Is failed government policy at the centre of student loitering woes?

Student loitering is beaming bright like a constellation of Christmas stars come early. The numbers are strong and the problem will not go off by the switch of a light bulb. What the situation has done is to bring into plain sight the link with student loitering and the absence of the School Transportation System in its pre–Labour form. It used to be a system which once ensured that hundreds of students were bused home pronto after school, using a systematic and successful procedure. Unfortunately this programme was politicized into oblivion.

In January 2013, the United Workers Party and the St. Lucia Labour Party locked horns over the dismissal of some forty bus drivers from the School Transport Programme. The so–called ‘colored’ subsidized-by-taxpayers transportation programme, which was deemed to be a UWP policy of many that Labour frowned upon, quickly became a political football. As the heat simmered between the two antagonists who were butting heads on the issue, the UWP released the following accusatory missive: It started by condemning the dismissal of over forty bus drivers contracted to transport school children; further, that it was a programme which was reinstated under the UWP administration in September 2007 after it was unceremoniously terminated by the last SLP administration. The UWP cited the dismissals as “unfair” through “a botched process” with no clear indicators of the criteria used by the Ministry of Education to hire their replacements. According to the UWP this resulted in several students being left stranded during the first week of school; in many instances having to find other means of transportation, such as hiking rides to and from school from unknown individuals. In other instances students have had to squeeze into other contracted buses, causing serious violation of the island’s traffic laws on the number of passengers stipulated for public transportation vehicles.

No sooner had the UWP’s missive hit the media, the Minister of Education Robert Lewis came out swinging and ready to clear the air of any wafts of jaundiced misinformation. He started off by labeling the claims by the leader of the opposition as “deliberately misleading” about the Transport Subsidy Programme.  According to Lewis one hundred and fifty eight contracts existed for the transportation of secondary school students in all eight education districts. The application process for these contracts he said was never opened to the public and was done selectively, by parliamentarians. He charged that of the 158 available contracts, there were many instances where one individual held two or three.

“The Ministry of Education”, said Lewis “had already identified twenty two individuals to be terminated or redistributed due to concerns expressed by the schools and breach of the terms of the agreement”. He added,

“When the Saint Lucia Labour Party assumed office in 2011, despite serious misgivings about the way the programme was being managed, it was felt that it should continue.”

Inspite of the fiery party to party exchanges, the school students and parents who benefited from that programme were the clear pawns in the middle of a charged situation. During the 2012/2013 budget the not very pro subsidized school transportation Labour government, seemed to come at the programme once again. “Last financial year 2012/2013, a total of $168,135,899 formed the recurrent expenditure of the Ministry of Education, Human Resource Development and Labour; the sum for 2013/2014 is $168,806,000 (some $670,200 more than what was expended on education last year.) An allocation of $3,804,500 is made to take care of a number of Subsidy Programmes – School Transportation Subsidy, Education Access Fund. The Government has kept its promise not to reduce the subsidy given for transportation for students at the secondary school level. The neediest and most deserving students receive such assistance.”

Translation: The school transportation programme that was initially to be adjusted for the better, was whittled down to something akin to a handout for “only the neediest” students. This meant that a programme which ensured that hundreds of secondary school students who were previously directly and securely picked up from school across eight districts, and transported to their homes after school, were now to be unleashed unto the city, to make their way home on their own terms. Is it any wonder that from 2011 the problem of student loitering began spiking as never before?
The problem is not new but it certainly found rich breeding soil under this administration’s floundering education policies. One of the merits of the bus system to be emphasized is that students were immediately taken home unless engaged in some extra–curricular activity. The likelihood of unsightly scenes of uniform clad youngsters milling around bus stops, malls, street corners and shady alleys was significantly slashed. Armed now with the new-found liberty to make their way home from whatever end of the island from which they are schooled, many students have gone awry, causing a big embarrassment to the nation.

The policymakers within the Ministry of Education might be an exception to the duress the rest of the community including the business community and police are under as they struggle to curb this undesirable culture, while the authorities and parents snoozed on the job. Clearly this is not an issue the police can arrest its way through. Obviously every loitering youth in town will not be detained for the offence of loitering. There is not even a juvenile detention centre available, so custody suites will have to suffice. The situation is obviously riddled with layers and layers of problems that a foiled government school transportation policy could have curbed without there being any need to try to forcibly remove school-going teenagers off the streets.

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