Dr. Denzil Douglas led administration faces more problems as Teachers in St.Kitts-Nevis threaten industrial action over handling of contaminated school issue

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The woes continue for the government of Dr. Denzil Douglas in St.Kitts-Nevis. While pressure to have debated a 16 month delayed Motion of No Confidence continues to mount and recent Don Anderson polls showing that the country favours his former Senior Minister and now leader of the Opposition Team UNITY Dr.Timothy Harris by some 70% to be the country’s next Prime Minister the Douglas led government has yet another issue to grapple with.  Less than one week after hundreds of enraged Nevisian Civil Servants pointed their fingers squarely at the Douglas-led administration for the non-honouring of salary cheques by the Government-owned SKNA National Bank, hundreds of Teachers are now  threatening industrial action over a year long dispute regarding the possible contamination of the country’s largest High School.

In 2013 students and teachers at the Basseterre High School complained of a number of health issues which they suspected were related to the school environment . The faculty complained that contamination caused by some chemical agent which seemed to be originating in the school’s Chemistry lab on the school’s western campus had caused teachers and students to become afflicted with respiratory problems, nausea and vomiting. The school which was built in the early 60’s has had little upgrade and or renovations.  The Teachers at the school along with the St.Kitts Teachers Union expressed their concerns to the government and were met with resistance as accusations of political motives were directed at the Union by the government through Minister of Education Hon. Nigel CARTY.

Upon the recommendation of the Teachers Union the regional body CARIRI was brought in to run a number of tests. CARIRI presented a report to the government but the full contents of the report were withheld from the Teachers and Teachers UNION. The government subsequently proceeded to make some improvements to the seriously dilapidated school . During the renovation further problems were discovered . An enclosed area adjoining the Art room on the western campus was opened up to reveal raw sewage (fecal matter) that teachers surmise had been the cause of the foul stench in that area. Corroded sewer pipes that ran from the ‘contaminated’ labs to a fume vent behind the principal’s office and old rotted metal pipes leading from the labs’ bathrooms were visibly blocked up with human waste matter. The Pipes were likely there since the school was built with no upgrade. The discovery of the exposed sewage could’ve been part of  the reason the students and teachers had been coming down with skin and respiratory problems. However this discovery was made after the CARIRI report and did not form part of their investigations.

After the completion of the renovation undertaken by government the students and teachers returned to the school campus only to have the symptoms and issues re-occur. The Teachers and students again brought the problems to the attention of the government and again they were rebuffed with accusations of having political motives and pshcycological problems. In a statement issued by Minister of Education Nigel Carty he declared that the “BHS was normal and safe” and that there was no need for teachers to be concerned.

The teachers asked that CARIRI be invited back to do their required follow-up tests and report and after some resistance the insitiute returned and stated that the BHS Campus should’ve never been re-occupied before ALL of their recommendations were done. They further suggested that the government and the school should err on the side of caution and immediately have the school evacuated and alternative housing be located.

The revelations by CARIRI suggested that all of their reco0mmendations were not done. A fact that the teachers would not have been aware of since they did not receive the full report as presented by CARIRI to the government. This is seen by most as a clear and deliberate attempt by the government to withhold pertinent and important issues that directly affects the health and well being of the children at the school as well as parents. This has not sat well with the citizens of the twin island federation.

In a release issued jointly by  THE St. Kitts Teachers’ Union and the Parent Teachers Association of Basseterre High School (BHS) the two organizations expressed that both organizations stand together against the  “mismanagement and careless handling of the health and safety of the teachers and students of the Basseterre High School, by both Ministries of Education and Health”.

“We stand as one against the injustices being meted out in response to this crisis by these ministries. We stand together against the deceptions and the lack of transparency and communication from the Ministry of Education on this critical matter. Together we declare that health comes first!

“For months our health issues were ignored and dismissed by the Ministries of Education and Health. The state of confusion, disruption of education and illness of our teachers and students are the result of the wanton, reckless, and grossly careless handling of this crisis.

“For months both the PTA and teachers have pleaded with the Ministry of Education to address this problem of continued illness but have met with much disdain and utter disregard for the welfare of our teachers and students. This has been a horror story for teachers and students,” the release said.

The release went on to state that CARIRI has confirmed the many reports of illness by the BHS staff and students and the government’s handling of the matter showed scant disregard for the teachers and students. The release said , “we feel that there was utter disregard for the welfare and rights of our teachers”.

The organisations expressed the view that the government  has  shown an unwillingness to resolve the school’s issues, which they believe to be a violation of their rights to be heard.

“We believe that by their actions they have put the lives of teachers and students at risk. We condemn the response of the Ministry of Education in their months of dismissal of the anecdotal evidence and the lack of acceptance that the illnesses experienced by both teachers and students are real. The Ministries of Health and of Education have failed us,” the release expressed.

The organisations are calling upon the St. Kitts-Nevis government to “set up an independent inquiry into the management and response of this crisis by the Ministries of Health and Education”, noting that the Teachers’ Union and the PTA would support the staff and students of BHS via island-wide industrial action if deemed necessary.

The SKTU and BHS PTA called on the Government  to adhere to the following:

• Implement all the recommendations of the CARIRI Report and of its Pre-Assignment Visit;

• Allow for transparency and adequate communications by allowing all stakeholders a voice in decisions that will affect the learning and working conditions of teachers and students. This is in the best interest of preserving an atmosphere of respect and trust;

• Recognise the right of teachers to be represented by their Union and cease immediately from marginalizing the Union and PTA;

• Apologise to Dr Thelma Phillip-Browne for the disrespectful and highly erroneous attack and statements made about her;

• Apologise to our teachers and students for the months of dismissal of our medical complaints;

• To not return the school to the site until all tests have been completed, all recommendations implemented, and independent, scientific institutions have agreed, with credible evidence presented to stakeholders, that the site is indeed safe;

• Work with the Union and PTA to relocate BHS to a safe site mutually acceptable to all stakeholders until comprehensive investigations are carried out to locate the source of mal-odours and dysfunctional septic systems that were not addressed in the recently completed repairs;

• Keep the school together and not institute any punitive actions, either now or in the future, against teachers and students because of their willingness to report their ailments or their actions in support of the St. Kitts Teachers’ Union; and

• To “act responsibly and reasonably” and to allow for “… mutual respect”.

“We stand ready together to resist the continued politicising of this health crisis. We stand ready together to fight for our right to be heard and be part of the efforts to resolve the existing health problems. We stand ready together to protect our teachers from victimisation for standing up for their rights,” the release said.

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