By Shadrack Muyesu

Prefects are extremely powerful people at the Alliance High School. Next in line are house committee members, then a cabal of rich pretty boys. An English speaking horde, these rich boys are sons of ministers, judges and PSs who often join the system via the back door. Then there are the commoners – the ordinaries – young men from Turkana, Mandera and Pokot, where they came from affluent backgrounds; students who are just students, nice and humble also fall in this category.

Teachers are virtually powerless, so prefects run the show – like a military camp. They have offices and with fancy names such as “the oval office.” They dress differently, sit at their own table, sleep and get up when they want to and partake of all the good food. Senior prefects have their own servants. They are called “milk boys” – often rich, tiny, delicate looking urbanites who carry their masters’ daily servings of milk from the school kitchen. They also wash and iron their clothes, polish shoes, serve at the main table and clean their rooms. On the bright side, they are exempt from school rules.

The School captain is usually the quiet, executive looking guy. His deputy – colloquially nicknamed disc (short for deputy school captain) – typically wears flowing black or grey winter coats, shiny shoes, thick lenses, and with his left hand hidden away in leather gloves, the same hand that is always dominated by a bunch of keys – for many offices he controlled!

In his element, disc is mute. He doesn’t speak. All he has to do is snap his fingers and everyone knows what to do. By “law”, everyone is required to maintain a certain distance from him. He is so powerful, stories abound of how a particular disc walked late into a literature classroom to find a trainee teacher seated on his chair, supervising a presentation. “Woman, get out of my seat!” he roared at her. Embarrassed, the lady ran out to lodge a complaint with the administration but nothing was done! The boy was a son of a sitting Appellate Court Judge.

***

An elite institution that is supposed to be incapable of certain bad habits, revelations of rampant bullying at the Alliance High school took the nation by surprise. As usual, experts were on hand with explanation but, as has become synonymous with such discussions, the opinion of the students was relegated to the peripheries. But there are things that only those who have been there can tell you.

Foremost, compared to other schools, the circumstances at Alliance are markedly different. As such, causes and solutions must differ; I shall demonstrate why. Secondly, reporting on this issue took the cue that first formers suffer the brunt of bullying and at the hands of prefects. This is not true, at least not in the case of Alliance High school. I shall also demonstrate why.

Bloodied vests and broken limbs are the legacy of an ordinary student (commoners)-prefects’ war that has been a mainstay of the institution from the time David G. Kariuki took over as principal. As in other institutions, bullying existed well before Kariuki. But under him, it became physical, brutal and at the behest of prefects, sanctioned by the top administration and under the cover of darkness.

For 91 years, Alliance has prided itself with strict adherence to traditions, which, though somewhat bizarre, set its alumni apart from the rest of society. For this reason, the matter of “who becomes principal” is usually the concerted opinion of all stakeholders with the institution, keen to maintain a semblance of continuity. Candidates have often been heads of schools with equally rich legacies that, above all else, appreciate the essentials of an all-round student. To acquaint themselves with the traditions of the school, incoming principals are often aware of their newfound status long before their formal appointment.  Kariuki, previously of Meru School, came as a surprise.

Fresh into his reign, Kariuki immediately set about dismantling the prefect system. He couldn’t understand how poor performers could lord over other students. He therefore issued a declaration that henceforth, only elite performers could be appointed prefects. Even then, the school captain and his deputy had to be a head above the rest.

Since the existing student-informed teacher-supervised prefects’ election couldn’t permit his vision, he proceeded to overhaul it, allowing teachers and sitting prefects to nominate leaders. The input of commoners was relegated to the periphery. And so a new breed of prefects emerged: “A” students, often rich, administration-loved and commoner-resented. Where responsibility and the respect of their peers had been the sole criteria for electing prefects, performance became the overriding consideration.

Kariuki then launched an assault on free speech, crippling one of the hallmarks of the Alliance’s existence in “the principal’s talk”. The principal’s talk was a weekly interactive session between the students and the principal. Generally, the modus operandi during these sessions was that the principal would empty the suggestion box before the students and read out individual queries aloud – offering amicable solutions, where required, as he proceeded. There were no secrets. Once that was done, students were invited to field questions on any matter of concern in a protected environment with decorum existing as the only rule.

In his wisdom, Kariuki converted the sessions to motivational talks, completely disregarding the contents of the suggestion box. Along the way, he embraced class-staff meetings as an alternative interaction platform. But here, talks were became monologues, centred on the importance of good performance. In such a hostile environment, the students could hardly speak. Neither were they encouraged to, with the hanging cloud of punishment for considered disobedience. Of course, some would speak but not before Kariuki made it abundantly clear that “failures had no voice”, punctuating it with an endless public embarrassment of speakers – something previously unheard of.

Attention next shifted to sports, academic excursions and choice of electives. Kariuki discouraged the study of certain arts whilst vetoing others (such as simple Math) altogether, with the excuse that “they weren’t Alliance subjects.” He applied curfews as a way of “motivating” underperforming students instead. Participation in co-curricular activities or the enjoyment of other school privileges became a no-no. Curiously, it’s only the prefects – the elite – who benefited from calls for extra study time with commoners at the end of brutal beatings for waking up early or staying up late to read.

A final nail in the caste system he introduced, Kariuki, as it was generally believed, picked the habit of admitting his own students from affluent backgrounds. As a trade off, school grapevine had it that he would have parents to these students sponsor school projects, never mind that the rest of the school was still being billed for the same (there is a curious case of a school bus and gate we paid for throughout my high school years yet the latter had already been taken care of by some parent).

From a special diet to a general exemption from most of school rules because they were milk boys (prefects’ assistants), the benefactors of these schemes, numbering to fifties, were special. He also started sending students home for school fees. It might seem a small thing, but this was Alliance, and students were never hounded out of school to go look for school fees. Appreciating the diversity of the student populace and how far some of these students came from, the founders knew that such an exercise would be to risk their safety.

As if this wasn’t enough, fees would be adjusted on acclamation. All Kariuki had to do was call parents to a meeting, sell the importance of teachers being motivated enough or come up with a project then ask for a commitment from parents. And his motion would sail because the benefactors of the systems – his fifty and parents to prefects – often dominated the PTA, and doubled as class parent representatives. So bills would rise, and there was nothing the small man could do about it. For the absolutely dire cases he couldn’t send away, Kariuki, in his benevolence, would find sponsors – from who he also immensely benefitted.

And so the school became a mean score regiment; at some point the bubble had to explode. School exits, half terms, joint movies, dinner nights, school routine, Kariuki destroyed everything good about Alliance High School, just so he could win through “other means”? With all the “useless” luxuries, Alliance was the undisputed lord of Kenyan secondary school education – winning without resorting to cheating. Kariuki came with the purpose of moulding Alliance it in the image of his previous Meru School. Well, he did, but at the permanent cost of the school’s reputation

***

The following is the concerted opinion of Mrs Clementina Muyeiya, an Educational Expert with a career spanning over 20 years. She is a teacher at Nakuru High School, where she also doubles as the head of discipline. She is also a parent at Alliance High School.

Bullying in schools has become rampant lately, and it has come out that prefects have been at the forefront in perpetrating this vice. This derives from the fact that the prefects have been thrown into the den of responsibility without proper preparation on how to manoeuvre through the mazes of expectations, both as students and as leaders. Prefects have a sense of invincibility, probably because they are “protected” by the administration that appoints them.

To curb this, it is imperative to device a proper way of picking prefects, devoid of interference by the administration. This calls for an elective process, which should include the student fraternity. It is easier for the students to listen to a prefect they elected while they would naturally be rebellious to an imposed leader, who will always be viewed as an administration puppet. The teachers should, therefore, take the responsibility of vetting the prefects to be, while the role of elections should be solely left to the students.

Secondly, elected prefects should be taken through a rigorous induction process during which they should be made to understand their responsibilities. It is during this induction that they will be made aware of the best ways to handle the students, having in mind that they are an extension of the teacher’s arm. Therefore, their role is to identify the cases that need the teacher’s attention, while the role of reprimanding should be left primarily to the teacher. The students must be warned against being the prosecutor, judge and executioner, having in mind that, above everything else, they are students just like the rest.

It is imperative to enlighten the prefects on the limits of their “powers”, stressing on the need to desist from any form of assault or physical/mental abuse. The proper channel for reprimanding students should be instilled in the prefects.

As a parent at Alliance High School, it is important to take responsibility. The primary role of upbringing the child lies with the parent and, as such, the behaviour of a child will be a reflection of the way he was brought up. A child who leaves his home having in mind that assault is a vice will not bend to the “traditions” of the school, which are archaic and against what he grew up believing in.

A parent is a major stakeholder in the school and is part and parcel of whatever goes on in that school. Bullying should be condemned in the strongest terms possible. However, it is unadvisable to throw stones while living in a glasshouse. It is important to solve matters in-house, without washing dirty linen in the public. It takes a long time to build a name as big as that of Alliance High, and the prestige that comes with being associated with it. Thus, it should not be left to be dragged through mud in a single day.

The end of this regrettable practice lies in the hands of the major stakeholders in schools, namely the pupils, teachers and the parents. Above all, the first step is to accept that it exists with us, and needs to stop.  ^

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