Delinquents need help, not licks
By Merle Hodge
Trinidad and Tobago Express, June 24, 2004

Professor [Ramesh] Deosaran's research and policy report which advocates the "reintroduction" of corporal punishment is sub-titled, curiously, "Towards a Culture of Peace and Civility". Is it civil behaviour to strike another person? We want to teach our children that they must not strike other people but that we may strike them?

And what is the connection between hitting people (for children are people) and developing a culture of peace?

The report dismisses the movement against child-beating as being "guided purely by foreign research".

In Trinidad and Tobago, an easy way to reject something is to say that it is foreign. This is an easy way and it is dishonest, because we only find that "foreign" is bad when we don't like the thing. Computer technology, Cable TV, the FTAA, Miss Universe, the consultants leading the development of curriculum for our schools (SEMP), and so on, aren't these all "foreign" in origin?

Then, at the end of the Deosaran report, there is a bibliography several pages long-a list of works consulted by the committee. Guess where the great majority of these works are from? The committee's reading list is packed tight with documents reporting on research done in the US-that foreign place.

It is very wrong to suggest that the idea of not beating children can only come from abroad. That is an insult to our intelligence. There have always been people in our country who do not believe in hitting children. Most of them have never read a single page of any research document on the subject. Out of their own wisdom, and above all, out of love and respect for their children, they have found a way to turn out creative, law-abiding young people without ever laying a finger on them. Perhaps Prof Deosaran's committee needed to seek out these people and talk to them, rather than spend so much time reading up on all that "foreign research".

With all due respect to Prof Deosaran and his team, if the Ministry of Education is committed to creating a culture of peace in the schools, it should have selected a group of researchers who are also sincerely and deeply committed to this ideal. For a genuine commitment to "peace and civility" cannot live in the same head as the acceptance of child-beating.

Instead of doing the indigenous research that they think does not exist, including looking into homes and classrooms in Trinidad and Tobago that are operating successfully without corporal punishment, this team polled the views of people who believe in corporal punishment.

When people are to be consulted for the purpose of making national policy, the correct thing to do is to place people in a position to give informed opinion, not gut feelings that they have never reflected on. Some of the money spent on the media blitz around police reform legislation might have been spent on a public awareness campaign on the issue of corporal punishment. Getting the population to move away from handling children with violence certainly has some bearing on the effort to reduce violent crime.

So the committee finds 143 people who support corporal punishment. It therefore caves in and recommends its reintroduction. (Had you looked a little further, Prof, you would easily have found many more than 143 people who never supported it, or who have thought it over and now reject the practice, largely because of the public education work done by NGOs such as Workingwomen, Families in Action, The Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition for the Rights of the Child.)

Our government, therefore, will have paid good money to experts for them to recommend that we try out the thing that we have been using for centuries without interruption, beginning with the use of flogging to control enslaved people. The Deosaran report recommends the experimental use of corporal punishment as a "method of student control". This is not the language of the twenty-first century, Prof.; "control" is not an acceptable objective in the context of normal human relations today.

We must now find some expendable guinea-pig children on whom to experiment with beating for a further three years.

The trouble is that we have not yet experimented with anything else. Despite the mistaken view that school violence has escalated because of the law against corporal punishment, the reality is that corporal punishment has not left the school system. There is no monitoring of the law.

One can certainly agree with the report where it recommends that "the present ambiguities over the policy of corporal punishment be removed". The Ministry, thankfully, has thus far come out strongly with a philosophical position against the practice of corporal punishment; but teachers, like the rest of us, know the weakness of law enforcement in our country.

There is no denying the anger that we feel against the children who are disrupting the schools and jeopardising the education of other children. But disruptive children are children with problems, and nowhere in the civilised modern world does the system respond to the problems of children by offering them violence.

In this situation we must be the adults. We must overcome our anger and our fear of delinquent children, and insist that provision be made for them. Teachers who get close enough to their students to gain an insight into their lives are aghast at the magnitude of the challenges some of them face. Teachers are not equipped to deal with such problems, and some feel that what is needed is the allocation of social workers to the schools. Right now what we have is one guidance counsellor assigned to three or more schools, which means upwards of 4,500 children.

Disruptive children need help, not licks, and often their whole family needs help, too; but the Deosaran committee recommends that the parents/caregivers of the offending children face legal penalties.

We can either devote resources, now, to helping children at risk, or pay later, dearly, when these children become adults with few skills and plenty unresolved emotional problems. For that is the pool from which our criminal offenders emerge. Licks can't change that. It can only make it worse.

Merle Hodge is head of the English Department, UWI, St Augustine

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