Anger tears Pretoria East school apart

Tempers at a Pretoria East school have reached boiling point and parents have taken legal action against the school’s management and the provincial and national education departments for the alleged physical abuse of pupils and persistent financial mismanagement.

Parent Gillian Elson said: “Last year my son, who was in grade seven, was picking up papers on the playground as punishment for receiving too many demerit points — the [former] deputy head [Eugene Jansen] then told my son to eat the papers.

“When he refused, Jansen picked up some papers, stuffed them into my son’s mouth and hit him across the back.”

She has opened a civil case and will be “suing the minister of basic education for damages because she is ultimately responsible for this”, Elson said.

Parents say the “traumatising trend” of physical abuse at the Glenstantia Primary School, allegedly at the hands of Jansen and other teachers, has been going on for years and the action taken by the principal, Hennie Pretorius, and the education departments to protect the 1 300 pupils has been “weak” and “inadequate”.

A pupil was allegedly hit on the head in November for wearing the wrong shoes. According to another pupil’s letter of complaint, sent to President Jacob Zuma in desperation, Jansen entered a classroom in which the pupils were preparing to write an exam. He asked the child to remove his shoes, but then “he ripped the [pupil’s] shoes off his feet and hit him across the head”, the other pupil wrote.
The child allegedly temporarily lost hearing in one ear.

“Flung down the corridor”
The letter describes how, in another incident, a child was “flung down the corridor” by Jansen.

An anonymous complaint from a parent claims that teachers put “pegs on the ears of the naughty children” and sticky tape was stuck across pupils’ mouths.

In November last year, the department launched an investigation into Jansen, a response parents say is “too little, too late”, because he took early retirement before the investigation was concluded.

The former model C school, which is clean and neat, belies the aggressive emails, outbursts at parent meetings and heated arguments allegedly almost leading to physical fights, that characterise the torrid relationship between pupils and their parents and the school governing body and management.

The Mail & Guardian visited the school this week and pupils, in their green and khaki uniforms, stood up and enthusiastically greeted the principal and the M&G during the classroom visits.

Parent Lee-Anne Levendal said about 20 parents were “sourcing legal advice” about taking action over alleged financial irregularities and the abuse of pupils. “We won’t wait for things to maybe get better from the school being put under administration — we have had bad experiences in the past waiting for anyone to take action.”

Jansen said he had worked at the school for four years and had been a teacher for 32, but he withdrew from his position because “the joy had gone out of teaching — I did not want to be investigated.” He described the incident with Elson’s son as “an argument”.

A klap
“[The boy] wouldn’t pick up the papers — so I put the paper between his teeth. He spat it out and I klapped him on the shoulder. It was a tap on the shoulder — that’s not corporal punishment in my eyes,” he said.

Commenting on the episode of the boy who he allegedly hit for wearing the wrong shoes, he said: “As he was bending down to take off his shoes, I patted him on the back as if to say ‘it’s not that bad’ — It sounded like a slap ... The allegation of hearing loss is completely untrue.”

He dismissed other allegations of abuse and said his fellow staff members, the pupils and their parents respected him. “I could walk into the hall and not say one word and the learners would go dead quiet.”

That did not happen with other teachers because “they were not forceful enough”.

Now that he had left, discipline at the school would “go down inadvertently”, he said, adding that pupils needed to be toughened up. “Life won’t handle you with tweezers. It will handle you with a bulldozer. I don’t handle kids with tweezers.”

Looking for the alternatives
The director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, Salim Vally, said corporal punishment was still a problem in many schools. “Educators still haven’t found creative ways of approaching discipline and struggle to find alternatives to corporal punishment.

“It is also true that levels of frustration and unhappiness among teachers for a variety of reasons continues to be very high and that can result in lashing out at learners,” he said.

But teachers were not the only ones to blame, Vally said, and the department had not given them adequate support.

Probe revealed serious financial irregularities

Leslie Fick, a parent and former member of the Glenstantia Primary School’s governing body, said the school’s problems stemmed from “the persistent autocratic management style of the principal and his team, exacerbated by a lack of financial management skills and the complete absence of support and decisive action from the Gauteng education department”.

In 2009, Fick began questioning the school’s “dubious financial practices”.

His and other parents’ complaints were met with “resistance and hostility” by the school’s management, he said, forcing him to lodge numerous complaints with the provincial and national education departments.

In response, the education department instituted a forensic investigation into the allegations in September 2010. The final report stated: “Unfortunately, there are and were in fact serious financial concerns and irregularities at the school.”

The report, given to the Mail & Guardian by parent Lee-Ann Levendal, details the use of personal credit cards to buy school goods, resulting in personal financial gain through loyalty points and subsequent discounts; no register of donations, gifts and sponsorships to the school, “which creates the potential for bribery”; and the need for stricter asset control that would prevent allegations of possible collusion among service providers, school staff and governing body members.

Education department spokesperson Charles Phahlane said the department had, since the release of the report, held workshops with the governing body “to brief it on the recommendations of the audit”. But the “corruption and fraud” had continued, parents said, in spite of the department putting the school under administration three weeks ago and dissolving the governing body.

“We were told we were just emotional parents, but how do you calm down when fees are escalating and you know there are financial irregularities?” Fick said.

Since the arrival of the administrator there was “no chance that irregularities are taking place”, Phahlane said.

He said the school was put under administration because “there was a lack of common purpose among governing body members and a failure to carry out the functions imposed by section 38 of the Schools’ Act”.

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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