Update | Gun crimes by school-age children spark concern
With school-age children committing 52 gun-related murders and 82 shootings in Jamaica since 2018, there are calls for increased action to keep firearms out of the hands of students and away from places of learning. The issue of violence...
With school-age children committing 52 gun-related murders and 82 shootings in Jamaica since 2018, there are calls for increased action to keep firearms out of the hands of students and away from places of learning.
The issue of violence perpetrated by students was placed in the spotlight at a virtual round-table meeting hosted by the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNLIREC) on Wednesday. The meeting was held under the theme 'Tackling Firearms in Schools'.
The UNLIREC conducted a study titled 'The Firearms in Latin American and Caribbean Schools: Approaches, Challenges, and Responses', which included observations and results from the period of 2010 to 2019. The research emphasised the different situations that schools in the region were facing and the steps necessary to addressing the issue.
Given the frequent cases of firearm detection, possession, and use at schools over the decade, the study intends to promote a thorough and meaningful discourse on these challenges by addressing the presence and use of firearms in the region.
Speaking on behalf of Jamaica, Inspector Tanecia Johnson, national coordinator of the Jamaica Constabulary Force's (JCF) Safe Schools Programme, said that, now more than ever, there is a higher chance that students will be able to obtain and use firearms in local schools.
She used data since 2018 to highlight what she said was a crisis situation giving the police grounds for concern. Over the nearly five years, there were 82 shooting incidents and 52 gun-related murders among school-age students.
There were also 92 incidences of online bullying and 456 conflicts involving students in school, 48 of which resulted in injuries, said Johnson.
In addition, 36 robberies, including seven involving a gun, have been reported within and outside the school compounds.
Johnson said there are 10 active gangs in the school system, with 106 reported cases of extortion over the period, during which school resource officers seized 406 knives, 385 pairs of scissors, 41 machetes, and eight firearms, four of which were found on school property.
She noted that, under the Safe Schools mentorship programme, which was created to help institutions deal with violence, antisocial behaviour, truancy, children at risk, and maintain overall peace and safety, some 234 school resource officers have been deployed islandwide.
“As recent as June of this year, two 15-year-olds – a male and female – were arrested and charged and placed before the court for possession of firearm and ammunitions and, of course, they were caught within close proximity to particular schools,” Johnson recalled.
“As it relates to gun violence and the potential of it getting inside our Jamaican schools, we have had situations where parents were killed at the entrance of schools, we've had situations where caretakers ... were murdered on school compounds,” she added, noting that one such incident occurred while school was in session.
She also mentioned three teachers being killed, one on a school compound and two others slain in proximity to the school.
“So, the situation is real,” she added.
Johnson expressed the view that schools located in volatile areas where gang warfare took place were most at risk and that, as a result, many schools have turned into pathways of retreat for gang members. She cited a recent incident in which three criminals were pursuing another rival while carrying two firearms, and one of the men ran on to the grounds of a primary school during school hours.
“So, any student – if they (the criminals) were not apprehended by our JCF quick response team – any student, any teacher could have been injured or killed,” she said.
Johnson said factors such as easy access to the compound through lack of proper perimeter walls or fencing and untrained security personnel, or lack of funding to hire security personnel as opposed to watchmen, could result in an increase in the use of firearms in schools.
Noting that the 10 gangs within schools were stemming from nearby community-based gangs, Johnson said it is easy for pupils to acquire or transport firearms. This makes students vulnerable to these gangs, she added.
There has also been an increase in reports of the number of home-made firearms being circulated, mostly within the western section of the island, the inspector said, calling for increased action to address the pressing problem, including the deployment of more metal detectors in schools.
“We have a lot of hand-held devices, scanners, but those are not sufficient and that is why it is also important that we get additional security personnel to do the physical check of our students,” she added, noting that ramping up social campaigns geared towards parents could also prove useful.
“We have some parents who will say to their child, 'If you are in an altercation with another student and you can't manage, come home, arm yourself and go back',” she said.
She is also pushing for more de-bushing activities to take place around school compounds, as gangs are prone to use the overgrown vegetation to camp out, occasionally stashing weapons in the thick vegetation.
“We want to have a 360-degree view of our schools,” Johnson said as she further lobbied for ongoing training in crime prevention for all adult members who interact with the youngsters on school compounds,
Education Minister Fayval Williams also acknowledged the growing problem during her address.
“A significant number of children were arrested for murders and shootings from 2018 to 2020,” she said.
“In 2018, eighteen children aged 12 to 18 were arrested for murder, and 24 for shooting. In 2019, thirteen were arrested for murder and six for shooting, while, in 2020, there were 23 children held for murder and 32 for shooting,” she pointed out.
Last Thursday, the education ministry launched a yearlong 'Just Medz It' campaign to teach students conflict-resolution skills while also transforming the culture of violent confrontations and responses.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story suggested that three teachers have been killed by students since 2018. While Safe Schools Coordinator Tanecia Johnson spoke broadly of the scourge of violence committed by school-age children, she did not attribute the deaths of those teachers to students. We sincerely apologise for the error and inconvenience caused.
From a regional aspect, in a national school performance assessment known as Prova conducted in Brazil in 2007, some 1,427 school principals reported observing daily firearm possession by members of the school community.
In 2015, the same study recorded 4,255 incidents involving pupils who brought firearms to school, which was increased by 6.6 per cent two years later.
Over in Mexico, between the years 2000 and 2015, at least 38 children were killed as a result of firearms in schools. This equates to 0.48 per cent of the 7,800 firearm-related child homicides registered in the same period.
The year 2010 was recorded as having the highest number of student fatalities.
Julian Bustamante Bohorquez, public security programme advisor at UNLIREC, in his presentation, highlighted several recommendations to address the escalating issue.
Some of these recommendations included:
• Establishing the necessary regulatory framework and public policies to control and restrict the possession of firearms in schools.
• Develop educational programmes for adults on the rules of safe storage and awareness campaigns at the community and school levels.
• Declare schools as gun-free zones and positively influence perceptions of safety.
• Multisectoral coordination at the education, civil, security, and health-sector levels to exchange information, design policies, and regularly monitor the measures and plans being implemented.
• Youth involvement focusing on the rights of children and adolescents without judging, stigmatising or criminalising.