Abuse and suicide, the spectre that haunts elite boys’ schools: Parktown Boys’ High (Part Two)
When it comes to sexual abuse, grooming and physical brutality, what happens in school doesn’t always stay in school. For many boys, the trauma they experience in their elite schools indelibly changes their lives and can lead to their eventual death.
In 2008, the 13,915 reasons for equity in sexual offences legislation study reported that 44% (two in every five) of the school-going boys included in the study had been sexually abused before the age of 18. Of those boys, 20% were abused by teachers. One in every 20 schoolboys in the study reported being asked to have sex by a teacher.
These shocking statistics were supported by the 2016 Optimus study which found that 36.3% of boys had been sexually abused before the age of 16.
US-based advocacy group, Darkness to Light, says that “child sexual abuse is likely the most prevalent health problem with the most serious array of consequences that children face.”
Research indicates that “sexual abuse and, to a lesser extent, physical abuse in childhood”, are consistently associated with suicidal behaviour and that “those reporting any traumatic experience in childhood show a two to five-fold higher risk of being suicide attempters compared to those who do not”.
This statistic was confirmed by 68 studies by psychologists from the University of Manchester and the University of South Wales which found that suicide attempts were:
- Three times more likely for people who experienced sexual abuse as a child.
- Two and a half times more likely for people who experienced physical abuse as a child.
Other significant contributing factors to suicidality are dissociation from the abuse, how severe and physically painful the abuse is, how long the abuse continues and the age at which it occurs: “Earlier onset of the sexual abuse and duration of the abuse were associated with more lifetime suicide attempts.”
The abuse allegedly perpetrated against Julio Mordoh, whose story is told in part one of this series, began when he was 10 and lasted for three years – to cope with the trauma, his brain disassociated from it. Small wonder he felt he could never recover.
Like Julio’s parents, Ben’s* family chose his elite school, Parktown Boys’ High School, because they wanted him to have the best possible opportunities in life. But before he had finished high school, they found themselves helpless onlookers as he hung from a bridge over the highway, threatening to let go.
To understand why he was on that bridge, his family points to the impact on Ben of his school’s devastating failure to safeguard its pupils from the outset, beginning with the Grade 8 initiation camp when he and the other boys were forcefully initiated into the “Parktown way”.
They were taught that weakness was frowned upon and that “snitches get stitches”. They were also taught that “what happens on tour, stays on tour.”
The outcome was that Ben and his classmates were well-schooled in secrets and boundary violations by the time their new water polo coach and junior hostel master, Collan Rex, arrived at the end of his Grade 8 year.
Rex then began to groom and sexually abuse the boys in his care.
In an interview with Ben, now 23, he described Rex as an overgrown schoolboy, charming with the parents but an instigator of trouble in the hostel, and able to overpower the boys physically and introduce illicit behaviours.
Like many other predators, Rex followed these stages when grooming Ben and at least 22 other boys in the boarding house and water polo team:
- Identifying and targeting the child.
- Gaining the child’s trust and access to the child often through needs or vulnerabilities.
- Playing a role in the child’s life and filling a need for the child.
- Creating a “special secret relationship” with the child while isolating the child.
- Sexualising the relationship through the process of desensitisation.
- Maintaining control of the relationship with the child.
Ben explains that Rex began working his way through the hostel and water polo boys carefully and slowly. Weeding out those who resisted, he then deliberately lured the other boys in, normalising pulling off their towels when they were changing, grabbing their genitals, wrestling them into submission, dry humping and team showering.
Rex used the hostel, which was off limits to parents and largely unpoliced by other teachers, as well as school tours, bus trips and time in the water polo pool and change rooms to take advantage of the boys.
Ben says that the behaviour became so commonplace that they began doing it to each other and the younger boys, and that Rex used the boys’ inappropriate actions towards each other, as well as contraband, to reinforce the secret.
The impact of Rex’s short tenure at the school has been well documented, culminating in him admitting to the content of 144 counts of sexual assault, 57 of which were for crimes committed against Ben, and 12 counts of common assault.
Rex did not plead guilty, instead arguing that what he did was part of the culture of water polo, which had also happened to him while he was a pupil at Parktown Boys. Nonetheless, he was found guilty and sentenced to 23 years in jail.
Less well publicised, though, is what happened to the boys, especially Ben, who had been his victims, and who still had two or three years of school left when Rex was arrested.
Ben’s family describe him as fearless; one who would never back down from a challenge, a clown, but also a natural leader who didn’t like to see anyone else in pain, either physically or emotionally. He was also the one willing to take the fall or be a target to protect those weaker than himself.
It was those leadership qualities which appear to have made him a special target for Rex, but also made him the whistle-blower who exposed his erstwhile coach.
Ben explains that his now famous “missing water polo caps” ruse, which he says was designed to “stop [Rex’s] s#!%”, occurred after three major incidents, mostly on tour, where he and other boys were victimised in ways that were clearly no longer a “game”, as Rex made it out to be.
Strongly empathetic, Ben began to recognise that he and Rex’s other victims were starting to interact with younger boys in the same way that Rex did, and, seeing through those children’s eyes, he realised this was far from “normal” behaviour.
Ben says his goal was to get Rex fired, not send him to prison. But when he was arrested, it was Ben who helped other boys to come forward. After the arrest, authorities were struggling to get the boys to break the code of silence. It was Ben who explained to them that they had been groomed by Rex into believing that what happened to them was “not so bad”. He also counselled them that they weren’t “snitching” if they told their stories.
For the boys, the question that changed everything was, “If you were a parent, would you be okay with this happening to your son?”
Ben’s family wonder if things would have turned out differently for him if the victims had been supported at the school rather than just by the hostel master and matron. The school also did little to protect the victims’ identities, and Ben’s role in Rex’s arrest quickly became common knowledge.
Ben was even confronted by a former Parktown Boys teacher at a water polo game, who told him he knew Ben was the one who “snitched”.
At the school, teachers and fellow pupils defended Rex. Unwilling to believe that he was an abuser, they expressed anger at the victims, leaving them isolated and vilified.
Luke Lamprecht, head of advocacy at Women and Men Against Child Abuse, describes how perpetrators use three strategies to avoid detection and prosecution: denial of facts, denial of responsibility and denial of impact on the victim, thus obfuscating the extent of the harm caused by their actions.
The unfortunate result is that schools and peers are often manipulated by that narrative and don’t believe the child.
Although the victims of Collan Rex were finally vindicated when he was found guilty, many had matriculated by that point. Their final years at Parktown Boys were therefore defined by their having exposed Rex and the resultant accusations that they had hurt their peers by “bringing the school into disrepute”.
A report by the Harris Nupen Molebatsi (HNM) law firm, which has still not been released to the public, even in redacted form, is known to have documented in painful detail how these abuse survivors were isolated by teachers and fellow students, victimised, verbally abused, intimidated and even physically abused. Only one of these incidents led to the teacher resigning when faced with a disciplinary hearing.
It was particularly bad for the boys who were seen to have “snitched”.
In a well-publicised racist and victim-shaming rant that the boys recorded, the school’s former art teacher labelled the boys who had alerted authorities to Rex’s abuse as “snitches” and “evil”. He also crudely referenced what had happened in “room 13” behind closed doors in the hostel, before threatening to blow the hostel up.
Survivors had their leadership roles challenged and one of the boys left the school after being violently whipped in a water polo first team initiation and was then threatened and spat on because he broke the “code of silence” about the initiation.
After the lashing, Ben was appointed as captain of the water polo team in place of the boy who carried out the beating. Despite this, when Ben and his dad visited the school earlier this year, they discovered that Ben’s name had been removed from the board honouring past captains.
By the time the HNM report was finalised, three victims were in long-term counselling and six more were on suicide watch.
After a year of providing support for the other victims, Ben began struggling with trauma-induced depression, compounded by his ongoing experience of isolation.
Rex’s grooming was so effective that Ben was in turmoil about turning him in. Ben confessed that he still feels sorry for his abuser and guilty about having him arrested, a feeling that was reinforced at school.
Edith Kriel, executive director of Jelly Beanz, a group dedicated to providing mental health services to children affected by sexual abuse and trauma, describes grooming as a process in which the child is psychologically manipulated in a myriad of nuanced and multi-layered ways to be entrapped in the relationship with the offender.
In that relationship, the child may be made to feel complicit in sexual acts that ensue, either through affection, gratitude or fear of the perpetrator. The sexual acts may further be minimised or normalised so the child doesn’t necessarily understand the wrongfulness of the behaviour.
According to Kriel, grooming and its impact is often the part of the sexual abuse which is most confusing to the child. She says it causes enormous emotional damage and has long-term consequences. She stresses that the betrayal of children’s trust hurts them deeply.
A 2023 Canadian study on externalisation of suffering among male survivors of sexual abuse found three main types of externalised behaviours: aggressive behaviours to express anger, rule-breaking and substance abuse to avoid suffering. Before the end of his time at Parktown, Ben manifested all three behaviours.
Darkness to Light’s research indicates that male survivors of sexual abuse are 2.6 times more likely to experience substance abuse problems than non-victims and more than 70% of male victims seek psychological help for substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide.
Ben began to struggle with destructive anger, which, to his dismay, was often directed at his family. A year after Rex’s arrest, he went from considering substance abuse a weakness that he abhorred, to finding ways to numb the pain of Rex’s abuse and the secondary victimisation he experienced at school.
Then came the fateful day in his matric year when Ben, convinced that he was hurting the ones he loved most, climbed out of his family’s car on a major road, ostensibly to walk back to his girlfriend’s house. He was followed by his twin brother who, seeing that Ben was overwrought, ran after him, worried he would do something desperate.
Ben says the more his twin followed him and fought to keep him safe, the more he ran. He finally broke through the fence that led him to a bridge across the N1 highway in Johannesburg. As his brother pleaded with him to stop, he found himself holding on by one arm, threatening to let go if his brother came any closer.
Ben vividly remembers the moment, while hanging from the side of the bridge, when he heard his brother crying. He kept his eyes on the tattoo on the arm that was still holding onto the bridge – a tattoo with the letters “IDBK” – the initials of his parents and brothers. Ben didn’t let go.
If this were fiction, the story may have ended there, with Ben’s life-saving tattoo and a tearful reunion with his twin. But choosing not to die did not make living with the depression, anger or addiction that had become a constant part of Ben’s life post-abuse any easier for him or his family.
Shortly after, he was admitted to a psychiatric institution and placed on suicide watch. He was there for 56 days on 26 tablets a day. He wrote his matric finals in the facility.
The boy who had once dreamed of being an architect went from a top sportsman who excelled in maths to barely passing; from hating drugs to self-medicating to cope with the abuse and its aftermath.
And like the Mordohs, who are still struggling with the cost of Julio’s psychiatric care and rehab a year after his death, Ben’s family have had to sell a house and a car to give their son the support he needs.
Ben says that if it weren’t for his family, and now his commitment to his baby and fiancé, he might have succumbed to the pain years ago.
But even now that Ben has a new family and so much to live for, the emotional anguish of the abuse and the years that followed still occasionally drive him to desperation and back to high places.
As recently as July, after a prolonged bout of psychosis, a fear of letting his family down led him to the edge of a mountain. Once again, he didn’t jump.
The themes of abuse – including sexual abuse, victimisation and suicide – are tragically common to many stories from those who were once proud pupils of Parktown Boys.
As with sexual abuse, there is a strong causal link between traumatic physical abuse and suicide. And, unlike Ben, not all boys survive.
When Pene Kimber’s son was violently beaten by Grade 12s in a 2009 hostel initiation where boys had to run the gauntlet of matrics wielding cricket bats, hockey sticks and golf clubs, and were made to rub deep heat on their genitals to earn the privilege of using a kettle, the furore that followed resulted in many families telling their stories of initiation at the school.
In one tragic case, the parents of a teenager opened a case against the school after he was beaten there. They later withdrew it because the boy was being victimised. Their son went on to take his life.
In another story, a mother told of how her son had been relentlessly bullied at the school. She said he showed her damage caused by “wedgies”, where his underpants were ripped, causing bruising and splitting of the peri-anal area. Her son was frequently humiliated and told he was a “loser”.
When she threatened to go to the school, her son told her: “Mum, if you intervene, life will be far worse for me!”
She says that in hindsight, she realises a lot was hidden from her.
When she finally spoke to the then-headmaster, she says he told her that mothers tend to be over-protective and that she should understand this was a rite of passage for young men. She was told not to worry about it.
Struggling with depression and anger, her son took his life shortly after finishing school. His psychologist said that he had never recovered from the helplessness he felt at school.
Bradley Skipper is another of those boys whose life was dramatically changed when he was at Parktown Boys.
Bradley, whose mom described him as a sensitive soul with a strong sense of fairness, was brutally beaten during a prefect’s assembly in October 2006 when he was in Grade 9.
The incoming prefects gave him punitive “PT” which involved smothering him in blazers, kicking his hands out from under him while he did push-ups, beating him in the back despite him telling them that he had scoliosis of the spine, forcing him to hold a bin full of bricks upright while they punched him in the ribs, and filling his mouth with cigarette stumps.
Despite his mother’s best efforts, only two of the boys involved were sanctioned by having their prefect’s badges removed for two weeks. But the teacher who was allegedly present at the time, and who at first denied that the assault occurred, wasn’t sanctioned. Nor was the seemingly endorsed violence addressed.
Instead, the master who investigated the incident warned Bradley’s mother that her son was now open to victimisation because he had “snitched”.
Bradley’s mom removed him from the school immediately and tried, through the headmaster, the South African Council of Educators, the provincial department of education, the Human Rights Commission and even the Minister of Education, to get justice for her son and end the culture of initiation and secrecy at the school. Her efforts were in vain.
Three years later, when Pene Kimber’s son was assaulted at the school, Bradley spoke to the media on condition of anonymity. In an article aptly sub-titled, “Fit in or F..k off”, he explained that he was terrified for his life:
“I am too scared to reveal myself. Parktown Boys has an extensive old boys’ network and I could be killed anytime I set foot in a club or a mall. When I left the school, the deputy headmaster told me I had better watch my back because he can’t do it for me.”
After 11 years of living with the fear and trauma of that day, Bradley died by suicide at the end of 2017.
In a written comment received from the school governing body (SGB) of Parktown Boys for this article, the school acknowledged that what “some of our boys went through in the past can never be diminished or forgotten.”
It said that, since 2019, the school had been implementing the recommendations of the HNM report and receiving expert input from both Luke Lamprecht and Rees Mann from Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse.
The SGB further affirmed that “the school is determined that these tragic events will never be repeated” and that “there continues to be an unrelenting and shared focus on the process of healing, learning and advancing transformation that we have embarked upon to forever change our culture.”
In 2020, Bradley was memorialised at Parktown Boys in a plaque that was laid outside the hostel on the same day that the school safety bell was installed. It was meant to be a commitment by the school and its pupils to put an end to violent initiations and abuse.
Both the bell and plaque were removed by their donors when the heads of hostel, Chris and Mariolette Bossert, left the school.
The plaque dedicated to Bradley has since been placed at the Fight with Insight programme in the Children’s Memorial Institute as a reminder that abuse can drive vulnerable children to desperation, and also as a challenge to adults to never stop fighting for the protection, safeguarding and care of their children.
In the final article in this series, we tell the story of Thomas Kruger and ask why, on the 5th anniversary of his tragic death – despite an explosive podcast, an independent review, a change in leadership at the school and criminal and legal investigations – authorities seem no closer to delivering justice or even providing answers to his grieving family about why he died. DM
If a child you know has been affected by sexual or physical abuse or is at risk for suicide, please contact Childline’s Helpline 24X7 on 116 (free from all networks) or visit their Online Counselling chatrooms. Alternatively, email [email protected] to report abuse.
These articles were written in loving memory of:
Julio Mordoh: 08.01.2002–05.11.2022
Thomas Kruger: 20.03.2002–18.11.2018
Bradley Skipper: 18.12.1989–30.12.2017
*Name changed to protect the identity of the victim.