/ 31 October 2007

Cops probe abuse allegations at Oprah school

South African police are investigating alleged abuses at billionaire United States television magnate Oprah Winfrey’s all-girl leadership academy, a police spokesperson said on Wednesday.

Rapport newspaper has reported a matron at the school allegedly fondled one of the pupils, and grabbed a girl by the throat and threw her against a wall.

The report said other school employees were also implicated in misconduct.

Police spokesperson Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini said the school carried out an investigation and handed the file to the police last week.

”We established that there were criminal elements in the report they gave us and we are investigating these. Once we do this, we will approach the justice department for possible charges and prosecution,” Dlamini said, without giving details.

”All I can say is we are investigating a case of abuse and the victims are young girls whom we are interviewing. At the moment I cannot say anything further,” he added.

Rapport said Winfrey flew to South Africa to meet parents and school administrators at the campus near Johannesburg. A tearful Winfrey asked parents to forgive her for letting them down, the newspaper quoted a parent, who attended one of the meetings, as saying.

”I’ve disappointed you. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” Winfrey is said to have told the parents, Rapport reported.

The $40-million academy has been dogged by controversy since it opened in January with a star-studded launch attended by singers Mariah Carey, Tina Turner and Mary J Blige, comedian Chris Rock, actor Sydney Poitier and filmmaker Spike Lee.

In March some parents complained the school was too strict and its restrictions on visits, phone calls and email contact were comparable to prison rules.

Then, in May, some parents complained their children were not allowed junk food and when they visited the school they had to go through a security gate.

Winfrey hand-selected the first class of 152 poor, mostly black pupils to attend the posh school that boasts state-of-the-art facilities including laboratories, a yoga studio and beauty salon. It is situated on 52 acres at Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg.

Tuition and board is free at the residential school. The academy provides its 450 students with textbooks, uniforms and meals. — Reuters