Racism at Torrib Trace Presbyterian School
By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: March 29, 2005
Torrib Trace Presbyterian School seeks to be an organization of excellence, effectively and efficiently providing its clientele [not its students] with holistic education [sic], in a nurturing environment conducive to the development of positive nation building and eventual integration into the global village.
—"Vision Statement," Torrib Trace Presbyterian School
If one takes a car ride deep into south Trinidad and traveled along the Palmyra Road eventually one comes to a peaceful community called Brothers Road. Lush in tropical vegetation and nestled in intense greenery, the Torrib Tabaquite Road seems to be calm and peaceful. On entering Brothers Road one is greeted by the immortelle trees flowering in all of its stately beauty amidst the proud teak trees that show off their invincibility. Such invincibility, durability and tenacity may be a sign to all who enters its gates. Although the teak is a large East Indian verbenaceous tree that is valuable for shipbuilding, in Trinidad we use it for furniture building. Earl Davis, a former worker of Tanteak Limited, explained: "The teak has a special glow in it. Once you sand it down, you don't need to vanish it." I trust that such invincibility and tenacity was not a sign of things to expect in the quiet village of Brothers Road.
Brothers Road has existed for a long time, close to two hundred years as one informer told me. It still possesses that lazy feeling of times past. Lap and tattoo still roam the forest and many people still make a living cutting canes. Yet, sad to say, many of the villagers are out of work. Previously, the villagers, about three hundred of them, worked at Tanteak Limited. In 2001, Tanteak Limited closed down whilst the UNC party was in power. Workers were given a severance pay with the promise that they would be rehired within two months of its closing. Nothing has happened since then. Even my friend, Roderick Thurton, the Chairman of the Tanteak Board appointed by the government, died under suspicious circumstances whilst he was about to go to England to report on matters related to this company. Given the concern that the UNC opposition has shown towards the Caroni workers, I wonder whether they share an equal concern for the people of Brothers Road who once made a living at Tanteak Limited. Today, the Africans look forward to a ten days on URP to ensure their survival. Few of them can expect anything more. Under the circumstances, one would like to ask Mr. Adesh Nanan, the parliamentary representative of the community, what proposals he has put forward to ensure the welfare of the people of his constituency.
Recently, there has been much talk about discrimination against Indians in this country. The Maha Sabha, a Committee of citizens that calls itself "The Principles of Fairness," and other entities in the society have all identified racial discrimination as the major trope of the day. Even His Grace, Edward Gilbert, the Archbishop of Trinidad and Tobago, has jumped into the fray. He is reported to have said that "everything in this country revolves around race." Perhaps, he might be forgiven. He is an American who is given to see everything in terms of race. In Trinidad and Tobago things are not quite that simple. Race and consideration of race are only a small element in a richer tapestry of relations that help to construct the meaning of our Trinbagonianness and/or what it means to be a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago.
Today, however, I ask the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago to contemplate another disturbing side of the racial story that has been kept from our attention. It has to do with some African parents and their children who live in this remote part of the world and who have been subjected to brutal acts of abuse, discrimination, and neglect. Some Indian teachers, it seems, have been very cruel to African children and such behavior needs to be brought to the attention of the responsible officials and the national community. Many of us ask if this behavior should be allowed to take place in a country that respects international conventions on the rights of children and whether or not the offending parties should be allowed to go unpunished for their misdeeds?
A CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS
On Tuesday, March 15, 2005, Merlene Hillare, secretary of the Citizens of Brothers Road, invited me to meet with "The Citizens of Brothers Road." In our conversation, she alleged that the Indian teachers of Torrib Trace Presbyterian School were abusing, ill-treating and humiliating their children. Given the work that the National Association for the Empowerment of African People (NAEAP) did in similar matters, she asked us to intervene to assist them in bringing these shocking matters to the attention of the national community and to assist them to correct what in their view is an intolerable situation.
On Thursday, March 17, Resa Gooding, the Youth Office of NAEAP, and I journeyed to Brothers Road to hear their complaints. It was a heart-breaking experience. I was shocked by the racism these children and their parents experience inside and outside of school. Although the afternoon sun reassures us with its presence, tales of despair and hurt infiltrated the afternoon air as some stale urine. Their frustration and helplessness were palpably and they were unwavering in their desire to bring them to the attention of the relevant authorities. Interestingly enough, the parents asked Ms. Ruth Narinesingh, president of the Brothers Road Village Council, for permission to hold their meeting at the village council hall. She promptly refused. She asked that they write a letter to her to ask for permission to use the facilities. According to Earl Davis, president of the organization, "it was the first time that such a request was ever made." At any rate, it cost $150 to hold the meeting and many of the residents did not have that kind of money. Therefore, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Resa Gooding and I met in the stands of the Brothers Road Recreational Grounds to receive their complaints. I even spoke to an East Indian gentleman, Ramsamooj, who supported most of their claims. He does not send his son to that school. He seems to know better.
Before we (NAEAP) arrived on the scene, the parents had begun their own forms of protest. On February 21, 2005, the "Citizens of Brothers Road" formed their committee and issued a petition called "Racism at the Torrib Trace Presbyterian School." It started: "These are some of the signatures of parents who [sic] children are being discriminate [sic] by the teachers at the school":
On February 23, after constant requests, Mr. Vicram Ramlal, School Supervisor, came to the school to listen to the parents' complaints. After airing their complaints, the parents gave him one week to respond to their complaints. Mr. Ramlal is yet to respond to their concerns.
About a week after this letter was circulated, Mr. Teemal Sharma, Ag. Principal Primary sent out the following circular to the parents of the school:
Paul E. Davis
Curtis Peters Sandra Simpson
TORRIB TRACE PRESBYTERIAN SCHOOL
#712 TORRIB TABAQUITE ROAD
BROTHER'S ROAD NEW GRANT
Phone # 656-2972
2nd March 2005
The parents refused to go along with this injunction. They could see no reason why they should take their children to Princes Town where the South Eastern Education District is located. To make matters worse, Mr. Sharma did not even give theme the address of the district office. Naturally, they refused to go. Subsequently, Mr. Ramlal promised to send a guidance officer to speak further with the children but he never turned up. According to the regulations, the guidance officer had to take the parents complaints in a place other than the school. It is also possible that Mr. Ramlal also took complaints from the teachers.
On March 10, Mr. Earl Davis, in his capacity as president of the group, wrote to the Hon. Hazel Manning in her capacity as Minister of Education. He wrote as follows:
Mr. Vicram Ramlal Schools Supervisor 11, has again invited you to a meeting at the South Eastern Education District for 9:00 am tomorrow 3rd March, 2005.
As was requested before, please take along your child with you.
Dear Madam Minister
On Monday, March 14, Newsday carried a report, "Vex Parents want racial discrimination investigated" in which it described the abuse that these parents were undergoing. Richardson Dhalai, the author of the report, noted: "Frustrated and angry over delays by the Ministry of Education to address alleged incidences [sic] of discrimination at Torrib Trace Presbyterian School, disgruntled parents of children attending the school are threatening protest action this week. After quoting from the letter that the parents sent to Ms. Manning, the article noted that "Almost three weeks ago, 25 parents accompanied by their children, staged a peaceful demonstration in front of the school's premises. Efforts to contact Education Ministry officials proved futile."
My name is Mr. Earl Davis. I am the president of the group called the Citizens of Brothers Road.
I am writing this letter to draw your attention to what is taking place at the Torrib Trace Presbyterian School.
Members of the group went to the Ministry of Education [date] where we met with Mr. Vickram Ramlal who promised to investigate the matter. The group had given Mr. Ramdal one week to investigate [the matter] and give an answer but to this date we haven't receive[d] no reply from Mr. Ramlal.
The children with dark skin and of African desent [sic] are often being discriminate [sic] by the teachers of the school. The parents of these children are calling for equal balance of the teaching staff.
We need you to address the problems at the school as soon as possible. You can contact me at 740-9629.
We would be grateful to hear from you.
TORRIB TRACE PRESBYTERIAN SCHOOL: A HISTORY
The Torrib Trace Presbyterian School was constructed in 1917, the year in which East Indian Indentureship ended. The "Parents' Information Booklet" describe this first building as being of a "barn-type" or "shed-like structure." When a fire destroyed the school in 1957, another shed was constructed. To accommodate the overflow, pupils were housed in the Church, the community center and private homes until the present building was constructed in 1978.
The school affirms its concern for its students. Its Mission Statement affirms: "Torrib Trace Presbyterian School is dedicated to improving the quality of life for each child. Our intention is to work in partnership with parents and the community at larger to develop the moral, spiritual, social and intellectual aptitude of each child. We will ensure that each pupil in our care is empowered with the ability to function and make (sic) a positive contribution to society." The "History of the Torrib Trace Presbyterian School" also assures us "that the best care will be taken to promote the safety and well being of your child. We hope that a partnership with you, dear Parents, would assist us in achieving our goal of providing worthy citizens for our beloved country." That is the promise. The question is this: has this promised been fulfilled more in the breach than in actual practice,
The Torrib Trace Presbyterian School consists of approximately 320 students of which approximately twenty percent are Africans. All of the fifteen teachers of the school are Indians who presumably are Presbyterians. The Africans claim that the teachers treat them and their children with enormous contempt. In spite of the uplifting promise of their Mission Statement and their promise to the children, one of the teachers asserted that the parents "do not have the same standards as they." They have been very unkind to these children.
The parents have made many complaints against the teachers previously. Some parents have had to take their children out of the school while some have gotten into verbal and physical battle with the teachers. However, the crux of the present situation revolves around the following charges:
THE INTERVENTION OF THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION
- Richie Davis was drinking a chubby in the class one day. Some of it spilled onto the floor. Nicola Bhagan, the teacher of the first year class sent him to get the mop and made him mop out the entire room. She also beat the child on her back with her hand, took his Reading Book and threw it on the ground.
- The parents describe Ms. Nicola Bhajan, one of the teachers, as "the problem child of the school." On her way to school in a car one morning she uttered to another passenger, "Once ah sees those African children, ah does feel to vomit."
- While she was in her class, Ms. Nicola Bhajan called Tessa Charles a "nigger." Subsequently, Tessa's mother complained to the principal, Timor Sharma," about the incident. The teacher denied that she ever called Tessa "a nigger." The Principal felt impelled to support his teacher.
- It is alleged that Ms. Nicola Bhajan folded her fist and cuffed Ricardo Ramnarine in his nose. Subsequently, his mother complained to the Principal and then to Supervisor Ramlal but nothing was done about this act of abuse. Incidentally, it is believed that Supervisor Ramlal is a cousin of the Principal. We ask that Supervisor Ramlal recuse himself from this investigation because he cannot be impartial.
- Mr. Ronald Babooran, the teacher of Standard One, broke a ruler Kyle Charles head. Kyle noted: "Sir broke a meter ruler on my head." After completing this spectacular act, he promptly warned Kyle: "Next time I will beat your brains with the ruler." Rae-Anne Charles, the parent of the child, complained to the principal about such behavior. Once more, she received no satisfaction from the Principal.
- The Principal claims that Kyle took a pencil from another child, Brent Roodal, and stuck the latter in his eye with the pencil. It was at that point that Mr. Babooran, beat the child with a ruler and then took him to the principal. I am yet to have this incident confirmed by Marie Roodal, the mother of the child. In this context, it is important to note that Ms. Roodal is an African woman who is married to an Indian man. Brent is a product of that union.
- One morning around ten a.m., Christian Peters complained to his teacher, Ronald Babooram, that he was feeling unwell. The teacher responded: "Dat good for you" and told him to go back and sit down. One parent of the school, Malissia Peters, contrasted the difference in treatment between the Indian and the African children. She observed: "The next day an Indian child got sick. They rushed him to the Health Center. That is the normal way they treat children who are sick."
- When children make complaints to their parents, they are punished in school the next day. According to one parent, "Dey get licks." In other words, there must be no communication between the children and their parents. Such behavior belies the rosy promises of partnership that the "Parents' Information Handbook" outlines.
- It is alleged that Ms. Ramdeo took the children's school books and beat them on their heads with them.
- Miss Anita is Nigel Julien's teacher. He suffers from asthma. In spite of his condition, Ronald Babooram [not his teacher], hit him three times on his back. When Gabriella Julien, his mother, reported the incident to the principal, he said that Nigel was lying. Next morning, when Nigel returned to school, Sir Ronald promptly beat him again. He had him jump up four times and called him "a monkey" in front of all of the children. Every time he struck him with the ruler, he told him "Jump" as he called him a monkey.
- It is alleged that the teachers treat some of the dark-skinned Indians in a similar manner. However, the Indian parents are scared of breaking rank and do not complain.
- In an effort to solve these problems, the parents took the matter to their PTA. The president, Asha Ramdhanie, responded to their complaints with the following remark: "I have no African children going to the school and so I don't have a problem." Dorothy Shah, an Indian parent, also advised the complaining parents: "Is a few Africans dey have. Why don't dey build a shed and put their children in it?" All the parents could do was to ask her to take back her statement which she did not do.
- Adana Julien is eleven years old. Idris Pariag teaches Standard 11. Sometimes, in the classroom, she curses the children in the nastiest way. She tells them telling to "Kiss his mother arse." On one occasion he advised Adana: "Why don't you stay home and plant garden!" When she complained to the Principal, he said. "All yo' have bees and flies around you. Get out of here. You too stink." Such terms of abuse caused the parent of the child to ask: "What ma child do so for him to tell her to stay home and plant garden and that she so stink?" Idris Pariag has denied making the latter statement of abuse.
- Nicola Badjam called Ricardo Ramnarine a "jackass and an asshole." She also called him a "donkey" and wondered aloud: "Why don't you stay home and cut cane with your father." He placed him under detention to stand for about four hours. While he was under detention, he defecated upon himself. While he was under detention, he asked the teacher for toilet paper to go to the toilet but she refused. The parent discovered the defecation when the child returned home from school.
- Generally, the Principal and some of the teachers warned the children not to complain to t heir parents. They advised: "Don't tell your parents you are getting licks!" If they did, they would beat them again when they return to school.
- Invariably, the African children are placed in the last row of the classes. It is reported that the Principal said to a parent that the teachers have no interest in teaching black kids and there is nothing anyone can do about. More particularly, the African teachers allege that the teachers are not interested in teaching the children of parents who are complaining and even more sinister: protesting. He said he will never fire or suspend any teacher to make it easier for children who behave in a deviant manner.
- One teacher called a child a "zoogobat." We are still to determine what that term means.
- It is reported that several teachers (Ronald Babooram, Edmund Pragsingh, Arnold Jodhan, and Mr. Sharma) go to the bar at lunch time and drink hard liquor. One parent-an ex-police officer, Oswald Glasgow-claims that they drink puncheon rum during lunch time. After that, they return to the school to teach our children.
- When the parents made their complaints to the officers from the Ministry of Education in Princess Town, the Supervisor said that they were "making things up because they don't like the teachers."
- The parents note that under Monica Baksh, the former principal, things were never so bad. She transferred offending teachers and tried to form a steelband. The parents claim: "Certain people do not want pan in the school." Another claims: "She was transferred from the school because she did not like discrimination." It is claimed that Ms. Baksh "got rid of one teacher who use to call the children 'black bugs.'" One is not too sure why Principal Baksh was asked to leave the school.
- When certain children misbehave, the Principal announces it on the PA system and tell them that they should not bring any complaints to him.
On Sunday, March 19, 2005, Brian Moore, 1st Vice President of NAEAP, Resa Gooding, and four visiting students from Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, returned to Brothers Road to confirm these reports. Having taken down the initial information I thought it important to return to the parents and confirm the information that I had taken. Needless to say, these young students were appalled by these incidents. One of the Wellesley students who went to primary and secondary school in Georgia, USA, was appalled by these accounts. According to this student, not even in the southern parts of the United States that has a history of racial discrimination was one subjected to such behavior. She, of course, was saved because she went to a Black secondary school.
On Monday, March 20, an African supervisor from the Ministry of Education visited the school to investigate the students' complaints. She called to speak with Merelene. The latter complied. She refused to give Marlene her name because "she didn't want her name call up in this matter." She asked Merlene Hillare if she believed the reports that the children had given. Ms. Hillare did not respond. She went on to inform that as she looks at the records, the children involved (or was it all of the African children) were not doing their home work, they were not completing the projects assigned, they were unable to read and disrupted the class. In none of this scenario did it occurred to the School Supervisor that we are taking about children, five to eleven years old. Neither, did one get the impression from the Supervisor that if the children could not read perhaps the teachers had failed in their duty to these children. At this point, the Supervisor had not spoken to the "offending" children or their parents. However, the teachers were presumed to be without guilt. The children and their parents were condemned already.
However, in light of the foregoing, the parents are making the following demands of the Presbyterian Board and are demanding that the Education Department act forthwith to protect these children from further abuse:
- Stop all corporeal punishment immediately;
- Remove Nicola and Ronald from all teaching duties and contact with children until these matters have investigated fully and resolved;
- Principal Sharma should be removed from his position because of his inability to control his staff and his total disrespect for African students and their parents. The parent claim that since he became principal of the school all of their problems began.
- We ask that Supervisor Ramlal recuse himself from any further involvement with the investigation.
- The Principal should not demean the children by announcing their complaints on the PA system.
- The school should introduce specialized teachers for physically challenged students and slow learners of which there are several in the school.
- There school ought to formalize a standard manner in which the children are disciplined.
- The school needs to have some African teachers who understand the ways of the children and who are willing to teach them. It is to be noted that several African parents removed their children from the school because of the behavior of the teachers. It should be noted that several African teachers taught in the school. The include, Monica Southerland; Ossie Brown; and Andrew Morales; and Ainsley Eugene. Colvin Padmore, Ms. Patrica Paul. Over the last five years there have been about three African teachers but the atmosphere was so oppressive that they did not stay. It is not as though African teachers are not available to teach in these schools.
- The school needs to publish a "Teacher's Information Booklet" so that parents can know what are the responsibilities of the teachers and how parents can judge the outcomes of the teachers. Just as the parents are made to take a pledge, so too should the teachers. Like the parents, they, too, should be made to sign it.
Two years, on November 1, 2003, in a lecture entitled, "Learning and Education in Trinidad and Tobago," I questioned how diligent our teachers were in carrying out their duty to teach our children. Among other things, I sought to find out whether Indian teachers were teaching African children, whether African teachers were teaching African children, and noted that most African children were placed at the back of the classes for various and sundry reasons. In my lecture, I stated categorically that "The education system is not working for African students." I went on to make the following observations. In retrospect, it sounds almost as prophesy. I noted:
I do not know whether some Indian teachers teach our African children and/or offer the same tenacity when they teach African children as they do when they teach children of their own race. In their classes too many African children can be seen sitting at the back of the class and there is a sense that many of these teachers attend to our children last, almost as an afterthought.
Thereafter, I made the following recommendation:
For example, I was told about a situation that took place in the electrical class at the Pleasantville Senior Comprehensive School. The teacher of that class placed all the Indian children at the front of the class and all of the African children at the back of the class. When the African children complained about being unable to hear the teacher, the teacher responded: "If all yo' listening, you go hear!" [When his grandfather sounded alarm at such behavior], he pleaded with his grandfather not to go to the school to complain, so scared was he that he would be discriminated against if the teacher knew he had told his grandfather. He said to his grandfather: "Goin' to school would only make things worse."
"Responsible education officers in the Ministry [of Education] should look into this matter."
I don't know whether the responsible officials at the Ministry of Education looked into this matter. I only know that this ugly monster of racial and color discrimination still befuddles out educational system. I suspect that this, too, might have been a matter of which TUTTA should have examined. Apart from condemning me and talking about the need for research before one commented on this matter, one would have thought that as a responsible organization that TUTTA would have looked into this situation. No such luck. The launching of ridiculous, pompous statements seem to be the extent to which this representatives of the teachers were able to go to give credence to or to debunk my statement. But then, this is not necessarily a concern of TUTTA. Their only concern is to ask for more monies for their teachers.
But the allegations made by the parents of Torrib Trace Presbyterian School raise several important questions. In recognizing that the teachers displayed some of the same discriminatory attitudes towards the Indians of darker hue suggests that even within the Indian group, the question of color holds an important place. The parents also insisted that the problems did not intensify until Ms. Baksh left the school. They suggest that she realized some of the problems and tried to act on them. They believe that she was a woman who was sensitive to the problems of race and self-worth among the African children and even attempted to bring a steel band to the school. The parents suggest that once she attempted to this, her goose, or should we say her tattoo, was cooked. They imply that this principal was sympathetic to their concerns and even sought to fulfill the promise of the Mission Statement.
As I submit this report to the parties who are better equipped to deal with it and under whose portfolio it falls, I do not mean to suggests that the students involved are all saints and/or without sin. Neither do I want to suggest for one moment that all of the teachers have been unkind to these students all of the time. From my limited observation and investigation there is a lot of racial and physical abuse that is directed towards these children and it certainly must be brought to an end. It is unacceptable and clearly reflects the worst pedagogical practices to suggest that because a child does not turn in his/her homework not do not complete their projects that they should be subjected to any form or racial or physical abuse. It clearly suggests a failure on the teachers' part if these young students are unable to read. If they cannot read then the teachers are not doing their duties.
More importantly, throughout this ordeal both the Supervisors involved and the Principal seem to suggest that the teachers are beyond scrutiny, that there are no clear guidelines that they must follow and, in the end, are responsible to no one. If it is true that teachers imbibe hard liquor during their lunch time then such behavior is not acceptable. Interestingly, while there is a "Parent Information Booklet" that outlines the School's rule and the Parents' Pledge, there is no such booklet that says what the role and responsibilities of the teachers are to those who are put under their care. It might be instructive to put such a booklet out for teachers. It would suggest that the educational process is a three-way transaction: one in which teachers, parents and students are all stakeholders in the process and all are aligned equally in the educational process.
It would be instructive to see how this matter turns out; how responsive the teachers and the Ministry of Education is to the rights of children and parents and most importantly, the public right to know how their educational dollars and being spent and how responsible the system itself is to the education of our citizens. Important matters are at stake in what seems to be simple issues in a remote part of the country. One can judge an institution not by how it treats its stronger and more visible members but by how it treats those who are less fortunate and who have less access to the fruits to the media and well-appointed persons to pleas their case.
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