June 26, 2009 — A bill moving through the Senate committee process aims to discourage dropping out of school by preventing dropouts from getting a driver's license until they turn 18 and rescinding licenses they already have if they drop out later. On Friday in Frederiksted, Jerris Browne, director of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and Roderick Moorehead, special assistant to Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry, testified to the Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice against the bill, arguing it was too punitive.
"A poll of several principals, administrators as well as former driver's education instructors find this bill to be punitive rather than rehabilitative in nature," Moorehead said, elaborating that Education would prefer a slightly less strict version.
"You might consider the path of several other states," he said. "For unmarried individuals under the age of 18, these states require proof of enrollment in high school or some other educational program prior to the student receiving the driving permit and again when they apply for their permanent license."
This proposal is less strict in that married teenagers and teenagers who are in educational programs other than high schools can still drive, and Moorehead did not mention revoking licenses after they've already been issued.
Browne was more dubious than Moorehead, arguing the bill — sponsored by Sen. Nereida "Nellie" O'Reilly — would cost too much to implement, that the BMV had no way to verify who was in school or not, and that it would make it difficult for dropouts to earn a living, among other objections.
"Considering the socioeconomic status of the majority of our population in the Caribbean, a great need exists for children to begin work at an early age to help their parents, friends or family members through part-time jobs that may require having a driver's license," Browne said. "If this bill becomes a reality, it will close many doors for struggling teenagers who just happen to have dropped out from school."
At another point, Browne asked whether a pregnant teenager who dropped out of school should have a license so she can drive to get medical care and government services.
Sen. Celestino White took exception to the idea the hardship caused by denying driving privileges to dropouts outweighed the benefit of encouraging students not to drop out to begin with.
"Stop telling me this nonsense about teenage girls who get pregnant need to drive," he said. "All this legislation does is try to prevent school dropouts by providing an incentive, a privilege for staying in. It allows them to go to night school. A pregnant girl can go to night school if she can't go to her regular school somehow."
Sen. Sammuel Sanes, the committee chairman, said the schools should already have data on who has dropped out.
"I am really incensed, not at you, but there should already be a list," he said. "We concentrate on the kids doing well and put the kids at risk on the backburner. And they fall through the cracks. Correct me if I'm wrong, but we have more money per child spent on education than every other state, is that true?" Sanes asked.
"You are probably correct," Moorehead said.
Voting yea to send the bill out of committee to the Rules committee were White, Sanes, Sens. Wayne James, Patrick Sprauve, and Terrence "Positive" Nelson. Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone and Alvin Williams were absent.
The committee also sent forward a bill banning automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons and conversion kits to make semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons, with the same vote margins. A bill to eliminate the need to get documentation from the BVM in order to take a vehicle by ferry between St. Thomas and St. Croix was sent on to the Rules as well. Voting yea were Nelson, Sprauve and James. White voted nay. Absent were Malone, James and Williams.
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