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School CP - March 2002

The Teacher, Johannesburg, March 2002

Human rights take a beating

Parents have to fight to protect their children as educators continue to disregard the law

By Pierre du Bois

Common criminals: Thousands of educators are regularly breaking the law by using corporal punishment.
Photos: Nadine Hutton

A conference organised by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) last month has once again highlighted the fact that corporal punishment continues to be a common practice at schools.

Andre Keat, director of the SAHRC's training sector, paints a bleak picture of the state of human rights at schools. "Corporal punishment is still a big problem for us - as it is worldwide," says Keat. "I don't think there's been any shift away from educators using it."

Part of the problem is that beatings are an entrenched part of schools' cultures, and educators are reluctant to find the energy and openness needed for change. Says Keat, "Teachers think alternative methods of disciplining are an 'add-on' to their duties and not part of daily practice." Corporal punishment is accepted as part of school life, instead of being seen for what it really is: a criminal action that also violates the child's rights. Keat admits that efforts to make a meaningful difference have fallen short, and that "there is need for more supportive intervention to help teachers handle ill-discipline".

But parents who choose to fight for their children's rights can be in for a long, uphill battle. This has been the experience of Michelle Todd*, whose foster-son Sipho* was one of six children allegedly beaten on the buttocks with a broomstick on February 12 for not finishing their homework.

Outraged that her child's rights had been violated, Todd went to Yeoville Community School in Johannesburg to confront the principal, Jackie Stevenson. In a complaint to the SAHRC, Todd writes that Stevenson responded to her by saying, "But the beating wasn't sore". According to Todd, Stevenson admitted at this meeting that it was not the first such incident at her school.

Former learners at Yeoville Community interviewed by the Teacher also complained that many educators there had used corporal punishment on an almost daily basis.

This may be one reason why neither Stevenson, nor Mabel Smith, the teacher who allegedly beat Sipho with a broomstick, responded positively to Todd's complaint. Writes Todd, "Neither Mrs Smith nor Mrs Stevenson at any stage offered as much as an apology."

When contacted by the Teacher, Stevenson was at first apologetic about the incident. "I don't think there is a perfect school anywhere," she said. "We all make mistakes." In a later fax to the Teacher, Stevenson declined to comment on the incident.

The SAHRC official investigating the case, Mxolisi Maome, also declined to comment because the incident is currently being investigated. He is unsure when there will be an outcome and did not want to say what steps would be taken if it was found that the teacher had erred.

One intervention the SAHRC may choose to make is to hold a series of workshops for all the teaching staff at Yeoville Community on the implications of using corporal punishment, and workable alternatives to handling ill-disciplined learners.

Todd is still considering bringing criminal charges against Smith. But the effort she has had to make to defend Sipho has taken its toll: "This has made me realise just how difficult it is to fight for your rights," says Todd. "You need a lot of time and a lot of energy. It makes me wonder about other parents who don't have these luxuries like taking time off work, who just can't afford to do this."

But the one who's really paying right now is Sipho. Todd is anxious that he may be victimised by certain educators, and Sipho shares her worry. Says Sipho, "I feel under pressure to make sure I do everything right. I feel like some teachers are looking at me and will pick on me for anything I do wrong."

* Names have been changed

- The Teacher/M&G Media, Johannesburg, March 2002.

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