School is not church, Williams insists
Education minister determined to press ahead with devotional protocol despite pushback
Education Minister Fayval Williams says her ministry will be advancing plans to establish protocols that will govern devotions in schools despite church leaders cautioning the Government that it should not micromanage such religious observances. “...
Education Minister Fayval Williams says her ministry will be advancing plans to establish protocols that will govern devotions in schools despite church leaders cautioning the Government that it should not micromanage such religious observances.
“We are not trying to micromanage, but we have to provide guidelines, and the schools have operated without guidelines for devotions, but now that we’ve seen this situation and who knows what’s next into the future,” Williams said referring to an incident at the St Andrew-based Oberlin High School on Wednesday in which dozens of student fell into what seemed like a trance after devotional activities.
The incident reportedly occurred after the teacher leading the devotions said she had “a word” for the students and proceeded to pray for them.
This then escalated into an extended period of “speaking in tongues” and triggered a chain reaction in some students. Some students fell to the ground screaming in a state of stupefaction, others appeared overwhelmed with emotions, while some shared their fear about the strange incident.
Pointing out that a school is not a church, Williams said occurrences like this emphasised the importance of having a protocol for devotions.
“We have to provide some guidelines to accommodate the different religions, but also, at the same time, to let the religions know that when they come into schools, it is not church; it is school. It’s still a school, and there has to be respect for all the religions, for all the children that are in the school with different religions as well,” she told The Gleaner on Friday.
Williams was attending a ribbon-cutting and naming ceremony for a conference room at the Mona Heights Primary School and the handing over of students’ bathrooms renovated by the CHASE Fund at a cost of $7 million. The conference room was named in honour of the late Carl McDowell, the school’s longest-serving board member and vice-chairman.
According to Williams, the policy will include, among other things, the “vetting of content” for devotional activities.
She is confident that when it is put forward, it will not receive much opposition as the guidelines will be “broad enough to accommodate the different religions”.
“I think they’re going to be endorsed by Jamaicans,” Williams said. “Remember that these children are in our care as the Ministry of Education and Youth and we have a very high level of responsibility in law over children. They come to us from many different homes, many different religions … and their parents send them to us with an expectation that they will be educated in a particular way.”
She said that students were impressionable and vulnerable, and so the schools should not be treated like crusades.
“We don’t want for there to be situations where entities are coming in trying to get them to become members of different religious groups and so on. That’s for the church and when parents take children to church,” the education minister said.
On Friday a Christian media group joined calls urging the Government to be careful in moving to regulate religious activities in public schools.
The Association of Christian Communicators and Media (ACCM) says the ministry "must take into account the fact that the public school system, for the most part, was established on moral and legal foundation, grounded in the Christian faith".
"It is on this solid foundation that the majority of the traditional institutions of learning were built," the group said in a statement, noting that Jamaica is now contending with a series of negative events.
It pointed to the "extraordinary high rate of crime and violence in the wider society is clearly spilling on to school compounds and the nation is becoming a dangerous place for all".
According to the group, "Jamaica has had the advantage of watching other countries dismantle the moral and Christian floorboards and observing the negative impacts on children and families."
"Despite our penchant for violence and disorder, Jamaicans, at the heart, are a God-fearing and peace-loving people and the Church must be at the forefront of this battle for the soul of our country," the ACCM said.
It added that devotions are "our cultural identity shored up by our law.
"Let's take pride in it, defend it, argue for it, and let other nations eventually envy us for it," the group sad.