K-word row rocks top pri­vate school

Hear­ing ac­quits her but prin­ci­pal says there may have been ma­li­cious in­tent

Sunday Times - - FRONT PAGE - By PREGA GOVENDER

Is it ever ac­cept­able to use the k-word? When a black pupil asked her his­tory teacher in class to ex­plain the mean­ing of the word, she did not re­alise it would land her in trou­ble.

The Grade 9 pupil at the St Do­minic’s Col­lege pri­vate school in Welkom was sum­moned to a dis­ci­plinary hear­ing for us­ing “of­fen­sive racial lan­guage” ear­lier this month.

She was also charged with dis­rupt­ing the les­son be­cause her ques­tion “cul­mi­nated in an un­hap­pi­ness felt by other learn­ers . . . in the same class”.

Ac­cord­ing to the charges, the pupil re­peated “the of­fen­sive word twice” de­spite be­ing in­structed to stop us­ing it by her his­tory teacher, Grant Trew­ern.

The 15-year-old pupil, whose fa­ther is a prom­i­nent Free State politi­cian, was sub­se­quently found not guilty on all charges this month by a three-mem­ber dis­ci­plinary panel made up of staff mem­bers.

‘Not ma­li­cious’

But she said she was now afraid to ask ques­tions in class, for fear of be­ing charged again.

The teen in­sisted this week her ques­tion was not meant to be ma­li­cious.

She said Trew­ern had been in­tro­duc­ing the topic of apartheid to pupils so they could pre­pare for an oral pre­sen­ta­tion on it when she asked him, “What does the word k **** r mean?”

“He said it had some­thing to do with re­li­gion and non-be­liev­ers.”

She said she did not un­der­stand him and had asked him how Chris­tian­ity and non­be­liev­ers were linked to the use of the word.

“It was at this point that he said, ‘Don’t use of­fen­sive lan­guage’. I am very hurt be­cause I didn’t use it to of­fend any­one. I should not have been charged.”

The pupil’s mother said Trew­ern should have pro­vided an ex­pla­na­tion to her daugh­ter on why the k-word was used dur­ing apartheid.

A teacher at the Catholic school, who did not want to be iden­ti­fied, said it was “ridicu­lous” and “laugh­able” for the school to have charged the pupil.

“These kids weren’t born in the apartheid era and many of them are very, very priv­i­leged chil­dren who have no idea what it was like [dur­ing apartheid], so they want to ex­plore these is­sues.

“She [the pupil] prob­a­bly just wanted to say the word a few times to hear it in her own head. It was a form of pro­cess­ing this in­for­ma­tion. In my class, I en­cour­age chil­dren to dis­cuss ab­so­lutely any­thing, but ob­vi­ously it has to be rel­e­vant to the sub­ject. I think it’s im­por­tant for them to air their views and dis­cuss things among each other.”

The teacher said that even if the pupil was try­ing to pro­voke the teacher or pupils by us­ing the k-word, it was the teacher’s job to keep things in check and “to just treat it in an aca­demic fash­ion”.

How­ever, Ad­vo­cate Mo­hamed Ameer­mia, a com­mis­sioner of the South African Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion (HRC), said the pupil should be given coun­selling to sen­si­tise her “to the lived ex­pe­ri­ence of peo­ple in the past who were called those names”.

‘Wrong both ways’

“This kid must be ba­si­cally told about the racial prej­u­dices and racial sen­si­tiv­i­ties that go around these kind of things. It was used to de­mean peo­ple and be­lit­tle peo­ple.

“The k-word should never be used, be­cause it’s out­lawed in the con­sti­tu­tion.”

Ameer­mia said it did not make it right if a black per­son used the k-word, adding: “It’s wrong both ways, whether it’s ut­tered by a black or white per­son.”

He said 500 of the 700 com­plaints on equal­ity mat­ters re­ceived by the HRC in the past fi­nan­cial year re­lated to racism.

The prin­ci­pal of St Do­minic’s, Shane Gaffney, said the ver­dict showed that the school’s sys­tem gave pupils a fair hear­ing.

“Ir­re­spec­tive of race, the use of the kword by any­one, in­clud­ing a pupil, is po­ten­tially in­flam­ma­tory.

“I am strongly of the opin­ion that it is in­ap­pro­pri­ate, even in a his­tory class, to use such a highly charged word which has brought divi­sion in our coun­try due to its neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion for decades.”

He said that the teacher pro­vided a per­fectly suit­able ex­pla­na­tion in re­sponse to the pupil’s ques­tion.

“The pupil’s re­fusal to de­sist from us­ing the term sug­gested strongly that she was try­ing to ex­tract a re­sponse from the teacher that would com­pro­mise him. This sug­gested a ma­li­cious in­tent on the part of the pupil.”

It was used to de­mean peo­ple and be­lit­tle peo­ple. The k-word should never be used. Mo­hamed Ameer­mia, be­low A com­mis­sioner of the SAHRC

School prin­ci­pal Shane Gaffney.

His­tory teacher Grant Trew­ern.

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