Pride’s shadow at Parktown Boys High
AT WHAT point does school pride become toxic? Parktown Boys High School is considered one of Gauteng’s best schools, often rated as one of the province’s top performers.
It’s understandable that the parents and staff at the school would be proud of the institution and its myriad achievements.
But an intensely ugly side to this pride has been revealed over the past year.
When the first victims of sexual abuse at the school came forward in 2016, the fury from parents was palpable.
“How could this happen?” they cried, demanding retribution.
What they didn’t ask was why it took so long to discover the abuse.
The first victims were found by accident. The CCTV footage that revealed the assistant water polo coach’s alleged molestation was only found because a pupil had come to find out what had happened to his missing bag.
More than 30 pupils have since disclosed abuse at the hands of the coach. Why did it take two years for these young survivors to finally open up?
A culture of silence.
It’s a concept that’s been used as an accusation against the school by the victims’ parents for the past year.
They claim abuse, usually physical, has been ingrained in the school’s culture for so long that many pupils are desensitised to the violence, and that they unwittingly allow the cycle to continue.
Those who speak out against the abuse are ostracised and labelled as snitches – seemingly even by some of the school’s teachers.
Because of this, the violence can continue unabated.
Even as far back as 2009, initiation practices at the school made headlines, when a teacher and 12 pupils were criminally charged for rubbing Deep Heat on pupils’ genitals and beating them with cricket bats, hockey sticks and golf clubs.
Initially, only one of the victims came forward to charge his attackers.
The school has claimed the initiation culture has been curbed, but complaints about the Grade 8 camps in recent years led to the school cancelling the 2018 excursion.
But when the rapes took place, many of these teenagers were clearly too frightened to come forward.
It’s no longer debatable as to why. Gauteng Education MEC, Panyaza Lesufi, acknowledged this week that investigations into teacher misconduct at the school were hindered by the “culture of silence”.
Nine teachers – current and former – were under investigation for racism, further physical abuse and even victimising the pupils who had come forward.
This week, four of these teachers were put on precautionary suspension, though it’s been known for some time that solid evidence had already been found against these particular teachers.
The MEC said there were allegations of another incident of sexual abuse – also involving Deep Heat and private parts – but that no evidence could be found of the incident.
Rather than dismiss the allegations outright, he said: “No evidence was found; we strongly believe that the culture of silence might have played a major role.”
The investigation only began a few months ago, despite complaints being laid with the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) in 2017.
The former School Governing Body (SGB) was informed at the same time, but did not initiate its own probe, even against the teachers it had chosen to hire. Those who came forward with the accusations were called troublemakers, and angry emails were sent out by the SGB denigrating media coverage of the investigation.
It seemed that rather than worrying about potential predators and racists in their midst, the SGB was more concerned with the school’s reputation being tarnished by media coverage. Ultimately, the department did not rely on the SGB for much assistance, instead summoning a private law firm to conduct the investigation.
When the previous SGB was disbanded, there was hope among the victims’ parents that the new administration put in place would do better. In one of the new SGB’S first public addresses to the parent body, the chairperson, Jim Pooley, said the new administration would do its utmost to protect its pupils and the school’s reputation. However, he concluded his address by saying he would not engage in a “trial by media”.
Fair enough. However, the previous administration went out of its way to downplay media coverage of the horrific misconduct at the school. On the night that Lesufi visited the school last month, when the announcement of four teachers’ misconduct was first announced, I was in attendance.
I did not expect to be approached by a small group of parents who questioned why there was media coverage of the event.
These parents were convinced the teachers were being victimised. By whom, I don’t know. Perhaps by the 15-year-old who had been assaulted?
Maybe the class of boys who had to sit through a teacher’s 45 minute racist, threatening meltdown?
Perhaps the true villains were the pupils who had been molested and were then mocked in front of their peers by teachers?
I had to explain that media coverage of the abuse of Parktown Boys was necessary because of the culture of silence that initially kept them from coming forward.
Children had been sexually abused, and felt they couldn’t come forward.
The same victims were subjected to ridicule and were ignored by the SGB and the GDE for months. How is this not worthy of coverage?
When abusers are held accountable by the justice system – and by the media – there is hope that the abusive behaviour can be halted. I applaud the young men who came forward to fight back against the sexual, physical and verbal abuse they suffered within the institution meant to protect them.
I implore the school and the parents of pupils to worry less about school pride and more about creating a new culture in which violence, abuse and silence will not be tolerated.
Pupils in the street outside Parktown Boys High School. The school is considered one of the best in the province.