Pupil placed in soli­tary over un­paid fees

Out­rage af­ter girl at pri­vate school is locked away for three days be­cause of out­stand­ing debt

Sunday Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - NABEELAH SHAIKH

THE par­ent com­mu­nity at a top Kwazulu-na­tal pri­vate school raised the alarm af­ter a 16-year-old pupil was al­legedly locked in iso­la­tion for three days be­cause her par­ents had de­faulted on school fees.

Chil­dren’s rights ac­tivists have also ex­pressed out­rage, say­ing that the school was wrong to have pun­ished the child for some­thing she did not do, call­ing it “abuse”.

Par­ents came for­ward this week claim­ing that they, as well as their chil­dren, were hor­ri­fied with the way the Ep­worth School, a board­ing in­sti­tu­tion in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg, had han­dled the sit­u­a­tion.

Ap­par­ently other pupils feared they would be dis­ci­plined in a sim­i­lar way and brought it to the at­ten­tion of their par­ents.

How­ever, the pres­i­dent of the In­de­pen­dent Schools As­so­ci­a­tion of SA, Le­bo­gang Mon­t­jane, said the school had not been wrong to act in the man­ner it had.

He said it would have treated any pupil in the same man­ner, cit­ing what a chal­lenge school fees de­fault­ers had be­come.

The Ep­worth pupil, who can­not be named to pro­tect her iden­tity, was al­legedly locked in the sick room for three days and was un­able to at­tend classes or in­ter­act with her peers.

She only in­ter­acted with staff mem­bers who came to speak to her and give her food.

The pupil’s fa­ther, who was con­tacted af­ter other par­ents came for­ward, said his daugh­ter had been at the school for the past three years.

“She is now in Grade 10. The school fees are R60 000 a term and some par­ents paid R15 000 monthly. I’ve been hav­ing fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties this year and was R12 000 short for the last term so the school wanted me to pay the R60 000 for this term in ad­vance. They said they could not take the risk of me de­fault­ing again but I couldn’t raise those funds,” said the fa­ther.

He said he in­formed the school that he was not able to raise the funds and asked for more time so he was shocked when he found out that his daugh­ter had been “pun­ished for my sins”.

“I’m not happy about how they han­dled the sit­u­a­tion with my daugh­ter. No child should suf­fer that kind of hu­mil­i­a­tion,” he said.

He said tak­ing her out of Ep­worth was not an op­tion as that might up­set her more as she would be taken away from friends and teach­ers that she was used to.

“She is a very strong and in­tel­li­gent child and as her par­ents we just want the best for her, which is why we sent her to Ep­worth. We are go­ing to keep work­ing hard so that she re­mains there un­til she fin­ishes high school,” he said.

He thanked the par­ents who had ex­pressed con­cern for his daugh­ter.

Chil­dren’s rights ac­tivist and for­mer head of Childline, Linda Naidoo, said crim­i­nal charges should be laid against the school be­cause it had de­fied the con­sti­tu­tion and abused and in­fringed on the rights of the child.

She said such an in­ci­dent also had psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions for a child.

“Ir­re­spec­tive of how wrong the par­ents were, a child should not be treated this way. A child is not a pris­oner and the Chil­dren’s Act is very clear when it states that a child should be pro­tected and the rights of the child should be con­sid­ered first be­fore any­thing else.

“The child should not have to suf­fer for an adult fight. Crim­i­nal charges must be laid against the school,” she said.

The South African Coun­cil for Ed­u­ca­tors sup­ported Naidoo’s claims. Spokesper­son Themba Ndlovu said the par­ents should in­sti­tute a civil claim against the school be­cause pri­vate schools did not have a right to place a child in iso­la­tion.

Ep­worth’s prin­ci­pal, Laura Bekker, said their pol­icy was to con­tact debtors prior to the end of a school term if fees out­stand­ing ex­ceeded R100 000 to warn them that their child may not re­turn to school to start the new term.

“Un­for­tu­nately, par­ents some­times refuse to com­ply with this re­quest. They do not an­swer our mails or calls.

“De­spite this, some drop their chil­dren off at school. Pupils ar­rive at board­ing prior to the start of the work­ing week and be­fore the fi­nance depart­ment is open. In the case of de­fault­ing par­ents, these pupils are then moved to a safe place within the school un­til the par­ents ei­ther col­lect them or set­tle the out­stand­ing debt,” said Bekker.

She said par­ents made an in­formed choice to en­rol their chil­dren at an in­de­pen­dent school and en­tered into a con­tract with the school. Bekker said the school might there­fore ex­pect pay­ment of fees.

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