South Africa

Analysis

Parktown Boys’ sex predator sentenced to 23 years, now school needs a new ‘normal’

File Photo: Parktown Boys’ High School’s former assistant water polo coach and housemaster‚ Collan Rex‚ who was found guilty of assault and sexual assault on September 14, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Masi Losi)

Former Parktown Boys' High School assistant water polo coach Collan Rex was sentenced to 23 years on Thursday for sexual assault and common assault committed against students. Now the school must legitimately look at how its culture contributed to creating a monster.

Collan Rex was exposed by mistake. On 29 October, 2016 a student at Parktown Boys’ High School asked senior boarding school master Christian Bossert to review security footage of the common room after water polo caps had gone missing. Bossert, busy with other work, heard the student mumble and checked the screen. He saw Rex, an assistant water polo coach and assistant hostel master, sexually assaulting a boy.

The student didn’t understand Bossert’s reaction. It was normal. It was “the Rex way”.

The High Court sitting at the Palm Ridge Magistrate’s Court on Thursday sentenced Rex to 23 years in prison after he was found guilty of 144 counts of sexual assault and 12 counts of common assault committed between 2015 and 2016.

He received 12 months for each of the 144 sexual assault charges and six months for each of the 12 assault charges, a total sentence of 150 years in prison, which he will serve concurrently over 23 years.

Rex was acquitted of over 140 more counts of attempted murder, rape, sexual grooming and exposing minors to pornography.

I lost my son for three-and-a-half years. I didn’t know who he was,” testified a parent of one of Rex’s victims. Other parents have spoken about the trauma their sons suffered, and the repeated trauma brought on by the case.

Parktown Boys has faced a series of allegations of supporting a culture of abuse, none of which have been remotely on Rex’s scale, but together show a worrying pattern.

Parktown Boys High School, Johannesburg, 8 June 2018. Photo by Leila Dougan

Rex, 23-years-old, was previously a student at Parktown Boys and on Tuesday blamed the school’s culture for his “blurred” sexual boundaries with children. His probation officer explained how inappropriate sexual behaviour was normalised and even encouraged in the school, and he experienced verbal and physical abuse as early as his Grade 8 camp in 2009.

Rex, who also said he had a troubled upbringing at home, said he thought such abuse was normal.

Groups of parents and dedicated reporters like Saturday Star’s Shain Germaner have repeatedly exposed a culture at Parktown Boys where teachers and senior students promote hyper-masculinity, inflict physical and verbal abuse on learners in the name of toughening them up and “culture”, and discourage students from speaking out.

Initiation processes and the associated camps have been breeding grounds for pain and its perpetuation.

In 2009, it was reported that hostel “pupils were taken from their beds that night, marched to the rugby field, stripped naked and forced to rub Deep Heat onto their genitals before lining up against a wall and being forced to run a gauntlet of matric boys who beat them with cricket bats, hockey sticks and golf clubs”.

Parent Pene Kimber was vilified for exposing those initiation practices and is reported to have gone to court with a bodyguard before the criminal case was struck off the roll after the investigating officer failed to correctly deliver subpoenas.

Long-serving headmaster Tom Clarke at the time admitted the school might have a problem, but he still supported non-violent initiation practices. “Initiation without violence is where we have to go. There can be no hint of intimidation and fear,” he said.

Parktown Boys High School, 8 June 2018. Photo by Leila Dougan

The school repeatedly condemns initiation practices that include physical and verbal abuse, but Daily Maverick has seen accounts from Grade 8 students from a camp as recently as 2017 where a lack of teacher supervision meant prefects had full reign and students were subjected to “fitness” – arduous physical tasks aiming to develop character and bonds through adversity, which build some and break others, and, crucially, establish a hierarchy of power and subjection.

A report commissioned by the Gauteng department of education and presented to parents this year said Parktown Boys suffered from sexually predatory behaviour targeting young students, initiation-associated assaults, a culture of silence, and teachers making inappropriate comments.

Another report commissioned by the school said senior students had considerable power over juniors “contributing to a Lord of the Flies type system”, with initiation rituals bordering on physical and psychological abuse, with students indoctrinated into new realities – “The Parktonian Way” – defined by a patriarchal, misogynistic culture stemming from colonial education.

The school has announced various efforts to address the challenges, such as installing security cameras and introducing an app to report incidents, and Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has vowed to end the culture of abuse. The school has acted against a number of teachers accused of misconduct.

Institutional change, however, requires cultural change and parent activists, who come and go as their boys move schools or graduate, often face pressure from other parents and alumni who believe the school’s disgraces shouldn’t be exposed lest it impact its traditions and pride.

Two learners walk past Parktown Boys High School, 8 June 2018. Photo by Leila Dougan

Rex was a heinous member of an institution that, while producing many well-adjusted young men who are proud to have gone to Parktown Boys, leaves too many others with lasting scars.

If the current school administration follows its predecessors and simply pays lip service to the outrage, the cycle will continue and abuse will remain “normal”. DM

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