Towards a Good Life | The recent spate of violence in our educational institutions

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…an opportunity to engender meaningful change

By Melina Harris
THERE is only perhaps one thing that I absolutely disdain and find completely intolerable about Guyanese society; that is the permeation of violence in all aspects of our society. In homes, schools workplaces or anywhere people seem to gather, there is aggression and oftentimes violence. I would like to discuss the recent incidences of violence in our educational institutions, and hope to make the point that these incidences represent an opportunity to provoke meaningful change in Guyanese society.

This week, we witnessed one of the most brutal attacks to have been perpetrated by one student against another. On Thursday afternoon, after school was dismissed, a fight ensued between two female students of the Linden Foundation Secondary School, who were captured on video rolling around and tussling with each other, in the presence of their colleagues and apparently some adult onlookers. The video showed a young lady approaching one of the pugilists and plunging a ‘Rambo-style hunting knife into her back. The injured teen was rushed to the hospital, where she reportedly underwent five hours of emergency surgery. It was later reported that there had been severe damage to her muscles, tendons, spleen, lungs and other organs. She is reported to be a in a critical condition.

Last week, there were reports that another Linden student was chopped about the body, and a few weeks prior to that, at the same school, another student stabbed their classmate and was arrested.

As recent incidents would indicate, students are not the only perpetrators and victims of violence in our educational institutions. The now infamous St. Agnes Primary School incident, which involved the parents of one pupil attacking and nearly stripping naked a schoolteacher, who had actually assisted their child, is abhorrent. This incident has led to a very bizarre outcome, in that both the parents of the child and the teacher, have had criminal charges filed against them. Teachers have been rightfully protesting against the Guyana Police Force and Georgetown Magistrates’ Court’s decision to uphold the charges against the teacher.

The high level of violence that permeates the Guyanese society might be best understood from a historical, anthropological and scientific perspective.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
Guyana’s history of slavery and indentureship are key contributing factors to the high incidence of violence that continues to affect the Guyanese society, and although some would argue that this proposition is baseless, I would encourage everyone to acquire a thorough understanding of the effects of slavery and indentureship post-colonial societies. Slavery was one of the most brutal systems to have been inflicted upon humanity, and it can be argued that the resulting trauma continues to trickle down through the generations, affecting modern-day descendants all the same.

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence; a change in phenotype without a change in genotype, which, in turn, affects how cells read the genes. Epigenetic change is a regular and natural occurrence, but can also be influenced by several factors, including age, the environment/lifestyle, and disease state. A simplified analogy presented by Nessa Carey’s Epigenetics Revolution is as follows: Think of the human lifespan as a very long movie. The cells would be the actors and actresses, essential units that make up the movie. DNA, in turn, would be the script; instructions for all the participants of the movie to perform their roles. Subsequently, the DNA sequence would be the words on the script, and certain blocks of these words that instruct key actions or events to take place would be the genes. The concept of genetics would be like screenwriting. The concept of epigenetics, then, would be like directing. The script can be the same, but the director can choose to eliminate or tweak certain scenes or dialogue, altering the movie for better or worse.

There have been a number of epigenetic studies which were done and have all illustrated that trauma is indeed inter-generational and can be passed down from one generation to the other. Separate studies have been conducted on the descendants of prisoners of war (POWs) and non-POW descendants and also Holocaust survivors. The POW study found that descendants of POWs had significantly higher mortality rates and less desirable socio-economic outcomes than non-POW descendants. Similarly, the Holocaust survivors study found that the children of the survivors of the Holocaust had epigenetic changes to a gene that was linked to their levels of cortisol, a hormone involved in the stress response.

MEANINGFUL CHANGE
Guyana’s colonial history and its effects on the people and consequent shaping of the society have never adequately been addressed, and it will continue to affect the proper development of our society until such time as it is addressed. I make the foregoing point to state that without knowing and understanding the context of our society, we cannot make meaningful and lasting changes, especially as it pertains to the younger generations who will one day become the guardians and custodians of this nation. A more concerted effort has to be made to understand the role of trauma and violence in the Guyanese society, so that we might be able to stem the undesirable effects thereof.
The very same educational institutions under attack must play a key role in realising this outcome.

Education and access to education are fundamental constitutional and human rights. We cannot sleepwalk into a situation, whereby their positive realisation is hampered by the very same people they were introduced to benefit. Schools and other educational institutions should be free of violence and fear, so that our young people are able to become their very best and achieve their highest potentials. It is also in this context that we must take steps to end corporal punishment. We cannot continue to operate in the belief that discipline must be administered by way of violence. This draconian law must be abolished. Violence has no place in a learning institution or anywhere in civilised society.
Educational institutions should be protected by all means necessary. Their curriculums must be updated to include meaningful information about our shared history, good and bad, so that young people might be better educated and informed about themselves, so that they understand the context in which they must now operate. Inter-generational trauma has to be addressed and these very same institutions should be playing a much more central role in doing so.