To fix schools, fix society first

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

On October 12 this year, the department of basic education hosted a summit on school safety at St George’s Hotel in Gauteng. It was attended by key stakeholders in the education sector, including members of school governing associations, labour, research institutions, student bodies and pupils. This summit is part of ongoing efforts by the department to address school safety.

In the past few months, reports of crime and violence in schools have received much media coverage.
These portray the education system as being under siege, with incidents of violence, possession of illegal weapons and mayhem in schools. The focus of the summit was to bring the stakeholders together and develop practical ways to buttress existing school safety procedures.

But, before developing and enhancing procedures, we need to know the extent of the problem. Are recent incidents an indication of deteriorating morals in schools? Has crime taken hold of the school grounds?

A study conducted in 2008 by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) found that there is significant risk of crime at schools. It also found that at least 1.8-million (15.3%) pupils experienced some form of violence at school, including theft, robbery, assault, threats and sexual assault.

The recent reported incidents include the AB Xuma sexual assault scandal that rocked the Gauteng department of education last year, the murder of a teacher in Zeerust, the threat to a teacher in Limpopo, an assault on a teacher in Randfontein and confiscated contraband weapons at a school in Orange Farm.

In September, the South African Police Services (SAPS) released the crime statistics for 2017-2018. The general overview is that crime, and particularly murder, continues to be unacceptably high in South Africa. The statistics do not provide adequate data for crime at schools.

This points to how cases of crime are reported and how statistics relating to these are collected. Crime statistics do not line up with the schooling system structures — district, circuit and school. There are various reasons for this, including the different configuration of police precincts and educational districts. But this should not be a hindrance.

Under the National School Safety Framework, each province has dedicated security co-ordinators. A starting point for the collection of school-based data collection could be between them and the police.

School-based crime statistics are key to any practical intervention. Therefore, the current protocol between the department and SAPS must be enhanced to increase data collection. It will be far simpler to develop crime prevention procedures when schools have access to local police crime statistics, which can be correlated with the data collected by the security co-ordinators.

It will also assist research to analyse the data. More importantly, research can also shed light on the “dark figure” of crime — those incidents that are not reported or discovered and that affect schools.

Another area of focus must be the environment surrounding the school. Teaching and learning take place in very different places. The culture and practice, and even the maladies present in the neighbourhood, find their way into the schooling environment. The CJCP study found there were “strong linkages between experiences at school and the environment to which learners are exposed outside of school”.

The AB Xuma assaults and the murder of the Zeerust teacher mirror the crimes taking place in society and reflect a number of important factors that affect schooling.

Alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, assault, sexual violence and murder in neighbourhoods spill over into schools. There is a correlation between what happens at home, in the area and at school, were pupils witness and are exposed to serious crimes, drug and alcohol abuse and assaults with weapons.

The follow-up study by the CJCP in 2012 showed that, although some elements are specific to schools, the effect of activities and incidents at home and in the area continue to be factors in the schooling environment.

But the most interesting finding of the study is that, despite their experience of crime, nine out of 10 pupils reported feeling safe at school. The research observed that this anomaly reflects the normalisation of crime.

So we need to “de-normalise” crime. This is perhaps the biggest challenge. When basic social rules and ethics are compromised, society goes on a downward spiral.

Institutions that are key to social cohesion seem to have collapsed and continue to do so. There are many dysfunctional families, churches have lost the moral high ground and the justice system is not trusted.

This does not suggest, however, that there is total chaos but rather that the threads that bind society have weakened and crime is one consequence of this.

How we rebuild society is daunting and the answer lies within individuals. Do we as individuals observe and comply with the generally accepted moral codes, rules and laws? For example, rules of the road are flagrantly disregarded, leading to thousands of deaths, traffic fines are not paid, taxes are dodged and there are many other infractions.

We often justify our actions. Those who commit fraud argue it is a victimless crime. When a person is mugged, we remain spectators. This lays the path to the normalisation of infractions and criminal activity. These attitudes and behaviours will undoubtedly be reflected by pupils and the youth. Let us re-educate society.

Are awareness campaigns our answer? They play an important role during neighbourhood meetings. This is no time for apathy or meeting fatigue, because education and the future of the children are at stake. Mobilisation as opposed to moaning should be encouraged. Pupils are a captive audience and easy to reach. Therefore, the campaigns must target the residents of an area.

The department, for example, has encouraged their involvement in schools. When the Curtis Nkondo Secondary School, formerly Fontanas, was relaunched after a spate of violence and crime at the school, the department met residents, who pledged their support for the school and even to provide security for it. This model should be explored further.

Besides neighbourhood mobilisation, advocacy is another option. The importance of information and advocacy can never be overemphasised. The National School Safety Framework element of awareness must be reflected in neighbourhoods. The police in partnership with residents must continue to have targeted awareness campaigns. For example, information of what constitutes a sexual offence and harassment must be provided ad nauseam. Parents and children should not be confused about what is and what is not sexual assault. Information will help to increase awareness and, in return, improve reporting rates and ultimately convictions. For example, shebeens and drug dens are known and residents must pass on the information to the police.

The National School Safety Framework recognises this as an important element in the curbing of crime. Police must be seen to act against these operations, in particular against those near schools. This is proposed by the framework. Securing the school must not be the sole responsibility of the school and the department. Some security issues are linked to what is happening around the school, for example the sale of drugs and alcohol. The department can conduct searches and seizures from time to time, but these are limited to the school grounds.

Security must be a standing item on the agenda of all school governing body (SGB) meetings. The issues dealt with must include discipline, safety, security and early warning mechanisms. The number of expulsions in the system are high and mostly relate to ill-discipline, as well as the sale and use of drugs and alcohol. This should alert SGBs and school management to develop proactive measures.

The schooling system includes partnerships with the departments of community safety and social development and the South African Human Rights Commission, which play an important role. But we need to explore the possibility of a co-ordinated “war room” structure within the National School Safety Framework at which these issues can be managed daily. This war room could also manage incident reporting, establish trends and provide analytics.

Finally, pupils in all grades must be informed about their roles and responsibilities. At lower grades, the main responsibility lies with parents and teachers but, as pupils proceed to senior grades, more information must be given to them. Pupils should never assault teachers, and class attendance, punctuality and a focus on school work are values that must be embedded.

The key message is that we need to strengthen morals and ethics at all levels in our neighbourhoods. Social cohesion remains key to rebuilding our communities. Crimes must be punished irrespective of who the perpetrator is. The law must be seen to work. The biggest deterrent to any form of infraction is not the nature and extent of the punishment but the knowledge that the criminal justice system works and criminals will be caught, and that the punishment meted out will correlate with the crime committed. This is the missing link.

Continued crime and violence in schools have an adverse effect on the learning environment. We as a collective must focus on protecting education and therefore the future of our children. Failure to do so means we will have inadvertently thrown our children and the youth into the lion’s den.

Makubetse Sekhonyane is a director at Gauteng department of education

Makubetse Sekhonyane

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