South Africa

Exposure to violence: What crime and trauma cost our learners

By Marelise Van Der Merwe 29 October 2017

On Friday 27 October, six organisations and their affiliates marched to Parliament calling for safer schools, safer communities and more equitable distribution of police resources in the Western Cape – but particularly safer schools. This follows last week’s confirmation of the Western Cape’s dubious title as the murder capital of the country. Small steps have been taken towards increasing the safety of residents in some of the Cape’s most vulnerable communities. But activists say learners still face threats to their safety that severely impact on their capacity to learn. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Equal Education has held a week of mass action calling for increased safety measures in schools and communities in the Western Cape, culminating in a march by thousands of protesters to Parliament on Friday.

Protesters handed over a memorandum to officials from provincial and national government, joined by the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), Nyanga Community Policing Forum (CPF), National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and Unite Behind and its affiliates.

The marchers included activists, parents and school learners, who raised several grievances – poor sanitation, inadequate facilities – but most of all, the effect of being exposed to violence and how it felt to fear for their safety. Learners spoke of the trauma of witnessing peers being hurt or killed, or being robbed or assaulted themselves at school or en route.

The memo, which was addressed to Premier Helen Zille, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, Police Minister Fikile Mbalula, MEC for Community Dan Plato and MEC for Education Debbie Schafer, called for public acknowledgement of the extent of the problem, practical steps towards improving safety, and more funding for safety measures such as fencing, access control, metal detectors and alarms. It also called for armed guards and more visible policing.

Earlier in the week, EE members from Fezeka Secondary School and ID Mkhize Secondary School marched to the Gugulethu Police Station to demand police visibility around their school, the first in a series of actions to demand safe communities, safe schools and equitable distribution of police resources. Singing and waving placards, learners and EE members called for police action against drug abuse and drug dealing on or near school premises.

The week of mass action comes shortly after the release of the latest crime statistics, which confirmed the Western Cape as the province with the highest incidence of murder. Nyanga was again the murder capital of the country, with 281 murders recorded there. In the same week, Police Minister Fikile Mbalula announced that a piece of land in Nyanga had been identified for a new police station. More police vehicles would be dispatched too, for greater visible policing, he said.

Learner safety

But activists say they remain concerned about the safety of learners not just in Nyanga, but in multiple locations across the Western Cape. In September, schools in Manenberg were forced to cancel school excursions due to gang violence, after attempts to ensure safety using police escorts failed. Police spokesperson, Lieut-Col André Traut, told media it was simply too risky to expose learners to the possibility of “fall[ing] victim to gang-related activities”. Earlier in October, parents in Hanover Park threatened to shut down eight primary and two high schools over safety concerns. The long-contested Uitzig High School finally learnt it would be shutting down after years of vandalism and emergency repairs. Volunteers for the Walking Bus initiative in Mfluleni, meanwhile, who risk their lives to protect school learners, have been campaigning for payment, with provincial government pledging to try to find funds.   

Daily Maverick has reported that SJC and EE are taking the Minister of Police, the National Commissioner of Police, the Western Cape Police Commissioner and the Western Cape Minister for Community Safety to the Equality Court to fight for more equitable police allocation following the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry. The case will be heard from 28-30 November 2017.

Arguing their case, the organisations say that comparing data over a four-year period, Nyanga, for example, has 16 times more murders per 100,000 but seven times fewer police personnel than Camps Bay, while Delft has 14 times more murders per 100,000 but four times fewer police personnel per 100,000 than Sea Point. Other similar examples include Mfuleni vs. Rondebosch (23 times more murders but three times fewer police personnel per 100,000), Kraaifontein vs. Claremont (14 times more murders but four times fewer police personnel per 100,000) or Harare vs. Cape Town Central (three times more murders but 14 times fewer police personnel per 100,000).

They say community safety should be a priority. Their focus in the most recent mass action, however, focused in particular on the safety of school learners.

How bad is it?

According to an EE social audit of 244 Western Cape schools, learners and teachers in the province both suffer and witness serious crime and violence in schools across the province daily, as well as on the way to and from school, with female and LBGTQI learners suffering disproportionately. These conditions, and the associated stress and trauma, impact on learning “profoundly”, EE said. “Quality teaching and learning cannot occur when learners are traumatised, and educators are expected to teach while also acting as detectives, police officers, security guards, and counsellors, with little to no support from the departments collectively responsible for school safety.”

EE’s social audit notes that according to the WCED’s records, 22% of schools are considered “high risk” and a further 39% are considered “medium risk”. According to the report, the risk is concentrated in poorer urban schools, with nearly half of urban quintile 1 schools being high-risk as opposed to just 13% of urban quintile 5 schools. “As a result, secondary school learners at quintile 1 urban schools are more than six times as likely to feel unsafe than at quintile 5 urban schools,” the report notes.

The report also found that an estimated two in five learners have experienced a violent event and an estimated three in five have witnessed one. One in 10 learners in the sample had been personally assaulted. At half of the schools sampled, at least one learner reported being or seeing someone threatened.

Muggings and assaults were also commonly reported in the audit. At a third of schools sampled, at least one learner reported being or seeing someone mugged, and at two-thirds of schools sampled, at least one learner reported being or seeing someone physically assaulted. Of these, nearly half included an assault with a weapon and one in 10 included an assault with a gun. “These statistics are even worse for urban and secondary schools,” the report added.

Further, the report noted sexual abuse: 16% of schools saw at least one learner reported being or seeing someone sexually harassed, and 4% of secondary school administrators reported that a rape occurring at the school in the last year.

Corporal punishment, the report said, was “rife”. “Learners are beaten at 83% of schools sampled,” the report claimed. “This is a daily occurrence at 37% of schools [and] at 97% of schools with corporal punishment, teachers use some form of weapon.”

Both the MEC for Education in the Western Cape, Debbie Schafer, and Premier Helen Zille have questioned the credibility of the EE social audit. Schafer argued that the report contained “generalisations…  on faulty methodology”. “Issues of corporal punishment and sexual assault are extremely concerning,” she said. “However, action on these allegations can only be taken in respect of specific complaints by and against specific individuals. None have been furnished in this report.”

Schafer also suggested that EE could play an important role by assisting in advocating for more equitable distribution of funds by national government, publishing the Safe Schools hotline among their members and in schools, campaigning for responsible and involved parenting, and lobbying national government for funding for sanitary pads.

She added that safety of learners and teachers outside school property fell within the domain of SAPS. “SAPS is not under the control of the provincial government at all, and certainly not under the control of the WCED,” she said.

Other reports have, however, raised similar concerns, although reported statistics vary. This includes the matter of corporal punishment. Professor Catherine Ward, a University of Cape Town (UCT) psychologist in the field of violence prevention, previously told Daily Maverick that it was a misconception to assume learners in South African schools faced violence only on the streets or among peers. “A large percentage of the violence within schools is perpetrated by teachers – learners being beaten,” she said.

Ward said a key challenge was teacher training, curriculum implementation, and starting with more appropriate discipline early on. “The literature shows a couple of things,” she said. “If schools are doing their jobs and focusing on academics, properly assessing kids and giving them a reason to move forward, those schools tend to display lower levels of violence. Schools that are struggling with curriculum implementations and assessments, as well as teacher training, tend to demotivate children.

“One needs to take a whole-school approach. Everyone has to be on board, from the cleaner to the principal. There must be a clear policy dealing with violence, ranging from discipline to bullying. Learners must be given alternatives, and focus on conflict resolution and assertiveness training. School policy needs to include that aggression between learners is not tolerated.” Unfortunately, however, there is a shortage of research on non-violent classroom management in South Africa, Ward said – it is concentrated in the US and UK.

Further data can be found in the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention’s 2012 National School Violence Study. Lezanne Leoschut noted  in the CJCP’s 2013 bulletin that violence in South African schools had increased since the initial study, and that one in five secondary school learners had experienced violence at school between 2011 and 2012. One in 16 had experienced physical assault and just shy of one in 20 had been sexually assaulted at school.

In 2015, Sadtu vice-president Veronica Hofmeester, who is also chair of the South African Council of Educators (Sace), discussed worrying statistics on violence in and around schools at a seminar for principals in East London. Referring to SAPS crime statistics, she said over 750,000 children had been assaulted and another 654,000 sexually assaulted or raped at South African schools since 2012, but only every second case was reported. Another 1.46-million pupils reported being threatened with violence, she added. South Africa came second, after Jamaica, with the most incidents of violence in schools.

The effects of trauma

The effects of trauma and exposure to violence on the capacity to learn are well documented. “Preschool students may lose recently acquired developmental milestones and may increase behaviours such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, and regress to simpler speech,” reports the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Children at junior school level may show signs of distress through somatic complaints such as headaches or other symptoms, or may display behavioural changes or decreased performance at school and impaired attention and concentration. At high school level, the network says, learners may feel guilt, shame, or aggression. They may engage in self-destructive or reckless behaviour or their interpersonal relationships and school performance may suffer.

According to the Traumatic Stress Institute, children exposed to violence experience a much higher drop-out rate, lower academic performance and more truancy. The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative in Massachusetts adds that “[a] prerequisite for achieving classroom competency is the ability to self-regulate attention, emotions, and behaviour. Not surprisingly, trauma resulting from overwhelming experiences has the power to disturb a student’s development of these foundations for learning. It can undermine the development of language and communication skills, thwart the establishment of a coherent sense of self, compromise the ability to attend to classroom tasks and instructions, interfere with the ability to organise and remember new information, and hinder the grasping of cause-and-effect relationships – all of which are necessary to process information effectively.” Traumatic stress can also affect the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, potentially impacting brain development.

Current initiatives

In 2016/2017, the Western Cape government pledged to spend R9.4-billion on the development of youth in the Western Cape. This included R706-million for after-school activities at MOD centres, youth cafes, youth hubs and youth camps, as well as R111-million for assisting at-risk youth who were exposed to drug abuse and gangsterism. A further R353-million was spent on improving access to broadband, eLearning and internship opportunities.

R30-million was put aside for the school safety initiative, which included physical security (fences, burglar bars, alarms, guards and patrols); social environment (youth development and after-hours programmes), and policy interventions. The above-mentioned Walking Bus initiative was also implemented, where community members, local law enforcement, school principals, SAPS and support staff worked together to supervise learners walking to and from schools. Several Walking Buses are active, including in Belhar, Lentegeur, Lavender Hill, Delft, Khayelitsha, Bokmakierie, Knysna, Kleinmond, Retreat, Atlantis and Bredasdorp.

The Safe Schools programme was to support learners with developmental programmes, life skills, coping mechanisms as well as setting up safety committees and Safe Schools field workers in each district, who would work closely with law enforcement and report to the Safe Schools call centre.

But budgetary constraints remain a concern, both for schools and the broader community. The above-mentioned struggle to fund the Walking Bus initiative is ongoing. Speaking to Daily Maverick recently about the allocation of police resources more generally, MEC for community safety Dan Plato said although provincial government had done what it could thus far to implement the changes it had been tasked with following the Khayelitsha Commission, staffing was a challenge overall.

“Based on the analyses and the budgetary constraint factor, it is unlikely to find a station currently staffed at its theoretical capacity. There is consequently a disjuncture between the human resources need of a given police station, what the budget allows and what is actually in place at the local police station,” he said. He did confirm that Khayelitsha had been identified as a priority. Meanwhile, other townships have been promised new police stations as well.

But until all communities feel safe, learners will continue to suffer. “We share a common interest in achieving safe schools for all learners, teachers, and all other school employees, as well as safe communities for all,”  the EE, SJC and other activists said in their statement ahead of Friday’s march. “Through our joint action we hope to pressure provincial and national government departments to work together to address the roots of this crisis.

“We want to put a stop to these departments  passing the buck and blaming one another endlessly while our people live and work in fear, and children continue die in our schools. Inadequate resourcing, deepening spatial apartheid, and a lack of interdepartmental co-ordination in keeping our schools and communities safe cannot be tolerated any more.” DM

Photo: Members of the South African police forces fire rubber bullets and tear gas to clear violent protests against the lack of policing in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa, 29 September 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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