Back A Di Class High School Students 'Chopping Di Line'

ORANGE BAY, Hanover – About 200 students who used to attend classes at Rhodes Hall High School in Hanover have not been back in the aftermath of the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Some have told their friends they prefer to "chop di line" (scamming); the police say others have joined gangs. On Tuesday, some of their classmates marched through the streets of Orange Bay in an attempt to encourage their peers to return to school.

An emotional Ameshka Loney, a ninth grader, was among those who joined the march. She is worried about the long-term impact of choosing a life of crime over an education.

"We are the future and when students are not going to school it makes us think bad about the future, because what will we become?" she asked forlornly before her voice trailed off.

She gathered herself and tried again.

"The violence rate will be up because they don't have any job, they don't have any family, they don't have money. So they will turn to crime and Jamaica will be a worse place," said the teenager who travels from St James each day to study in the nearby parish.

Students getting ready for Tuesday's march, with the assistance of the police.(Photo: Anthony Lewis)

She finds it hard to understand why anyone would not want to go to school, and so she asked some of those who have dropped out.

"They are saying that they don't have the money or that they just can't bother, and some are saying that they are going to chop di line," she told the media.

Scamming, with its nexus in schemes that fleece elderly foreigners by tricking them into thinking they have won prizes, has had Jamaica in a vice-like grip for years. It appears to have become even more prevalent since the COVID-19 pandemic when many businesses laid off staff and schools moved classes online, leaving many adults and students with extra time on their hands.

Dianne McIntosh, executive director of the Citizen Security Secretariat, said scamming has become widespread.

"It's around us. We at the Citizens Security Secretariat, because we collect the data and interact with teachers, principals, schools, unions, we are able to monitor or track what we call hotspots. We're using the GIS information to overlay everything," she said.

Rhodes Hall High School Guidance Counsellor Conroy Bonnick says the declining number of students is putting the guidance department in a tight spot. (Photo: Anthony Lewis)

"The principals will say, 'Yes, this activity is taking place around us in the schools.' But we have to afford a new direction, a new opportunity. You have to give the students new events to look at," McIntosh added then.

Organisers and participants of Tuesday's March, held under the theme 'Fully dunce a no fi wi culture. Stay in school', are hoping to provide a new direction for the students who have lost their way.

The 16-year-old Rhodes Hall High, which can accommodate 1,200 students, has a register of 1,058. Before the pandemic, just under 900 were attending classes. With COVID-19 now tamed, fewer than 700 regularly show up.

"It is worrying and we realise that it keeps declining. It is putting us, as counsellors, in a tight spot because we now activate all the tools and resources in the guidance department to assist in that regard," said the school's Guidance Counsellor Conroy Bonnick.

Rhodes Hall High School students marching from the school towards Orange Bay Square on Tuesday in an attempt to encourage their peers to return to school. (Photo: Anthony Lewis)

The gravity of the situation, he said, was recently highlighted by the police who informed the school's disciplinary committee that some students are being recruited by gangs. Efforts to address the worrying trend have borne little fruit.

In the past, Bonnick said, counsellors travelled into various Hanover communities to speak with their wayward students, their parents or guardians. From these discussions they have determined that financial challenges and a perception that there is no value from getting an education are the main reasons students are staying away.

"So, today, the aim is to bring to them the importance of coming to school and education. We hope that they would have listened and that it would have made great sense to them and can inspire some change, not just to the students but to the stakeholders, parents and community members," he said of the march.

He added that the school will assess the effectiveness of the day's event and decide on the way forward.

Speaking to those who gathered to hear their message, Vice-Principal Camille Drummond Buchanan said that, while the school recognises that many parents are under financial strain, students' attendance at school must be a priority. There were also appeals from Child Protection and Family Services Agency regional director for western Jamaica, Eric Vassell, who pointed to the importance of having a sound education and working hard to reach the top.

In his address, pastor of Life by God's Design Ministry in Orange Bay, Courtney Black, said he believes that 90 per cent or more of the school's population is made up of good students who should not allow the minority to overshadow their accomplishments.

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