It is unclear why a man facing a criminal charge was not suspended by the Western Cape Education Department. By Ashleigh Furlong for GROUNDUP.
First published by GroundUp
A teacher at Thandokhulu High School in Mowbray has appeared in court on a charge of sexual assault and, according to a state prosecutor, is being kept in custody.
The Western Cape Department of Education (WCED) has investigated allegations against the teacher internally and has said that “Labour Relations have confirmed that the educator was found not guilty of the allegations and the charges withdrawn”.
GroundUp asked the WCED a number of questions, including: What the investigation consisted of, who led the investigation, were witnesses called, was the learner interviewed, was the learner providing counselling support and is there any policy to suspend a teacher if he or she is facing criminal charges, particularly sexual assault charges?
Paddy Atwell, the WCED’s director of communications in the department, responded to GroundUp, saying, “The WCED views all allegations of sexual misconduct extremely seriously and investigates all allegations rigorously.”
“In this case, unfortunately, certain learners were not willing to testify and the department was unable to proceed,” said Atwell. “We have to follow due process when investigating any disciplinary case. Our officials are continuing to engage all concerned and will hopefully be able to resolve these issues with their co-operation.”
Many learners at the school are calling for the teacher to be suspended and for the WCED to explain why the teacher was found not guilty.
On Thursday morning learners shut down the school, demanding answers from the WCED. In a statement written by learners at the school who are part of Equal Education, they said: “A school is meant to be a place of safety for learners. The reported incidents of sexual harassment and corporal punishment by a teacher at Thandokhulu High School has left us feeling unsafe at school.”
The same teacher is also accused of hitting a learner with a belt. This incident was caught on camera.
“This is only one of the many incidents,” said pupils at the school in the statement. “Last year, two learners reported being sexually harassed by the same teacher, both at school functions. This had a humiliating outcome for one of the learners when rumours started that she is in a relationship with the teacher.
“Many other victims of the teacher’s abuse are silent because they are afraid of the reaction from the teachers at the school,” the learners wrote.
Outside of the Wynberg Magistrates’ Court on Thursday morning, dozens of learners protested after their teacher appeared in court. The prosecutor of the teacher’s case said that the case was postponed until October 4 for further investigation and the suspect was kept in custody.
Thembelani Dondolo, a facilitator at Equal Education, said that on Thursday morning the learners said that they wouldn’t be taught until they had a response from the accused teacher. He said that the learners were calling for the teacher to be suspended, adding that they were traumatised.
A Grade 12 learner told GroundUp that they wanted the case reopened and they wanted the department to explain what was happening. Another learner said that the boy who was allegedly sexually assaulted was in Grade 8.
In a statement, Equal Education said that the learners at the school are “engaged in a brave struggle to secure a safe and dignified schooling environment for all learners at this school, sparked by numerous reports of sexual assault and corporal punishment by a teacher employed there.
“MEC Schafer and her department have put the school principal in an impossible position by failing to suspend the teacher, by failing to conduct a serious investigation, and by failing to respond to the learners’ request that WCED representatives come and address the learners on their investigation, its outcomes and the learners’ concerns with these,” said Equal Education.
Equal Education asked the MEC and her officials to “try and empathise with learners who are feeling vulnerable in their own school, and to humble themselves enough to come forward and engage directly with the learners”.
Equal Education also said that last year its members submitted a list of demands to the provincial leadership of SAPS and the MECs of Education, Social Development, and Community Safety, calling for the WCED to develop specialised and safe ways for learners to report rape and sexual assault. Equal Education says that to date, there has been no response to this demand.
In response to this, Atwell told GroundUp that the department has “extensive procedures in place to protect learners needing to disclose incidents of sexual abuse”.
“These procedures are covered in our Abuse No More Protocol that provides extensive guidelines to all role players on how to deal with abuse, especially sexual, abuse,” said Atwell. He added that the policy was revised in 2014 and that the revision process involved numerous role players including multiple departments, specialists and organisations focused on children’s rights. DM
Photo: Learners from Thandokhulu High School protest outside the Wynberg Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.