South Africa

School Violence: How can we make the classroom a safe haven for learning?

By Puseletso Nthate 28 August 2017

Crime and violence have become a common feature of many South African schools. Incidents are often captured on social media when videos go viral. Individual incidents grab headlines, spark outrage and condemnation but what are the underlying causes of violence at school and what should be done to make schools the safe havens they should be? By PUSELETSO NTHATE

Schoolyard violence has dominated news headlines over recent weeks. In two of the most recent incidents in KwaZulu-Natal, both caught on video, pupils are caught in violent acts. In Siyathuthuka Secondary School in Inanda, a girl is shown sitting on the floor as she is being beaten and kicked on the head by a school mate. In the second video, a group of boys are seen fighting with knives on the school premises at Richards Bay High.

School violence is by no means limited to KwaZulu-Natal, but  prevalent throughout South Africa. In Gauteng recently, a video circulated of two girls fighting each other from Norkem Park High School in Kempton Park.

And globally, about 246 million girls and boys are harassed and abused annually in and around schools, according to a National School Safety Framework report published in December by the Centre for Justice and Crime about Prevention.

The report adds that in South Africa, where crime and violence is a common feature, the high levels of violence in schools reflects a complicated combination of past history and recent stresses on individuals, schools, and broader communities.

Responding to the incidents in KwaZulu-Natal, MEC for Education in the province, Mthandeni Dlungwana told Daily Maverick: “The department is aware that some learners do secretly carry dangerous weapons on the school’s premises and that is why we are already beefing up security measures.”

According to the school safety framework report, schools have generally implemented physical interventions for a safety plan. These have included increasing police presence in schools, installing burglar bars on school doors and windows, hiring of security guards, and erecting walls and fences.

Less emphasis is generally placed on non-physical violence reduction measures such as designing and implementing relevant school safety policies and disciplinary procedures, as well as, other interventions aimed at modifying and managing learner behaviour, said the framework report.

South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), General Secretary Mugwena Maluleke cited lack of discipline is a cause of violence in schools

“Since 2012 we have been conducting seminars on violence at schools. We have conducted principals’ seminars to empower the teachers in legislation and policies to create better learning and teaching environment,” said Maluleke.

“Teachers need to be taught conflict management skills so that learners who are aggressive are assisted to resolve those emotional challenges in a civilised manner. The curriculum has to put more emphasis on responsibilities and citizenship,” Maluleke added.

Dlungwana said the KZN department of education was “deeply hurt by the current pupils’ behaviour.”

“Bullying is one of the causes of violent crime in schools, and it constitutes a significant challenge for school safety and directly undermines the creation of an enabling school environment that supports personal growth and development,” said the MEC.

The MEC further added that schools should not be the only place where children were taught morals and discipline as this should begin at home.

“Even if we installed state-of-the-art- security in our schools, we will not win the war against the scourge of school violence unless parents and communities come on board and take responsibility for instilling a sense of what is right and wrong in their children,” Dlungwana said.

The National School Safety Framework report says that after-school recreational activities are key to addressing the problem. The participation in these activities fosters personal growth and development, builds social and life skills, constructively occupy learners, but also facilitates learner identification with the school.

“When learners identify with their school, they will be more inclined to also identify with and adopt the policies and procedures implemented at the school. In so doing, they will become important role players in reducing violence at schools,” the report reads.

Maluleke added that violence was prevalent within communities, which was a manifestation from the apartheid era where a minority violated the rights of the majority. “A school is a microcosm of society and therefore the violence must be understood in this context,” said Maluleke.

National Professional Teacher’s Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), executive director, Basil Manuel said social media had simply elevated the incidents of violence into our living rooms. “Our children’s lives are peppered with violence, either in the homes or on the streets, as a nation, we have simply not dealt with our violent past and the impact of societal violence on our children.”

Manuel said we were a society in denial, “as a result when a deputy minister of a department that deals primarily with young women beats up a defenceless woman aided by supporting thugs, even our president and Cabinet don’t react with horror and condemnation.”

Manuel said the availability of school counsellors was dismal, and needed to be prioritised. “We need to reintroduce school guidance counsellors. Our children and teachers need professional help. The government and department of education have failed the nation primarily by pretending the problem is non-existent, and by being penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to staffing and obvious safety issues at schools.”

“Our members are petrified,” said Manuel.

He said  long-term solutions were needed, not knee jerk reactions at the time of an incident. “Tragically, we see a national reaction when there is an incident, then little follow through when the dust settles. The contention is that the School Governing Bodies (SGB) must make the schools safe. They don’t see it as their responsibility to provide a safe schooling and work environment,” said Manuel.

Equal Education’s Mesa Ramaru said schools should be safe places for teaching and learning, free of violence and criminal activity.

“Learners are a mirror to behaviour that they see within their communities, homes, and schools,” said Ramaru.

Ramaru said because violence had been “normalised”, when pupils responded on the school ground, it was often also in a violent manner.

Terrence Mogatusi, a grade 12 learner in North West, said it was disappointing to see her fellow pupils’ behaviour. “I personally think this kind of behaviour depends on how one is raised. I have seen a video of a boy kicking a girl on the head, I would never raise my hand to a girl.”

Mogatusi said: “Some learners do not listen to their parents and if they do not listen to them there is no way they would listen to their teachers.”

“I do feel for girls who go to schools where boys behave like that and I fear for teachers’ safety,”” he added.

A parent to two pupils in Gauteng, Lisa Ndlovu, said “I am worried and yes I couldn’t agree more that indeed charity begins at home. However, there are teachers that do not know how to talk to their learners. Teachers are saying hurtful things to the learners instead of offering the kind of help these kids need.

“Parents must start working with teachers and government to address this disturbing behaviour. They must also pay attention to their kids’ behaviour.”

Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said the issue of violence at schools was a societal one. “It requires everyone to play their part in resolving it. Parents need to teach their children that there are other ways of resolving the conflict.”

“Parents need to teach the children the values that focus on respect for self, others and the environment which they live in. Disciplinary actions need to be taken against all involved in violent incidents,” Mhlanga urged. DM

Photo: Schools should be places of safety, yet  pupils all too often witness violent incidents on the school ground or via social media. Photo: Mike Hutchings/(Reuters)

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