­liams

Are stu­dents the prob­lem or are they vic­tims of a sys­tem that per­mits trans­port driv­ers to dis­crim­i­nate against them? The an­swer de­pends on whether you talk to trans­port op­er­a­tors or to their young pas­sen­gers. In all events, some­thing for the au­thor­i­ties to look into with ur­gency!

Young girl sex­u­ally as­saulted while walk­ing home from school. Teen rushed to hos­pi­tal af­ter be­ing stabbed dur­ing rob­bery at­tempt. Driver and stu­dents brawl in Cas­tries. In the lat­ter, the driver re­port­edly pulled out a cut­lass and threat­ened to ‘chop' the young males when they de­fended them­selves. Ac­cord­ing to them, he had grown irate and as­saulted one of the stu­dents over a game of tag be­tween the boys and other stu­dents that had, in his opin­ion, got­ten out of hand.

Why isn't any­one talk­ing about this? Why are there no mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sions about these and other re­lated prob­lems stu­dents run into daily, par­tic­u­larly in cases where they're left stranded on the side of the road by bus driv­ers who refuse to pick them up? Talk­ing would be one thing but, even worse, why aren't we do­ing any­thing about it? For years there has been a war brew­ing be­tween bus driv­ers and the na­tion's youth. I re­mem­ber stand­ing with friends at bus stops near the Cas­tries Com­pre­hen­sive Sec­ondary School and hav­ing buses fly past, or stop and pick up every­one on the stop but us. I didn't con­sider us to be the badly be­haved type, what­ever that was, but for those driv­ers it was enough that we were wear­ing school uni­form, and that meant we were en­ti­tled to pay the dis­counted rate to our des­ti­na­tion of choice, as stip­u­lated by the is­land's gov­ern­ment. Car­ry­ing school kids meant that the driv­ers were mak­ing less money on ev­ery trip, in ad­di­tion to other noisy in­con­ve­niences.

The ques­tion that needs to be asked now is why so many adults in this coun­try have al­lowed them­selves to be­come com­fort­able with turn­ing a blind eye to stu­dents, who are re­quired by law to at­tend these ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions in the first place, while they are left at the side of our roads. Why have we be­come ac­cus­tomed to this, to the point where we hardly chal­lenge these driv­ers any more nor see the need to take mat­ters to the rel­e­vant au­thor­i­ties? Stu­dents have rights too.

But where did this all be­gin? Surely, not all bus driv­ers can be that heart­less? One af­ter­noon with this in mind, I headed down to Cas­tries. I wanted to find out for my­self the per­spec­tives of bus driv­ers on the is­sue. A driver on the Cas­tries to Gros Islet route, who didn't want to be named, told me in no un­cer­tain terms that he would never pick up any stu­dents in uni­form on his bus: “They too out of hand,” he said. “Be­fore you tell them some­thing they want to curse you, al­ways play­ing old games. Some of them mark­ing up your seats and noth­ing for that. Some of them come on the bus and they loud and have no be­hav­iour. Some even want to fight. These chil­dren nowa­days don't care about noth­ing, that's not my role.”

Another who'd been work­ing in the trans­porta­tion in­dus­try for the past 15 years con­trib­uted: “I agree that the chil­dren need to get home but I think it's im­por­tant that par­ents teach them how to act in pub­lic set­tings as well. That's where it starts. Kids will be kids but you have to play your role too.”

He added: “Some of these driv­ers on the road shouldn't be trans­port­ing stu­dents. You have to un­der­stand, first of all, that they are chil­dren.”

Later that same day I spoke with a par­ent of a form three stu­dent of a Gros Islet-based school who said her son has been left stranded in front of his school, in the city, or in re­mote ar­eas far too many times to count. “I have to be call­ing him each time to find out what's tak­ing so long, be­cause I can't be­lieve you leave school 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock, and you not reach­ing home at all. He telling me some­times he have to walk home be­cause the bus driv­ers not pick­ing them up.”

The woman said her son had told her re­cently about an al­ter­ca­tion he'd wit­nessed in Cas­tries when a group of boys had been chased off a bus by a driver, right af­ter they'd boarded, be­cause the driver con­sid­ered theirs too big a group. The rules on his bus were “one or two stu­dents” on ev­ery trip.

“I'll bet no par­ent or guardian out there wants to send their child to any school think­ing that along the way they'll end up in an al­ter­ca­tion with a bus driver,” the boy's mother told me. “We need to do bet­ter in this coun­try.”

Her words begged the ques­tion: what ex­actly needs to hap­pen for things to change? This week I spoke with Verneige Joseph, Act­ing Pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Stu­dents' Coun­cil, and posed the ques­tion. A not so op­ti­mistic Joseph shared her thoughts on the mat­ter: “The re­luc­tance of driv­ers to pick up stu­dents is the same in the north and south of the is­land. This re­luc­tance is present be­cause driv­ers be­lieve that if they pick up stu­dents, specif­i­cally pri­mary school stu­dents, they would not be mak­ing enough money; con­se­quently, stu­dents are left stranded.”

When asked whether she con­sid­ered the pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tem safe for stu­dents, the Na­tional Stu­dents' Coun­cil rep said that it was not, cit­ing, “over-packed buses, reck­less driv­ing and un­pre­dictable pas­sen­gers.”

She clar­i­fied: “Stu­dents have no con­trol of the type of per­sons who board the buses, in­clud­ing drunk and men­tal in­di­vid­u­als."

While another mem­ber of the Na­tional Stu­dents' Coun­cil had pre­vi­ously told the STAR she was aware of a few com­plaints that had been made about the chal­lenges faced by stu­dents on pub­lic trans­porta­tion, the act­ing pres­i­dent could not ver­ify those con­cerns.

“We haven't had any com­plaints,” she said, adding that the rea­son might well be be­cause stu­dents have grown used to the cur­rent state of af­fairs. “Stu­dents have learnt to tol­er­ate the bus sys­tem in Saint Lu­cia,” she said. “These is­sues have been re-oc­cur­ring for many years, there­fore it has be­come part of stu­dent cul­ture. There's never been any hope of it chang­ing.”

While she didn't have much faith that things would change any­time soon, Verneige shared some sug­ges­tions, par­tic­u­larly when it came to bus driv­ers hired to pick up stu­dents from school com­pounds: “Bus con­duc­tors, stu­dent/driver screen­ings, schools work­ing more closely with the trans­port as­so­ci­a­tion. Bus con­duc­tors would en­sure that the stu­dents are all ac­counted for, re­main in their seats and are not bul­lied. The screen­ings would help pre­vent any dis­or­derly con­duct. Al­though the school has been work­ing with the trans­porta­tion sys­tem fairly closely, fre­quent meet­ings and reg­u­lar check-ups should be made.”

The Coun­cil is call­ing on the rel­e­vant au­thor­i­ties to take heed of the is­sues faced by stu­dents, and to make im­me­di­ate steps to­wards im­prov­ing the trans­porta­tion sys­tem to ben­e­fit the is­land's youth and, ul­ti­mately, their ed­u­ca­tion.

Mem­bers of the Na­tional Stu­dents' Coun­cil.

Verneige Joseph, Act­ing Pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Stu­dents' Coun­cil.

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