PARENTS of schoolchildren in St. Lucia will soon be able to breathe a sigh of relief over the safety of their children while on school grounds, thanks to an impending security overhaul, according to one government minister.
Minister with responsibility for Home Affairs, Justice and National Security, Hermangild Francis, told The VOICE about the initiative that will give a long overdue upgrade to the level of security personnel who guard the island’s learning institutions.
The VOICE spoke with the Minister following a shooting which took place on the grounds of the Ave Maria Girls’ School on the evening of Sunday, September 3, the day before schools across the island were scheduled to reopen for the new school year following the summer holiday.
The shootout between police and an armed assailant led to the perpetrator being shot by the police on the school’s compound. This came after the assailant tried to evade capture by scaling a wall and jumping into the school yard.
According to the principal of the all-girls primary school, Valerie St. Helene-Henry, while this was taking place, there were teachers on the compound, preparing for classes the next day, as well as a watchman, who claimed that the assailant ran straight past him in trying to evade capture.
On the day after the incident, St. Helene-Henry expressed her concerns, making a desperate call for greater security measures to be implemented in and around the school compound.
St. Helene-Henry said: “We are very concerned about this school being in the middle of the city and the conversation we’ve had with the police. We are not safe and, I mean, anything can happen.
“It has happened before where other members of the public would run after somebody they’re in trouble with and they would run into the school. We’ve had to do what we call a lockdown — and it can happen during school time.”
The call for better security at schools was also made by the island’s Chief Education Officer, Marcus Edward, who said: “It begs the plea for increased security at our schools and even within the city itself. Those schools being inner city schools really need to have their own security network, as well as the wider city support.”
The National Security Minister said he fully agreed with and understood the concerns of St. Helene-Henry, the CEO and the principals of other schools who have faced perilous situations involving students being robbed by armed assailants on school grounds, namely at St. Mary’s College and Castries Comprehensive Secondary School.
Francis said school security is a major concern to the government and the issue has in fact been discussed in-depth in Cabinet.
“I am not satisfied with the level of security that is given to the schools,” Francis said. “Sometimes we go to some of the schools and we actually see persons you can deem to be watchmen. I think the time has come and that has to go.”
However, Francis noted that there will be controversy: “We have to take into consideration that people who are there who can’t meet the standard will have to go. Now, people are going to be telling you that you are sending people home. But at the end of the day, there must be a standard that has to be maintained and those who are there that can meet the criteria and the standard, they will stay. But if they can’t meet it, I’m sorry, they’ll have to look for some other thing to do.”
Francis said he has made recommendations to use the Royal St. Lucia Police Force to train individuals to be deployed to the different schools. As a plan B, he said that in the event that the RSLPF was unable to take on this task, government will look for a reliable security firm that will meet all the required standards, be up to the task and be comparable to the police.
To that end, Francis revealed that he will be contacting all the security firms on island to a meeting to review their standards.
He said: “If they are not able to meet the standards that the police have approved, then they will not be able to operate.”
He also revealed plans to partner said security officers with canine police officers to serve as further backup and deterrent.
The services rendered by said individuals, he said, are to continue into the night, as this is the time of day when schools are more vulnerable to thieves who strike the schools, stealing all they can lay hands on, thus generating further expense for the ministries and teachers, who have to replace what was stolen.
Francis lamented the discontinuation of school patrols by dedicated police officers who would periodically visit the schools to make their presence felt. This, he said, should be revived by the Commissioner of Police.
“It will cost money but what is money when it comes to the safety of our children? We always say that the children are the future of our country. So when it comes to that, I have no problems.”
Francis said his plans for better security spans farther than schools and that the security overhaul will also be applied to health centres and medical facilities.
“I’m sure you’ve heard about incidents at Victoria Hospital and other places. These are the things that we need to stop. Every time the police are there at VH and other places, nothing happens. It’s only when the private security guards (are there) that those sorts of things happen.”
Francis said the heightened security at schools initiative is in the commissioning stage and gave his word that the moves in that regard will be made by the end of next month.