STATISTICS FROM the education ministry have painted a worrying picture of indiscipline in school in Jamaica, and have revealed that some 26,000 students have
been suspended and hundreds expelled over a three-year period.
Responding to a request from The Sunday Gleaner, the education ministry compiled the reports of suspensions and expulsions reported from all regions by public, private, and independent schools during the 2006-2007 to 2008-2009 academic years.
The ministry was careful to point out that the figures "are estimates for suspension and expulsion", which means the figures could be higher, especially after allowing for under-reporting, the ministry conceded.
During the period under review, an average of 8,600 students were suspended in each academic year while no less than 506 of their peers were booted from school.
Permanent secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Education (MOE), Audrey Sewell, was staggered by the data. "It is the first time I have sat and looked at it globally. It is significant and nobody would feel comfortable with that level," said a concerned Sewell.
"I hope none of them (those expelled) has slipped through the cracks," she added, while noting that the ministry would launch a campaign to follow up on the progress of the students since their expulsion. "We have a responsibility to all of them," she said.
The education ministry did not have a breakdown of the reasons for the disciplinary measures taken against the students, but the Education Regulations 1980 governs and carefully sets out the grounds on which a child can be suspended or expelled from school. It states that "the principal of a public educational institution may suspend from the institution for a period not exceeding 10 days any student whose conduct in his opinion is of such a nature that his presence in that institution is having or is likely to have a detrimental effect on the discipline of the institution".
A student can also be suspended for committing "any act which causes injury to any member of staff or to any other student in that institution".
The education regulations also state that "except in special cases, a student shall only be suspended or excluded from a public educational institution after other efforts have been made to effect an improvement in the conduct of the student".
While not providing the specific circumstances surrounding each suspension or expulsion, Sewell, who accepted that there were several issues in the education sector that needed to be addressed, suggested that educators were often left with no other option but to suspend or expel students.
"There are many problems in the system. Teachers are overwhelmed. It is not that they really want to suspend, but they have to find a way to send a strong message," she said.
According to the 31-year-old set of laws, when a principal suspends a student, he or she must, with dispatch, give notice of the suspension to the student council and the parent or guardian of that student, as well as make a report to the board, stating the reasons for the suspension.
During the period of the suspension, the board of the public educational institution is required to investigate the matter, after which the student can be reinstated with or without a reprimand, or a warning can be given to the student, and where appropriate, to the parent or guardian.
After the investigations have been completed, the school board is also at liberty to "suspend the student for a further period not exceeding five school days beyond the period of suspension already given", or it can "instruct the principal to exclude permanently the student from attending that institution and shall inform the minister of such action".
According to the regulations, a child may re-enter another school after being expelled from a particular one. "A student who has been permanently excluded for disciplinary reasons from a public educational institution may be admitted to another public educational institution if a confidential report of the circumstances surrounding the exclusion is given to the principal of that other institution," read a section of the regulations.
Sewell told The Sunday Gleaner that it is the ministry's desire to ensure that every student who enters the nation's school system benefits. "It's really not comforting to know that we are losing some of them," she remarked.
The PS feels strongly that the high number of suspensions and expulsions is linked to "dysfunctional homes that make up Jamaica's malfunctioning society. The problem is that we are not getting the support from many of the homes in the administration of proper discipline," she asserted.
Suspensions and expulsions must be a last resort, according to ministry guidelines.
"Emphasis must be placed on prevention and early intervention strategies. The MOE, therefore, asserts that standard procedures be implemented to identify, as early as possible, students at risk and provide the necessary support to those who are presenting behavioural challenges."