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Stemming the tide of youths at risk
The chamber’s current three-year strategic plan identified the issue of crime as the foremost challenge facing business operations in T&T. This view is supported by other studies and reports, such as the widely-publicised Global Competitiveness Index. We believe the war on crime must be fought on all fronts, utilising a combination of enforcement, legislation, the prompt administration of justice, good example and very importantly, the social net, this last especially targetted to youthful criminals, or those at risk of becoming so. Certainly, we were therefore not surprised by the recommendations of the report, No Time to Quit: Engaging Youth at Risk, written by Prof Selwyn Ryan and his team.
Over the years, we have seen a steady decrease in the age of criminals, particularly those engaged in violent crime, while there has been an increase in crime and violence within the school system. However, it is clear that youth misbehaviour, school crime and violence are more than mere deficiencies in the educational system. School crime and violence have become national development, national security and, arguably, national healthcare imperatives. These problems will only fester and get worse if they are not addressed cooperatively by all governmental arms, the business community, teachers, parents and all caregivers.
According to primary data gathered by the T&T At-Risk Youth Project, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent of school youth involved in school crime and violence are, in fact, afflicted with health problems, such as depression, physical abuse, mood disorders, and unresolved grief and loss caused by viewing and/or experiencing the death of friends or family. Daily, these health disorders manifest in school settings as unrepressed anger, disrespect for authority, fighting, sexual misconduct as well as acts of theft and robbery. The often-unseen impacts are hopelessness, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
The chamber in January accepted an invitation from Dr Sandra Celestine, lead investigator of the UWI’s At-Risk Youth project to sit on a steering committee comprised of such stakeholders as TTUTA, the National PTA, Families in Action, and four ministries of government: National Security, People and Social Development, Health and Education.
The project aims to address dysfunctional behaviour, targeting youths from 10 years up to secondary school level. During the two-year period of data-collection, it will engage in professional counseling of students referred by school principals.
These students would have been suspended or in line for suspension for serious offences or infractions such as robbery, assault, fighting with or without weapons, disrespect for authority, sexual misconduct or extortion. The counselling includes individual behavioral therapy, group therapy and family sessions. The chamber supports early intervention counselling programmes to stem the increase in youth crime and violence in our schools. Providing counselling for troubled youths and their caregivers is a proven method of reducing youth misbehaviour. As such, we welcome the recent announcement by the Ministry of Education for significantly increased staffing of the Student Support Services with school psychologist and counselors. We, like Minister Tim Gopeesingh, hope that this can come to fruition in the near future.
We have also been greatly impressed with the operations of the Police Youth Clubs, and have lent our support to one in our own Western Division community, the St James Club.
The club’s centre houses eight young men between the ages of 12-18, considered to be socially disadvantaged and at-risk youth. They are enrolled in several programmes listed by the Family Court and Probation Department, the long-term objectives of which are to prepare them for employment and reunite them with their functional families, using the cub as a stepping stone. They are supervised by officer Derrick Sharbodie and the Club’s Men’s Group. These residents are encouraged to open and maintain savings accounts.
This club prides itself as having established the first ever Suspension Centre in the Western Division, where students who have been suspended from schools in the division may productively occupy themselves during the period of suspension.
They are counseled pro bono by behaviour change management consultant, Franklyn Dolly, and Moreena Campey, a clinical psychologist, with assistance from the Men’s Group. Remedial classes in Mathematics, English and a homework club are conducted. It engages in music, dance and sporting activities, with a 16-piece steel orchestra, tassa drumming and folk dancing as well as football and judo training. Classes are also held in small appliance repair, garment construction, plumbing and computer literacy.
According to our information, the club is self-financed by donations, fundraisers such as its recent barbeque, and the limited subscriptions of those members and residents who are in a position to make them.
The chamber urges the business community and the public at large to support these and other similarly laudable projects, for the time has come for a concerted effort to address of our growing problem of youths at risk. Our children are our future. The Government, the business community, parents or caregivers and teachers must continue to work together to solve our school crime and violence problem. The chamber will continue to discuss the meaningful partnerships in which we engage, as we work collaboratively to build a stronger T&T.
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