Activists want school charged as girl is punished for fees shortfall
PARENTS of pupils at a top KwaZulu-Natal private school raised the alarm after a 16-yearold was allegedly locked up in isolation for three days because her parents defaulted on her school fees.
Children’s rights activists have also expressed outrage, saying the school was wrong to have punished the child for something she did not do and that it was “abuse”.
Parents came forward this week, claiming that they and their children were horrified at the way Epworth School, a boarding school in Pietermaritzburg, had handled the situation.
Apparently other pupils feared they would be disciplined in a similar way and brought the incident to the attention of their parents.
However, the president of the Independent Schools Association of SA, Lebogang Montjane, said the school was not wrong to do what it had done.
He said it would have treated any pupil in the same manner, stating that school-fee defaulters had become a problem.
The Epworth pupil, who cannot be named to protect her identity, was allegedly locked in the sick room for three days.
She was not allowed to attend classes or interact with her peers. Staff members brought her food.
The pupil’s father, who was contacted after the other parents objected, 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 pay 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,” he said.
He said he made the school aware of his situation and asked for more time to get the money, but 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 removed from friends and teachers she had become 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 she remains there until she finishes high school.”
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 infringed on the rights of the 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 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,” said Naidoo.
The South African Council for Educators supported Naidoo, with spokesperson Themba Ndlovu saying the parents should institute a civil claim against the school.
Epworth principal, Laura Bekker, said their policy was to contact debtors prior to the end of a school term if outstanding fees exceeded R100 000 and 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 boarding. 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 moved to a safe place within the school until the parents 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. The school therefore expected payment of fees.