Karene Nathaniel

Karene Nathaniel 

As we mourn the loss of three young children, with two more fighting for their lives in the space of one week, the grief and confusion that consumes us as a nation also confronts us with our own shortcomings.

“Plain talk…bad manners”: Trinidad and Tobago—we are not doing as well as we could to safeguard and protect our children. The thousands of reports of child abuse and neglect currently in the hands of the Children’s Authority is evidence of this. Over the years there have been too many incidents of:

• young children left home alone when tragedy strikes;

• unstable gates and walls that freakishly crush children to death;

• small children in fatal accidents where they were unsecured in front and backseats of vehicles;

• toddlers loosely supervised who end up falling, run-over or drowned; and

• children left in the care of adults who physically or sexually abuse them.

Children are not adults, and therefore do not have the same reasoning, sense-making, and self-regulating capabilities that adults (should) have. As responsible adults, we are duty-bound to “think” for children and to act in their best interests. Also, children do not see danger; until taught otherwise, they are driven by impulse and emotion. Despite their tantrums and rebellious behaviours, they depend/rely on adults for nurturing, guidance and protection from harm. In our different capacities, we all have a duty to safeguard all children.

Let me be clear—these comments are not intended to blame victims, i.e. parents, when tragedy strikes. On the contrary, I hope to issue a wake-up call to all adults in T&T, but especially to those of us with direct responsibility for our nation’s children. Crisis situations involving children can be mitigated by increased knowledge, awareness, attention, and vigilance to risk.

The heart-rending, gut-wrenching case of three-year-old Isaiah Hazel has activated the ire and fire of the nation, I daresay to quell the grief and terror we may feel at the thought of how surreptitiously tragedy can strike. Nonetheless this incident is the absolute worst case scenario of long-standing challenges with school transportation services. There are numerous lessons for multiple agencies from this tragedy, and while the pain is still stinging, I wish to pose a few questions for consideration.

To the Licensing Division—are there regulations, special drivers’ permits and registration for school bus drivers? This could ensure that persons are educated, credentialed and qualified for this role.

The Ministry of Education—what is its role in the coordination of school transportation services from pre-school to secondary levels? There should be standards for all school transportation vehicles and providers (e.g. cost, number of passengers, second adult, and safety equipment required on buses), and they should be subject to vetting and registration so that parents can be guided in deciding on transportation options for their children.

To all schools—are you aware of the transport providers servicing your schools? It could be useful to have a database in the event that children are left behind, or don’t arrive, or if items are left in vehicles. There have also been numerous cases of bullying, sexual abuse and misconduct on school buses; an up-to-date database can facilitate proper investigation of reports. Additionally, especially for schools with children under seven years old, are school personnel assigned to receive students when they are dropped off and supervise pick-ups? This could ensure that no one is left behind or items forgotten.

To Traffic Management Division —can traffic wardens be consistently allocated to all school zones to assist with traffic flow and adequate stoppage times that allow children to alight safely? This could prevent illegal stopping/parking and the hustle by drivers to get children out that can cause mishaps. Drivers may just not have time to pay due diligence in busy school zones at peak times.

To school bus drivers—are you the only adult in your vehicle during school runs? Having an assistant can be useful to check numbers, monitor behaviour, and supervise drop-offs and pick-ups. Do you check your vehicle at the beginning and end of every run? This is critical to ensure that nothing/no one gets left. Especially for toddlers and young children—do you routinely take account of who got on and off and check in with school officials? This is an important safeguarding measure and accountability tool.

To parents—what criteria do you use in selecting school transportation? e.g. another adult on the bus, number and age range of children, number of stops, driver registration and experience, insurance coverage? Is your toddler/young child able to effectively navigate school bus dynamics? A young child could have a more difficult time on a bus with many older children.

These questions are posed for us to think about whether we are doing the best we can in different arenas to afford our nation’s children adequate care and protection. It is unfortunate that we had to lose little Isaiah Hazel for us to react to a perennial issue, and with the current rapid pace of trauma and tragedy in T&T, I shudder to think that it may become a “seven-day wonder” that seems to be the norm.

My deepest condolences to Isaiah’s parents, relatives, teachers and friends. Sympathies also to the driver who is facing physical distress, difficult questions and a brutal, unforgiving public. Let us treat this as an occasion for conscientisation rather than condemnation, and do better for our children’s sake.