Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

HAITI: A Year After School Collapse, Parents Seek Justice

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 9 2009 (IPS) - On the morning of Nov. 7, 2008 shortly after 10 a.m. as the second period was beginning, College La Promesse Evangelique, a three-storey cinderblock school in the Nerette neighbourhood of Petionville, fell in on itself.

Now, a year after the collapse that killed 97 students and teachers and left more than 100 injured, survivors and relatives of the dead say they are through with dialogue and want justice from the government.

The tragedy shook a country already reeling from the deadliest hurricane season in years.

President Rene Preval declared two days of mourning and convened a commission comprised of several ministries to look into the incident and to assist the victims.

A few days before a memorial service to commemorate the anniversary of the collapse, the area where the school once stood was a trash heap. Flies buzzed around piles of rotting food and empty plastic bottles.

Roody Jacques, who heads the Association of Victims of the Nerette Tragedy (ASSOVINERETTE), said the city of Petionville began dumping debris from a street widening project, and soon after people started throwing their garbage on the pile.

Families of the dead want the site, which still contains bodies that were never recovered, to be turned into a national monument where people can come to remember their loved ones. “We consider it a cemetery,” said Jacques.

That request, like nearly every other one made by victims’ families, has gone unanswered, according to Jacques.

In the wake of the disaster, the government made payments to families: 2,500 dollars for every death, 1,250 dollars for serious injuries, and 750 dollars for light ones. Full-time kindergarten and primary school teachers at College La Promesse, who where suddenly out of work, were given 1,125 dollars.

With the help of international donors and foreign aid agencies, the government found medical assistance and psychological counseling for survivors.

The government also promised to find schools for the students of College La Promesse and to cover their fees at least until the end of the 2009-2010 school year.

But 10 months after the Association of Victims was formed to represent families, students, teachers and landlords of properties adjoining the school that were destroyed in the rescue effort, the group’s leaders say the government still has not made good on its pledges.

Jacques, whose 18-year-old daughter Vanessa was killed in the collapse, says they are not asking for money. “You can’t repay the loss,” he said. “It’s like having both your arms cut off.”

Rather they want the government to do what it promised as well as prosecute those responsible.

Chief among those concerns is that the Ministry of Education has failed to cover the tuition of all the survivors and schools have begun threatening to send kids home while others have already done so.

Joseph Martin, a father of five, says he received a bill for 122 dollars for enrolment fees and one month’s tuition from the Methodist school in the adjoining town of Delmas, where his 17-year-old daughter was relocated after College La Promesse collapsed. The school wanted to expel her but he said he was able to negotiate a grace period while the victims’ association tries to get the government to pay the fees.

In the wake of the disaster, several schools offered to take students from College La Promesse. One of those was Foyer Chretien school, a 30-minute walk from Nerette. Two weeks ago, the families of 54 students at the school who came from College La Promesse were told to pay their overdue fees for this year or they would have to leave.

According to Toussaint Vilaire, director of academic affairs at Foyer Chretien, the school waived tuition last year, “but we can’t go on,” he said. The government donated school supplies but hasn’t offered the school any money, Villaire said.

The Ministry of Education official responsible for assisting students of College La Promesse, Marie-Alice Pierre-Louis, said there was a simple explanation: Foyer Chretien has failed to submit an invoice to the government.

“I personally went there,” said Pierre-Louis, “and told them to write up a list of students with the cost and they never did.”

Defending her ministry’s record, Pierre-Louis held up a sheet of paper listing all the schools where the government had covered the tuition of 247 displaced students last year.

She said that some cheques had yet to be sent out for this year but they were awaiting the minister’s signature.

Preventing Another Tragedy

The collapse of College La Promesse raised concerns about the physical state of Haiti’s schools. Fears were ratcheted up five days later when part of Grace Divine D’Haiti school in Port-au-Prince collapsed, injuring seven.

Shortly after those incidents, the rumour of a collapse sparked a stampede at a school in Clercine, a Port-au-Prince suburb, killing one and injuring 15.

In the wake of the tragedy, the Ministry of Education closed about 10 schools around the country that posed a risk, according to Ministry spokesman, Miloody Vincent.

The Search for Justice

Immediately after his school collapsed, Pastor Augustin Fortin turned himself into authorities. He was charged with involuntary homicide and grievous bodily harm as well as using a false title. The latter charge stemmed from his admission that he’d lied about having an engineering degree.

He was held in jail and eventually released pending trial. The homicide and injury charges were later dropped. The prosecutor, Jean Serge Joseph, said this was done because the building had been built legally.

Joseph said the Petionville city hall employee who issued the permit to Fortin had left Haiti and could not be found, and he found no grounds to lay charges against Public Works officials who approved the building permit.

Fortin’s trial will take place this month, said Joseph. The false title charge carries a minimum jail sentence of one year and a three-year maximum. The prosecutor said he’d be seeking the maximum. “He’s cooked,” said Joseph.

But that is little satisfaction to survivors and relatives of those killed last year who want all those responsible to be held accountable for what they call a crime.

The victims’ association also has other demands. Parents want guarantees that their children’s tuition will be covered until they graduate from High School. The ministry has said only that it will cover tuition through the end of the year and then see about further assistance.

Now that the one-year anniversary has passed, victims’ families say they are through with dialogue.

“We’ve been asking for a year and we got nowhere,” said Roody Jacques, declaring that a lawsuit was in the works. “If it doesn’t work with the Haitian courts, we will go to the international courts,” said Jacques, “because justice must be served.”

*Special to IPS from The Haitian Times

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