Haphazard parking, unlocked exits and the need for a “culture of safety”, have been highlighted as the main shortcomings in a security audit of Malta’s schools.
The audit, being conducted by security review firm Shield Security Consultants, at five State schools, was requested by Education Minister Evarist Bartolo last month.
It comes after two persons were arraigned in connection with an assault at Pembroke secondary school in February.
A 15-year-old boy was hospitalised after he was attacked by another student in the incident. The latter’s father later allegedly showed up at the school accompanied by two other men.
Two staff members, understood to be an assistant head and a teacher, were hurt as they tried to break up the fight.
The brawl was followed by another incident a few days later, where a student and a school official got into a fight at the St Ignatius College secondary school in Qormi.
Teachers’ representatives have subsequently complained that such incidents were becoming increasingly common in many of Malta’s schools and action needed to be taken to ensure schools were safe.
Major John Schembri, who is conducting the review of the schools – including those of Pembroke and Qormi – told the Times of Malta that one of the major shortcomings was the way cars piled in front of schools at drop off and pick up times. In some schools, this was coupled with no clear entry and exit pathways, as well as a mess of multiple entrances to the school grounds.
“Dropping off or picking up children from school needs to be structured. It cannot just be something you do at the last minute in a disorganised way, but more like when you go to the airport to catch a flight,” he said.
In some cases, issues of doors being left unlocked had been also been uncovered, but Mr Schembri insisted that this was not a widespread issue.
Once completed in the next few weeks, the audit will help the education authorities devise a national school security policy.
This, Mr Schembri said, would have to work throughout Malta’s diverse schooling set-up.
Many of the island’s schools, he said, were different and posed unique challenges.
“Take the Pembroke school for instance, that was originally built as a hospital and so has a particular lay out. We may have to have individual plans for specific schools coupled with guidelines for the whole schooling system,” he said.
An Education Ministry spokesman said the government would be looking into the possibility of new security systems, including camera networks at schools after the audit was completed.
Mr Schembri said that in the absence of previous reviews, the security audit had first started with the setting of a minimum standard to establish a baseline against which the schools were assessed.
'Room for improvement'
So how did schools do? Mr Schembri said there was “room for improvement”, but he had not come across any major issues that could not be overcome with “investment and the right attitude”.
“Most of the security issues we’ve encountered can be dealt with through the introduction of ‘soft measures’, like having a policy that promotes safer behaviour. This, coupled with a few hard infrastructural amendments, will address the situation,” he said.
The solutions, he added, would have to be sustainable and cost effective. At this point the ministry spokesman was quick to point out that the budget allocation for school security had been beefed up to around €280,000 this year.
Schools in Malta have protocol for security, for instance for when parents visit the premises for a meeting with teaching staff.
Need for a behavioural shift
In some cases, Mr Schembri said, amendments to these protocols were now being drafted.
“We don’t expect schools to be a fortress environment. But there has to be a behavioural shift towards respect and safety,” he said.
The ministry spokesman said a lot of unruly behaviour by students could be pinned down to youths not engaging with the educational experience.
Meanwhile, the Malta Union of Teachers have presented their own proposals for improved security in schools. The union said its officials had held a meeting with the Education Minister and presented nine proposals.
These included a review of the physical access to schools to ensure there was only controlled access.
Other measures it proposed included the allocation of a fund for security in schools and the deployment of security personnel, a revision of the allocation of Prefects of Discipline with an increase in personnel and a ban on mobile phones in schools and its respective enforcement.
MUT welcomes initial report
The Malta Union of Teachers said it welcomed the initial findings of the report and looked forward to more details on the way forward together with the immediate implementation of measures, particularly those identified as most crucial, for the improvement of security in schools
It said it had already held two meetings with the Audit team and shall be following the outcome.
The Nationalist Party in a statement said the issue of security at schools needed to be taken seriously by the government immediately.
It said a lack of commitment by the government was demotivating teachers.