#childsafety | ‘We tell our children to take cover’


Rose Hill RC principal Sharlene Quamina speaks with students on their return to school on Wednesday. – AYANNA KINSALE

A week after students and staff at the Rose Hill RC Primary School in east Port of Spain took cover as a volley of gunfire near the school interrupted their classes, the sense of unease was still heavy among parents.

The gunfire was a shootout between gunmen from Argyle Street, Gonzales and Richardson Lane, Laventille. It lasted almost five minutes and caused frightened teachers and students at the school to lie down on the floor of their classrooms.

The incident was recorded by a teacher and surfaced on social media two days later. The video prompted national outrage and shock as it showed how schools are being affected by gun violence. In response, joint police/army patrols have been assigned to the area around Rose Hill, which reopened Wednesday after it was closed for a few days, to make sure children and teachers remain safe during school hours.

But while the video showed footage of the shooting from the perspectives of students and teachers at the Rose Hill school, residents throughout east Port of Spain said they have also been affected by the sound of gunfights at all hours of the day and night for years.

They said the sound of shootings will always be cause for concern and worry, and they have taught their children to take precautions while on the street or at school.

There are six primary schools, a homework centre and a pre-school in the east Port of Spain, Laventille and Belmont communities.

On November, 2019, a stray bullet entered a classroom at the South East Port of Spain Secondary School on Upper Nelson Street.

A Rose Hill RC student waves as two police officers make sure the schoolchildren get to classes safely on Wednesday. – AYANNA KINSALE

Sunday Newsday visited different areas in east Port of Spain and spoke with residents and parents, who described their experiences dealing with the sounds of gunfire and what they teach their children about staying safe during shootings in the area.

One man said Laventille and nearby areas have had problems with gun violence, but there was a noticeable uptick in shootings and violence over the past year.

The man’s eight-year-old son goes to the Rose Hill RC Primary School. The father says he has spoken to his son about the dangers and what should be done when hearing gunshots.

“We live in the same community as the school.

“And sometimes they hear it on a Saturday when they’re at home. We would let them know to avoid the gallery or get down, depending on how close the gunfire sounds.

“I don’t like to say that they (the children) are accustomed to it, because that’s nothing to get accustomed to and I don’t want to accept it as just being a part of life. But I talk to them and let them know – ‘Hear the chupidees and them doing their chupidness.’

Even while he’s at work, he says the fear for the safety of his family is never far from his mind, as he has often heard the echo of gunfire from his workplace in downtown Port of Spain.

But while the threat of gun violence is a major concern to him, it is not the only fear he has had to deal with in recent times, as he does his best to protect his son from the influence of wayward young men in the area.

His older son, now 17, also attended Rose Hill RC Primary School.

His father admits that he has had some difficulties in steering his older son on a proper path. He’s doing his best to ensure the younger boy remains grounded and focused.

“Sometimes they stick to the wrong people and don’t listen to their parents.

“A lot of other neighbours tried talking to him, they tried coaching him and guide him on the right path.

“But the (negative) influences were a little stronger. But I have been in his ears like wax, talking to him, talking to him and letting him know.

A man takes his son to school at Rose Hill RC after it reopened on Wednesday. – AYANNA KINSALE

“I have a three-year-old daughter as well, and I am on point with them every day. Every day I’m drilling them and talking to them. Whether they understand fully or not, I’m there talking to them.

“Sometimes I may lose my temper, but that’s just to make sure they go right and I don’t want history to repeat itself with my little ones right now.”

He said parents had a role to play in shaping their children’s lives, and teachers and neighbours could also lend valuable support in guiding children in the community.

While speaking with Sunday Newsday outside the school a woman asked two boys in plain clothes why they weren’t going to school.

The boys said they did not have classes that day.

The woman told Sunday Newsday she felt more communities should take an interest and look out for children from the area.

In east Port of Spain, this shared responsibility for the neighbourhood children goes beyond occasionally questioning them about their activities: another parent said she has taught her daughter to seek help from neighbours in emergencies.

The woman’s daughter is a pupil at St Hilda’s Government Primary School on Quarry Street, not far from Rose Hill.

She said her daughter walks to school by herself, but she has taught her about the dangers in the area and how to stay safe during shootings.

“I tell her to drop her bag if she could, or whatever is in her hands at the time, and run to the closest house, because they would let her in, because she’s a child, at the end of the day, and all parents want to protect their children, so they will open the door for her.

“That’s the kind of community it was, and still kind of is.”

She said it was unfortunate that children have to be exposed to gunfire, and that is why it was necessary to prepare them for the realities of their community.

“To me, this prepares them for life. At the end of the day, you don’t know when you can go, so this is life training.

“This is a survival course, because from a young age they would know how to protect themselves when they hear certain things.

“Some people who have never heard gunshots are so shocked that they can’t even move, they are just paralysed.”

While the community has come closer together to look out for each other, the danger has also made it difficult to foster a more unified community spirit in a neighbourhood fragmented by gang war.

Another parent of a child at St Hilda’s said the shooting at Rose Hill left many parents concerned for their children’s safety, which led to the cancellation of certain events. She lamented that these activities, intended to bring the community together, were simply too dangerous for some parents.

“Long time they used to have school bazaars for Christmas, but they can’t even have that. It’s sad, because the parents are willing to go out of their way to have the bazaar, but something like this upsets the whole scene.

“The guys who are from outside the area in a rival zone can’t come here. Those from right up the hill can’t come down. Some women have problems because of the man they are seeing.

“You have to go through a different route, or get a driver or send someone – and that’s just how it is.”

The woman said she knew some families in other parts of the country might see these measures as silly. But they could mean the difference between life and death for some residents, she said, and lamenting the realities they face.

Asked what she would say to the gunmen if she could speak to them directly, she offered some stern advice to those involved in criminal activities.

“Go out and get a job. If you get a job, you all will be more occupied than just sitting down there with a gun – to do what? To say you shoot somebody?

“That’s no kind of ‘rank’ to have. And then you’re still hungry with no money in your pocket.”

Despite these dangers,parents are prepared and willing to co-operate with school administrators to create a better, safer community for their children.

One mother said she sacrificed so her son, who is due to sit the Secondary Entrance Assessment exam next year, can have extra lessons, as he dreams of going to Trinity College, Maraval.

Another parent said though the realities of crime and violence were closer than hoped, that was still no excuse for their children not to aspire and achieve better lives.

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