South Africa

SA schools’ safety: Festering scandals, emerging lessons

By Alex Eliseev 8 October 2013

In case education officials don’t have enough to worry about, they are now being asked to deal with how government schools handle complaints of sexual misconduct or abuse against teachers. The scandal at Hyde Park High School illustrates how desperate the situation is and how urgently it needs to be addressed. ALEX ELISEEV broke the story for EWN and now reflects on the lessons that are emerging.

The Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) is excellent at launching independent investigations. So it won’t surprise you that one is now underway into what went wrong at Hyde Park High School. But finding out who messed what up is only part of the journey; what has to happen now is that schools, pupils and parents need to understand how to handle similar situations in future.

In this case, a teacher has been suspended and arrested after allegedly sending a photograph of himself sitting naked in a bathtub, holding his genitals, to one of his pupils. As shocking as the image was, it exposed what had been going on between the teacher and the 16-year-old boy for as long as eight months. The teenager’s mother fears the teacher had been grooming her son all that time, having identified him as someone with trust and dependency issues.

This is not the first time we are faced with this kind of story. But in this case, the mother managed to get over the initial shock and pretended to be her son in a late-night WhatsApp conversation with the teacher. For around fifteen minutes she had an open window into what was going on and what she saw was every parent’s nightmare.

According to the transcript of that conversation – which you can read below – the teacher made numerous sexual suggestions, sent several pictures (which are suspected of being child pornography) and revealed that another boy at the school may have been lured into his web.

The mother took this evidence to the school the very next morning but fought for just over a week before the teacher was suspended and arrested. She says the principal referred the matter to the district office, which turned out to be a pit of bureaucratic quick sand. Eventually, a director from the national department of education – who is a dedicated teacher at heart – got involved and helped the mother open a criminal case.

The director, David Silman, and the South African Council of Educators agree that the teacher should have been placed on precautionary suspension immediately. Not eight days later. Silman puts it like this: “In an instance like that it’s instant, you remove the threat from the school immediately. You tell the man ‘go home’ and if he doesn’t you call the police.”

The teacher’s suspension itself was something of a magic trick. One day he was there. The next day he wasn’t. Parents were not sent letters to explain the vanishing act. No call was made for parents to speak to their children and ask them if they had been approached by the teacher or, worse, had fallen victim. Parents were not invited to a meeting to discuss what had happened and yesterday’s headlines took many pupils and parents by surprise. In short, the accusation is that the school – like many before it – tried to keep this scandal quiet.

The GDE’s investigation will hopefully unravel much of this and determine whether the principal and officials from the district office acted correctly or were negligent.

But to make the investigation worthwhile, the department must make its findings public. It must call a press conference and tell Gauteng and the country what happened. Or at least issue a comprehensive statement.

It needs to empower schools and parents to learn from the mistakes which have been committed. It needs to offer real help to the pupils and families affected (in this case, the GDE claims this has happened but the mother says she has received no official assistance).

Crucially, the department needs to clarify what parents must do in similar situations and whether they must go to the police or trust the school to do so. There should be clear policy because there is no space for confusion here. These kinds of allegations must be dealt with swiftly and decisively.

South Africa’s education system is the country’s only hope. It has been tortured and broken by poor leadership. From textbooks not being delivered to filthy, disgusting toilets; from chronically low pass rates to violence in and out of the classrooms; from spats between the state and governing bodies to endless teacher strikes. We can’t afford another stain.

Worryingly, if this is what’s happening at some of the province’s best schools, imagine the situation at poorer schools, where parents are not able to make their voices heard?

Much of the solution lies in communication. But it goes deeper into teaching children to speak out and other life skills which can protect them. It’s about making sure that predators are prosecuted and forbidden from teaching again. It’s about tightening the mechanisms. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t happen. But in our world, it does and the best we can do is to learn how to try to prevent it and if that can’t be done, then how to deal with it.

The Hyde Park High School teacher will be back in court next month. He’s out on bail and will face charges relating to child pornography. For now, he remains a phantom in this story, but at least we are now being forced to look at what’s happening backstage and call on the department not to let another family, and the whole country, down. DM

Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev

Photo: Werner Beukes/SAPA

Transcript of the What’sApp conversation:

7/30/2013 22:05: PUPIL: G’Nite

7/30/2013 22:06: TEACHER: U sure u don’t want to… U know?

7/30/2013 22:06: TEACHER: Kidding gnite

7/30/2013 22:06: PUPIL: Don’t want to what …. My fone crashed I lost the last few messages

7/30/2013 22:07: TEACHER: Oh. I was just lying here looking at smutty stuff…

7/30/2013 22:08: TEACHER: I kinda get a bit of perverse pleasure from making u horny

7/30/2013 22:08: PUPIL: ?

7/30/2013 22:09: PUPIL: Not fair if u don’t share!

7/30/2013 22:10: TEACHER: Gimme a sec… (ANOTHER PUPIL) trying to get me to con his mom to let him come over

7/30/2013 22:10: PUPIL: K

7/30/2013 22:11: TEACHER: Pornographic image depicting a child giving a man a blow job

7/30/2013 22:12: PUPIL: Is he coming?

7/30/2013 22:13: TEACHER: Up to his mom

7/30/2013 22:13: PUPIL: K

7/30/2013 22:13: TEACHER: Or if he lets me jerk him off hahaha

7/30/2013 22:13: PUPIL: Hahaha

7/30/2013 22:13: TEACHER: Pornographic image of two men engaged in sexual intercourse

7/30/2013 22:13: TEACHER: That’s all I want to do at the moment

7/30/2013 22:14: PUPIL: To who???

7/30/2013 22:14: TEACHER: Does it matter…

7/30/2013 22:14: PUPIL: S’pose not

7/30/2013 22:15: TEACHER: Image of young naked boy posing with his rear to the camera

7/30/2013 22:15: TEACHER: Nice bum

7/30/2013 22:15: TEACHER: I really wouldn’t mind doing it to u

7/30/2013 22:15: TEACHER: In fact… I was fantasizing about it the other day

7/30/2013 22:16: PUPIL: ?

7/30/2013 22:16: PUPIL: I gotta go – she is shouting!

7/30/2013 22:16: PUPIL: G’nite

7/30/2013 22:16: TEACHER: Delete hey

7/30/2013 22:16: TEACHER: Okay gnite

7/30/2013 22:17: TEACHER: And come past tomorrow

7/30/2013 22:17: PUPIL: K

7/30/2013 22:17: TEACHER: Maybe my hand will make its way across your um…

7/30/2013 22:20: TEACHER: Put the phone under your blanket and pretend to be asleep 🙂

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