Dear Editor,

I felt compelled to offer a few thoughts on the ongoing conversations in our community about PVIS that have now come to light more publicly through a school meeting last week, followed by an article and a Letter to the Editor. The article that was published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on Saturday outlined a number of serious issues. Whether they happened to 10 people or to 100 is irrelevant. That a number (even a significant number) of people are happy with the school is also irrelevant to these specific issues and complaints. It’s not a popularity contest.

This line of argument reflects seriously flawed logic. If there is a bully in the classroom, just because they don’t bully everyone, doesn’t mean they are not a bully or that their behaviour — even for one or two individuals – is not problematic. People who commit egregious crimes aren’t exonerated because they are ‘liked’ by most people in their community, or because they haven’t harmed everyone they know. And suggesting this minimizes the experiences of the individuals who have been harmed. In fact, in many ways, one could even say it perpetuates the bullying. Shame on the school leadership and the parents who keep saying this. It’s not only irrelevant, it’s harmful.

While it’s nice that the school administration and board received ‘positive’ letters from members of the school community, and the individual/s who wrote the Letter to the Editor haven’t experienced this behaviour, it’s completely irrelevant to the issues at hand. So, can we please stop addressing complaints of bullying and mistreatment this way? Even if there is only one, or if there are truly no more than 10 ‘disgruntled’ individuals (and how diminishing and disrespectful is this language for staff and others who have had their lives impacted – and how silencing would this be of anyone else who might want to speak out?) these individuals deserve respect, compassion and some sense of due process – not to be re-victimized and harmed by this endlessly polarized and fractious tone.

The ongoing failure by the school leadership to address the shift in the tone of the school community, to accept any responsibility (whether they intended to cause harm or not), and their failure to more actively accept, address and heal the divisions — and harms — is also a failure of leadership. Instead of ‘shooting the messengers’, it might be more appropriate to treat individuals who have raised complaints with some concern and compassion — actually exercising effective leadership. And some humility. The defensive tone, the constant calls of victimization themselves, the obfuscation (‘but lots or parents are happy’) do nothing to address the issues and do not reflect effective leadership.

Several people who have experienced the alleged ‘bullying’ and mistreatment by the PVIS leadership are long time members of the school community. All of their experiences should be heard and respected, and the issues should be addressed. And this hasn’t happened in any effective way. It should have been managed by the board, but it hasn’t. This is clearly true because these divisions are still raw and the toxic environment continues. The individuals who have raised issues have done so at great risk (personally, financially and professionally) to themselves. There have been many other quiet complaints from individuals who don’t have the security or agency to express their concerns and experiences more vocally.

The concerns that have been raised and the divisions that have been created are issues that the school leaders (administration and board) are all responsible for addressing. That is, in fact, their job. Their job is not denying, finger pointing at ‘disgruntled’ individuals, and pretending these issues are made up or don’t exist. The school administration are highly paid professionals. The board has a duty to respond to complaints actively, effectively and professionally (and ideally humanely). And in a timely manner. This clearly hasn’t happened, because, again, these issues continue.

PVIS like all schools and institutions reflects a diverse community, and there are always complaints and discontent among individual members in these kinds of spaces. But we have never experienced this kind of toxic and divisive – ‘bullying’ – environment in the past. It’s a clear indication that this leadership is failing because these issues have become so divisive, public, unaddressed, fractious and ongoing. Where were these ‘disgruntled’ staff, parents and community members three years ago, five years ago? Most have been part of the school community for several years (many for more than a decade) and know it intimately – and also have a deep commitment to the institution. Raising these issues has been hard for everyone.

In the past, we’ve all found ways to get along across our complaints and differences, and focus on the good of the children, and have been able to collectively focus on providing quality education in Vanuatu – so why the issues now? Clearly the significant difference is reflective of the school leadership (the administration, and an ultimately ineffective school board). Instead of denying and finger pointing, they should be taking responsibility. The school has had unprecedented numbers of staff leave (some after only a year), and several board resignations. Clearly things are not working well. Where is the leadership?

For many of us involved in the school community over many years (citizens and non-citizens, regardless of ethnicity) it’s been an essential institution – both in terms of contributions to education in our small community, and to its significant contributions to creating community across the diversity that is Vanuatu society. In fact, PVIS stood out under Faye Taylor’s leadership as a beacon of inclusivity and as an institution that provided community, and a happy place for our children to go to school each day. The staff that were there to serve these educational goals, on the whole felt valued and appreciated – and safe.

There is clearly a crisis in leadership in the school for things to have reached this place, and several people have been harmed by the ‘bullying’ behaviour of key members of the school administration. They have expressed this, and they should be heard. The new principal and the recently hired assistant principal are potentially implicated in this behaviour already. For many of the individuals marginalized and harmed by the PVIS leadership over the past few years, and the group of concerned community members, the lack of transparency, effective communication and due process, has left the feeling that the tone for the next three years has already been set.

It makes sense at this point for the board to voluntarily step down, and to allow for a new and openly selected board to be convened. The current board have lost the faith and trust of a significant number of people in the school community. Ideally the school administration (incoming as well) would also voluntarily step aside and allow a more transparent hiring process to take place. While they may not be contractually obligated to do so, given the number of questions and issues raised around recent hiring processes and the potential perpetuation of the toxic environment, this seems like the ‘right’ thing to do.

The suggestion of an Ombudsman or an oversight committee is good and should be considered. And the school needs to institute some clear changes to its policies and processes around complaints (how they are received, and how they will be handled – from staff, parents and students). There also needs to be a more fulsome oversight and accountability processes put in place for the school administration and ideally some kind of regular 360 evaluation of these individuals, with issues raised in a professional, transparent and timely manner (and documented). And people who have been harmed also deserve to have their complaints and issues listened to respectfully and compassionately, and addressed.

And as a final comment, much of the conversation around PVIS seems to include increasingly confused (and highly racialised and ultimately divisive) language. The author of the Letter to the Editor goes to great pains to identify that staff who have had issues are not ‘Ni-Vanuatu’ but are ‘naturalized’ citizens. In fact, any citizen (naturalized, ‘indigenous’, Tokinese ancestry, ‘mixed race’, Chinese) of Vanuatu is considered ‘Ni-Vanuatu’. And any citizen in this country (or any other individual for that matter, legal or illegal, whatever their ethnicity), has the right to due process and fair treatment.

The reality is that people of diverse ethnicities and heritage are citizens and legal residents of Vanuatu. And all of us in this community – however we are racialised, and whether our parents are from PNG, China, or Maewo – deserve to have a school that provides a solid education and a commitment to inclusive and respectful community. Silencing people who have felt bullied and left out – and racialising these matters around different categories of citizen, and differently valued members of society — will only add to the complexity of these issues in our society and will not benefit the school or our children.

Unfortunately as our education system in Vanuatu is still deeply challenged and we are struggling to provide adequately trained and adequate numbers of teachers for our children, it is likely that this school will need to continue to recruit teachers outside of Vanuatu for the immediate future. While every effort should be made to find qualified people here, and to value Vanuatu experience, if that is not possible, visas and work permits should continue to be made available.

While it is true – as the Commissioner of Labour commented in the Daily Post article – that the school has ‘benefited’ from exemptions and the provision of ‘special category visas’, this has always been balanced out by the high number of scholarships available to Ni-Vanuatu (i.e. citizens) whose families would never be able to afford the tuition or for whom some tuition relief is necessary. The focus should be less on disputes about who is ‘Ni-Vanuatu’ (although it’s worth saying, born here?? seriously?) and any kind of racialised backlash about ‘localization’ — and more about how to reinstate as sense of fairness, due process, compassion, and rational discussion.

A Concerned Long Term Ni-Vanuatu Member of the PVIS Community

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