South Africa

Op-Ed

The Parktown Boys safety bell: Breaking the silence around abuse

Launch of the Parktown Boys' High School Safety Bell.

On 11 October 2020, family, staff and child protection advocates stood in the pouring rain to honour the ‘Parktown Boys 23’, the victims of water polo coach Collan Rex’s years of sexual abuse, as they rang the school’s safety bell for the first time. But, as with everything related to this case, getting their voices heard and seeing meaningful change proved to be a battle, one that for some was just too hard to face.

There shouldn’t have been anything controversial about the launch of the Parktown Boys’ High School Safety Bell. The goal of the event was healing and hope, an opportunity to honour the courage of sexual abuser Collan Rex’s victims and confirm the school and boarding house’s commitment to ending the practice of initiation. It was also an opportunity to say thank you to those who supported the Parktown 23 and their families through the trial.

The beautiful ship’s bell, now mounted on the wall outside Druce Hall, the school’s boarding house, with the inscription “In memory of every boy who ever got hurt in boarding. Going forwards may no boy ever get hurt again” was donated by Michelle Hobkirk, a former member of the School Governing Body (SGB) and co-founder of Mothers Against Abuse (MAA). An emotional Hobkirk dedicated the bell to the Parktown 23 and the 40 boys who had been witness to Rex’s abuse. She held the list of names while she spoke, not naming them for their protection and privacy but confirming they were known and cared for. As guests of honour, they were given the opportunity to ring the bell first.

It was the boys’ courage that was most on display, courage applauded by all the invited guests, including the school’s headmaster Malcolm Williams, who also represented the SGB at the gathering.

Addressing the gathering, Williams — who a few days later would be fired for his role in the death of Grade 8 pupil Enock Mpianzi earlier this year — described the event as an opportunity “to recognise and commend all of our young men for their courage in speaking out against the injustices done to them and then following through in most trying and difficult circumstances, including in the case itself”. He commended their fortitude and resilience saying “we are proud of you”, and “we hope that this ceremony will be a small part of your ongoing healing process and moving forward”.

It was a sentiment echoed by the boys themselves. One of the Parktown 23, who asked not to be named, described the bell ringing ceremony as a “hard experience” but also “a significant opportunity for closure and facing the trauma” they had experienced. He affirmed the determination it took for the boys and their families to be present and how, for many, the goal was to see change in the school.

This commitment was supported by Jason Dally, also one of the 23, who spoke on behalf of the boys. He described the ceremony as a moment for “honouring the heroes who spoke out” and ensuring that, in future, pupils who exited from Grade 12 would be old boys who had earned respect, who had not bullied others and who had not been afraid to tell the truth when things were wrong.

According to boarding master Chris Bossert, the bell will help create a legacy of boys committed to no initiations.

It is a goal the school is translating into an annual ritual. In future, the bell will be rung twice by each boy in the boarding house: by all Grade 8s as they enter the boarding house as a pledge they will not participate in initiations and will speak up if subjected to such practises (or if they see anyone else abused), and then in Grade 12 to confirm they kept their promise. The names of all boys who ring the bell will be kept in a register as proof of their commitment.

Williams described the ringing of the bell as a “visible statement by each boy” that he “rejects all forms of initiation and abuse, which are banned”.  By participating in the rite of passage, the boys will be “committing to upholding the safety and welfare of themselves and others, and to speaking out against wrongdoings and seeking assistance when a peer needs help or support”.

For boarding mistress Mariolette Bossert the safety bell is an endorsement that the boarding house is a safe place and has been since the moment in 2016 when Jason Dally asked for help to find missing water polo caps. The caps were not missing, just carefully secreted away, but his ruse ensured the school was confronted by Rex’s abuse, caught on camera for all to see. Rex was removed from the boarding house and later arrested, tried and, in November 2018, convicted of 144 counts of sexual assault and 14 of assault. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

The day was full of poignant moments, including the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to Bradley Skipper, a Parktown Boys Old Boy who was brutalised in a prefect’s meeting in 2006 and lost his life to suicide in 2017. His mother Tish shared the pain of mothers whose children’s anguish went unacknowledged.

While Bradley was alive, Tish worked tirelessly, petitioning the school, provincial government and even the national education department to investigate the circumstances of his beating, to get justice for her son, and to end initiation at the school. After Bradley’s death, she contacted the families of the Parktown 23 to encourage them through the court proceedings.

A minute’s silence for Bradley was followed by the reciting of a poem sent anonymously to the school and read out in court during the Rex trial, memorialising Bradley and eerily foretelling Enock’s death.

Tribute to the Courageous 23

Please give me the wisdom to understand

A deck of cards dealt to my hand

Rendered my innocence to be fair game

Kicking my voice to be the shame

The source of my strength, was to be the voice

Over hiding in quiet, just wasn’t a choice

What happened to me … simply should, have never been done

No boy after me should live, with … what for me, is now gone

Have patience with me while I try to survive

Endure my reactions while staying alive

Render my courage to prevent a repeat

Of the actions of those that presented defeat

Embrace my weakness and courage to cry

So that the little guys, after me, will also … not die.

#ParktownHeroes

During the ceremony, there was an emotional private tribute from the boys to their mothers. For one mother it provided hope that her family may finally be able to face the school again.

Though the event was positive in many ways, tensions and fissures were visible beneath the surface.

The date on the plaque – 30 August – was a reminder that the original event, scheduled for August, was unilaterally cancelled by the SGB two days before it was due to take place, with Covid-19 concerns being cited — despite the event having been approved by the headmaster and compliance officers. The SGB did not respond to a request for comment on this.

The cancellation prompted Rees Mann, executive director at South African Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse to stage a silent protest outside Parktown Boys on the orginally scheduled day, reminding the school that the boys had not just been victims of Rex, but also of the school authorities disbelieving them and of attempts to silence them.

Although 20 of the 23 boys had agreed to attend the event in August, only 13 were present when it finally took place. 

The headmaster’s praise of the boys’ courage in speaking out against abuse struck a discordant note with some attendees. It wasn’t only that it came the day before Williams was fired by the Gauteng Department of Education for his role in Mpianzi’s death, but also that it revived memories of the years in which the victims were vilified and accused of being snitches and damaging the school.

Thirteen year old Parktown Boys High School pupil Enock Mpianzi drowned at a Grade 8 orientation camp at Nyati Bush and Riverbreak Lodge.  (Photo by Gallo Images/Daily Sun/Morapedi Mashashe)

A mother who asked not to be named, to protect her son, said that after four years Parktown Boys had yet to apologise in any way for what happened to her son, or to acknowledge its role in the abuse. She said Tish Skipper’s presence at the event was a painful reminder of the school’s failure to address initiation or alter a culture in which abuse flourished. If the school had made meaningful changes following Tish’s report of her son’s beating in 2006 (which had been attested to by the perpetrator and a teacher who was present at the time) and many other stories of abuse, including that of Pene Kimber’s son, many lives could have been different.

Her heartbreak is understandable; it is hard to overstate the consequences for the boys of Rex’s abuse and the subsequent trial.

In candid interviews, victims and their parents spoke about how incidents had affected everything in their lives. “It has affected me a lot in terms of my family, people around me, in terms of my attitude and lifestyle,” said one.

Another described how he had to leave the school during his matric year because he “had a hard time focusing”. Finishing his education was a battle.   “I have a history that has to be addressed,” he said.

A mother whose son didn’t attend described what it was like to live with a child with post-traumatic stress disorder: “Anything can be a trigger that makes him regress, the smallest thing can put him back months.”

Others described substance abuse and aggression. It all adds up to broken lives and broken families.

In the face of this evident pain, Williams stated that though boys and their families felt the trauma of the abuse most keenly, “everybody hurts”.  

It is true that the trauma “took its toll on students, parents and staff alike”, but the Parktown 23 were the ones disempowered and victimised by it.

The entrance to Parktown Boys’ High School at the time of Enock Mpianzi’s death(Photo By ER Lombard/Gallo Images)

To quote one of the 23: “I feel that there is a serious lack of accountability in terms of the staff exposing issues regarding discipline, initiation and mental health. I didn’t necessarily feel like we could trust any of the staff because they were so infatuated with Parktown that it was almost impossible to get them on your side.”

Another explained: “I believe in the school’s DNA. Unfortunately, not many people live by that, including people in charge.”  

A mother, one of many embarking on civil lawsuits against Parktown Boys, questioned why a school committed to change had yet to implement recommendations of either of the Harris, Nupen, Molebatsi reports.  Despite amendments in practise, she bemoaned the lack of fundamental change at the school, especially to leadership structures and culture.

“Hurt boys, hurt boys,” she said, “unless we effect long-term culture change, not only with the boys, but also with the teachers, many of whom have been wounded by the system too, true transformation will continue to be difficult.”

While the absence of those who decided not to attend the bell ringing was felt by many, the event was beneficial for some boys, both personally and for the school. “Being back was a step in the right direction to address the past and learn from it,” said one.

For Jason Dally, it was a start. “Through this event we discovered that everybody can take control and make a change in the school.” DM

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