School arsonists mirror society

Kakamega High School

Firemen putting out fire on a burning dormitory at Kakamega High School on November 6, 2021.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The first question to ask is, why and how did the madness of burning schools start?
  • Why have the current crop of students turned to express their anger through copy-cat arsonist acts and violence?

Following the spate of fires in schools, some leaders have suggested draconian and harsh punishment for the implicated students. The punishment involves not allowing the students to transfer to other schools and banning them from employment in perpetuity. How do we expect difficult students to survive their adult years without being given a second chance?

There are many things to consider before rushing to condemn the students to a life-time of hardship. The first question to ask is, why and how did the madness of burning schools start? Who is to blame? It appears all the blame has been apportioned at the students when, perhaps, the society need to bear the largest blame. The leaders and parents cannot go scot-free on the issue of misconduct in schools either.

Many of us went to boarding school and what we endured was prison-like conditions. We endured it for that is all we could do. We had to get through with little water for drinking and ablution, weevil-infested food, lack of freedom and teachers hell-bent on corporal punishment. There were cases of student riots when teachers refused to listen to our grievances but they hardly got out of hand. 

Youth would always try to push the boundaries but even-handedness would bring them back in line. Why, then, have the current crop of students turned to express their anger through copy-cat arsonist acts and violence? Do they feel too stifled and why? Food for thought!

The latest unruly behaviour in schools is largely a reflection of the current Kenyan society, which has become angry, edgy, suspicious and despondent. The 2020 UN Happiness index showed Kenya as being one of the unhappiest countries in the world. The unhappiness appears to have morphed into anger and is being unleashed at the least provocation. 

Reshaping our society

If you want evidence of that, just look at the incresse in mob justice. Kenyans turn on a suspect with fury that only an angry and desperate society exhibits. A school that beats a 17-year-old school boy to death for trespass won’t think twice about burning a dormitory.

Corruption has played a major role in reshaping our society. It is harder to navigate the systems in place without money to bribe your way into jobs and tenders. Those who lack such opportunities are left behind stewing in their frustrations that later turn to anger. 

No institution has had its work impacted by corruption than the police. Many cases of mob justice would not have occurred had there been a police culture to promptly attend to crime incidents. They could not effectively do so as they expect bribes or lack the ‘proverbial’ fuel for patrol cars. The citizens lost faith in the police and started to take matters into their hands.

Unemployment in Kenya is one of the highest with the youth at the apex. Jobless graduates have been forced to turn to crime. The rampant use of fake academic papers does not inspire the current generation of students. Most of them are unsure if their genuine certificate will lead them anywhere as lazy scammers take their place. 

Students see and feel the sense of despondence affecting their predecessors still at home or wallowing in the streets of despair. Many youth worry about their future even if they don’t say it. When leaders offer empty promises on jobs, they, perhaps, have no idea how negatively it affects the youth and communities at large.

Burning school structures

Politicians have led by example on anger and corruption. The insults hurled at rallies are not censored and are, hence, picked up by young people, who end up behaving the same way towards their peers and society, believing it is the norm.

Corruption in government is a known fact and, sadly, young people are growing up with the taste for easy money because they see how their elders get away with theft, including money meant for schools. Graft in the fiscal sense has contributed to the moral decay we witness. 

Young people now know one can literally get away with murder if they bribe their way out. They also know that unleashing terror on society by burning school structures gets one out of exams, clearly copying the impunity around them. Youth can’t toe the line if adults don’t.

Anti-social behaviour among students is worth deep discussion while giving them an audience to express their feelings. Knee-jerk reaction and blame game is not the solution. Demonising troubled children will only push them further into difficulties, socially and economically. 

Approved schools play an important role in shaping and supporting children with challenging behaviour. Such schools need as much support and funding as the contemporary ones to offer troubled children a second chance in life. Fires in schools beg for bigger discussions than we imagine.

Ms Guyo is a legal researcher. [email protected] @kdiguyo

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