DID WE PUT THE CHIL­DREN FIRST?

CityPress - - Voices & Careers - Re­shard Ko­lab­hai voices@city­press.co.za Ko­lab­hai ma­tric­u­lated from St John’s Col­lege in 2011

By now, much of the coun­try knows about the re­cent racial in­ci­dent at St John’s Col­lege, Jo­han­nes­burg, with al­le­ga­tions and de­bate rag­ing fiercely on so­cial media and in con­ver­sa­tions. Ru­mour is un­nec­es­sary for cur­rent pur­poses; let us take the school at its word.

To the point: What about the chil­dren? Are we speak­ing up for them? And are we act­ing in their best in­ter­ests, as our so­ci­ety and Con­sti­tu­tion de­mand? I ask be­cause, de­spite this in­ci­dent be­ing about con­firmed se­ri­ous abuse of chil­dren at a school by their teacher, the chil­dren of­ten seem to be shoved to the out­skirts of the mat­ter.

The school has em­phat­i­cally claimed to not con­done racism in any form. But was the per­pe­tra­tor’s re­ten­tion as a teacher of his vic­tims not, by and large, a de facto con­do­na­tion of racism against chil­dren? Did the chil­dren’s in­ter­ests never be­come ap­par­ent to the school? Or did the school find them not wor­thy of de­fend­ing?

How, fol­low­ing the con­firmed find­ing of se­ri­ous racial mis­con­duct, could the school not on its own con­clude that Keith Ar­low – the per­pe­tra­tor – had to be dis­missed even af­ter con­sid­er­ing the weak “mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors”? If a mit­i­gat­ing fac­tor was that Ar­low was a “good teacher”, the ob­vi­ous ques­tion is for whom was he so? Is that bench­mark of any mean­ing­ful worth if it works to keep child abusers in the class­room? What kind of teacher is the school con­tent to em­ploy?

Or is the claim that the school “does not con­done racism in any form” so weak as to be mean­ing­less? Af­ter all, Ar­low was never fired – he re­signed – and so de­spite the at­tempts to clear its name, the school never did pun­ish Ar­low fur­ther for his child abuse. Ar­low, for his part, was un­re­pen­tant un­til found guilty, even claim­ing that his mis­take was to think the chil­dren were “ma­ture” enough to ap­pre­ci­ate his “jokes”.

The school later stated that its fault lay in con­sid­er­ing the mat­ter an in­ter­nal is­sue, rather than a broader com­mu­nity is­sue. But were these chil­dren not “in­ter­nal”? How is it that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ar­low and the school only “ir­re­triev­ably broke down” af­ter in­ter­ven­tion by the South African pub­lic (and the MEC in par­tic­u­lar), and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing threats of fur­ther in­ter­ven­tion and rep­u­ta­tional dam­age?

The is­sue runs deep. The school held that its pun­ish­ment of Ar­low was in keep­ing with the school’s Angli­can ethos of “Light, Life and Love”. Yet its let­ters to the com­mu­nity make lit­tle men­tion of the child vic­tims of the abuse, or what the ethos meant for these vic­tims (who were still be­ing taught by Ar­low un­til his res­ig­na­tion was forced). So how mean­ing­ful is this ethos? For whose in­ter­est does it op­er­ate? These are press­ing ques­tions not only for the head­mas­ter, but also for Bishop of the Angli­can Dio­cese Dr Steve Moreo, who made rec­om­men­da­tions that this form of “restora­tive jus­tice” be im­ple­mented.

And it’s not just the school. An In­de­pen­dent Schools As­so­ci­a­tion of SA rep­re­sen­ta­tive, on 702, went so far as to em­pha­sise that in a dis­ci­plinary hear­ing such as this, the school is the vic­tim, not the chil­dren. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive made no men­tion of pri­ori­tis­ing the child vic­tims of abuse. Nor was the school’s con­flict of in­ter­ests men­tioned: how could the school pri­ori­tise the harm done to the chil­dren if it would rather re­tain Ar­low, or if it could at­tempt to pre­serve its im­age by sign­ing con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ments, avoid­ing a scan­dal?

As for the head­mas­ter, Paul Edey, the alumni are torn. Some have only called for his res­ig­na­tion since the rep­u­ta­tional dam­age to the school has be­come known. Had Edey done a bet­ter job of “PR-ing” the in­ci­dent, would the alumni be as out­raged at the child abuse on its own? Other alumni have de­fended Edey’s track record – but can his de­fence of Ar­low to the detri­ment of child vic­tims be con­doned? Is clamp­ing down on racism in 2017 so un­fa­mil­iar a ter­ri­tory that we should give Edey time to warm up – to keep mak­ing mis­takes, to keep al­low­ing chil­dren to suf­fer abuse – un­til he learns to do bet­ter?

How can the school be ex­cused for hav­ing never drafted an anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion pol­icy? For hav­ing made zero aca­demic ref­er­ence to hu­man rights in all this, de­spite its tremen­dous re­sources? For not mean­ing­fully en­gag­ing with the chil­dren as to the im­pact of Ar­low’s re­ten­tion? For not em­pathis­ing with the sen­ti­ments of South Africans at large, who con­demn child abuse? For keep­ing the de­tails of the pro­ceed­ings in the dark, away from scru­tiny? How, with all these, can the school claim to be putting its chil­dren first?

It is clear: many dis­cus­sions sur­round­ing this in­ci­dent have ig­nored the child vic­tims at the heart of it all, hurt­ing them far be­yond that which they have al­ready suf­fered. We must not for­get: chil­dren were abused. Chil­dren re­ported the in­ci­dent. Chil­dren bravely fought to be heard, bravely tes­ti­fied in front of their abuser, and bravely en­dured when the vic­tims’ in­ter­ests were ig­nored for the per­pe­tra­tor’s sake. Chil­dren boy­cotted, chil­dren got their abuser to re­sign, and chil­dren con­tinue to protest even now. The chil­dren refuse to be silent. Yet, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, we still refuse to lis­ten to them.

All of this has hap­pened be­fore, and it will all hap­pen again. Af­ter all these chil­dren have done to de­fend them­selves – and all South African chil­dren have done in his­tory – the least we could do is try to hold the child vic­tims at the cen­tre of our con­ver­sa­tions. For how much longer must we keep mak­ing the same mis­take?

It is clear: many dis­cus­sions sur­round­ing this in­ci­dent have ig­nored the child vic­tims at the heart of it all, hurt­ing them far be­yond that which they have al­ready suf­fered

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