Pride’s shadow at Park­town Boys High

Saturday Star - - OPINION -

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.

SHAIN GERMANER

PIC­TURE: TI­MOTHY BERNARD

Pupils in the street out­side Park­town Boys High School. The school is con­sid­ered one of the best in the prov­ince.

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