STUDENTS AT RISK!
SAINT LUCIA HURRICANE READY?
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.