By KAITLIN YENDALL, psychologist, Victoria Girls’ High School
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light” – Plato.
We are born into this world naïve to the potential threats and dangers lurking in the shadows. Completely helpless and unable to survive on our own, we have no choice but to trust those responsible for our care. If we are ‘lucky’ enough, our guardians/parents will do their best to protect us from the evils of this world for as long as they possibly can. But at some point, children need to be entrusted into the care of other responsible adults – namely the teachers (and coaches) of the schools they attend.
We are exposed (directly or indirectly) to various forms of trauma and violence at some point in our lives. The darkness that we were once protected from slowly creeps in around us like small, black clouds. At first, these isolated incidents appear as individual clouds floating here and there. Initially, the clouds can seem out of place, as they are starkly contrasted against the bright, blue sky that we have come to know. Their presence can evoke fear, uncertainty and alarm. But to some degree, depending on their proximity, we can place some distance between ourselves and these clouds as we continue to navigate our way through life.
But unfortunately, as time goes on, more and more of these clouds seem to appear. Many of them can feel uncomfortably close, pressing in on each other and us. The black clouds seem to amalgamate, making it difficult to see where one cloud ends and another begins. And before we know it, the clouds have wrapped themselves around us like a dark and heavy shroud. The more time we spend in the darkness, the more comfortable we seem to become. Our eyes begin to adjust, and strangely, the darkness is no longer what terrifies us but rather the thought of what we might find in it if someone shines a light for too long.
For many of us, this exposure to darkness happens gradually. But for a child who is sexually abused (particularly by a trusted adult), that darkness moves in incredibly quickly. The child is left standing alone, unable to see, unable to move, trying to figure out what happened, needing help but is scared to ask because lighting a match in such a dark space will bring attention to them. Who will see and how will they respond to the light that is shone in the perpetrator’s direction (because most people will choose not to believe the child and do what they can to put the light out), and the perpetrator could always hurt them again.
I have seen the effects of sexual abuse. I have walked that road with many individuals before. A victim/survivor of sexual abuse will never experience their lives in the same way after their traumatic experience/s. While perpetrators of abuse can carry on with their lives. We need to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, and one way to begin to do so is to bring into the light what is happening around us. We owe this much to the children who are entrusted to our care.
Looking into the light and holding perpetrators accountable is only the start. This is not enough. We need to ensure that abuse in schools stops. Here are some practical steps that we can use to make our schools safer:
- Familiarise yourself with the legislation
We need to realise that no one is above the law. South African legislation dictates how we must respond to suspected child abuse/neglect.
- Section 28 of the Bill of Rights states that “every child has the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation”.
- Section 110 of the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 prescribes that it is mandatory for people in certain professions (including teachers) to report any possible child abuse or neglect cases.
- Section 54 of the Sexual Offences Act of 2007 provides that any person who knows that a sexual offence has been committed against a child must immediately report this to a police officer.
Failure to report is considered a criminal offence and can result in a fine, imprisonment (for a period not exceeding five years) or both.
- Create and implement school policies
Policies should be put in place to protect learners from possible abuse. These policies must also clearly state the disciplinary action taken if a staff member is suspected of / guilty of sexually abusing a learner.
All policies must align with South African legislation.
- Create a safe space where learners can report abuse
If possible, schools should employ a counsellor/social worker/psychologist. These professionals need to follow strict ethical guidelines that require them to maintain a high level of confidentiality and always act in their clients’ best interests. Without a safe space, learners will not come forward to report abuse. You will know that safe space has been created by the number of learners who come forward seeking some form of assistance.
- Know how, where, and when to report child abuse/neglect
Any report of abuse/neglect should be documented on what’s known as a Form 22 and sent to one / both of the following agencies:
- A designated child protection unit
- Child Welfare – 046 636 1355 (for younger children) OR
- The Department of Social Development – 046 636 1484 (for older children/adolescents)
- The South African Police Service – 046 603 9152 / 046 603 9153
If the suspected abuse is committed by a teacher/member of staff employed by the school, this must also be reported to:
SACE (South African Council for Educators) – 012 679 9728 / email@example.com
When reporting suspected abuse/neglect, use the exact words of the child.
- Ask the tough questions
When looking to fill a vacancy, interview panels need to be intentional about the types of questions that they ask. Enquire about employment history, reasons for the previous resignation/s, and any previous disciplinary matters.
- Get clearance before employing someone
Contact previous employers for references, and obtain police clearance before hiring a new staff member.
In terms of the Sexual Offences Act, failure to obtain the necessary clearance of a potential employee is a punishable offence. Employers can be fined, imprisoned for seven years, or both.
- All staff members must be registered with SACE
- Create awareness
All members of staff, parents, and learners need to be made aware of what constitutes sexual abuse, how it may present itself, and how it should be handled and reported.
There are various courses available online (e.g. Buswell and Associates, Bellavista Share, Calabash Courses, Impact Learning etc.). Schools could also reach out to child protection agencies to assist with training.
- Create a culture of reporting abuse
Encourage and support learners/staff members who come forward to report abuse.
- Ask for assistance
If you are unsure of how to handle a particular matter, approach individuals/organisations who can assist. Reporting abuse can be a very scary process (both for the child and the adult who assists). Sometimes, even if we know that we are doing the right thing, we need the encouragement and support of others.