By NICCI HAYES, chair of the Makhanda Circle of Unity Education Cluster and CSD director
Yet another heart-breaking story!
My heart goes out to the writer and to all children who feel betrayed not only by the abuser but by the other teachers (like myself), and parents, and friends who should have/could have noticed but did not. I am truly sorry for your still enduring pain, and I applaud you for having the courage to tell your story.
Beyond the personal, this story is also important in that it helps us to remember that while one or two schools have currently been in the spotlight, the abuse of young people in this country and this town is systemic. It is vital that we address it not only in individual but also in collective and systemic ways.
A brave young woman recently shared with me her story about multiple teachers who expressed a “love interest” in her. Thankfully she has a supportive family with whose help she was able to reject their advances. Many young men and women are not so lucky, many are flattered, many confuse the abuse for actual love, many are preyed on because they are shy or insecure or marginalised in some way, thus reducing the risk for the perpetrator.
How do we protect our children when so much of this happens behind closed doors, in secret, where often nobody notices? Sometimes people try not to notice, sometimes they really do not notice, and years later, the victim is still being re-traumatised, especially if s/he/they did not receive support and counselling.
One of the many ‘worst things’ that this kind of grooming and abuse results in is children (and later young adults) feeling guilty and blaming themselves, feeling that they were complicit, forgetting that the age and power dynamic puts the blame squarely on the adult.
At many schools, another reason that children choose not to ask for help or to speak out is fear of retribution from staff or peers. I have been thinking a lot lately about my last few weeks as a principal when a group of staff members rallied around an abuser who had been reported. The staff members lashed out at me for reporting the (multiple) incidents and the children they guessed had named the abuser.
That abuser never lost his job.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to speculate that those who were meant to investigate the matter were likewise intimidated. A past pupil has subsequently shared with me that she was scared to say anything about a different incident for fear of victimisation from the many girls who are pleased to receive money from the abusing staff members.
With abuse so endemic in our schools (and sadly too in many of our homes), how do we respond?
From the Circle of Unity Education Cluster perspective, many of us have been wondering how best we can serve and protect our children, schools, and teachers (the innocent majority, that is). Tentative ideas so far have been the possibility of ‘consent culture’ training for learners and staff? A campaign encouraging learners and teachers to speak out when they see OR SUSPECT abuse happening? A campaign to help learners and parents to know the routes that they can follow to get support?
We have also been talking to LRC’s Makhandan and Cape Town offices. They are looking at some legal challenges that (for example) currently facilitate teacher perpetrators to move from one school to the next even when some or all of their activities are known to the previous school. We have committed to working alongside them in whatever ways we can to bring about the changes that are needed so that our children, and not our perpetrators, are protected.
For a start, please allow me to use this platform to tell people that any member of the public can report sexual abuse by a teacher to SACE (the South African Council of Educators) on firstname.lastname@example.org. SACE will investigate and, if found guilty, the teachers will have their licences to teach in this country revoked.
So much pain has been caused to so many for so long. It’s time to stand together and say – this can’t go on!