School Safety: Simply not negotiable

Ian Ollis writes that action needs to be take now to keep learners safe so that their futures are not sacrificed

School Safety: simply not negotiable 

9 April 2018

It is a sad reality that many South African learners are unsafe at their schools. There are daily reports of learners falling prey to crime, drugs and gangsterism, and abuse at the hands of their teachers and other staff. Images and videos of violence are shared across social media, and provincial departments have done nothing to address this.

The neglect of learners also compromises their safety. Just last week, five-year-old Lumka Mkhetwa lost her life after falling into a pit toilet and drowning in faeces, highlighting the dangerous state of school infrastructure across the country.

This is why the DA launched the #SafeSchools campaign in Tshwane last week (20 March 2018). We want President Cyril Ramaphosa to bring together national and provincial departments to fight the many threats our learners face at school by implementing seven key interventions to help ensure our children’s safety at schools is improved.

We call on concerned South Africans to sign our letter to the President at https://protectourchildren.co.za/ and we demand that:

-  The South African Council of Educators (SACE) is sufficiently funded and supported;

-  SAPS dedicates resources to protecting schools from crime;

- the two key registers of offenders are properly maintained;

- key school staff are declared an essential service;

-  unsafe infrastructure is fixed as an urgent priority; and

- a Safe Schools call centre is available in every province.

SACE, provincial education departments and the South African Police Service (SAPS) must work together to ensure that teachers who abuse learners face the full might of the law.

But from the start, SACE has been hampered by limited resources and the 2018/19 national budget cuts the funding for its ethics division by 13% for the coming financial year!

For six years in a row, SACE has stated in its Annual Report that some provincial education departments still won’t report their disciplinary cases against teachers.

Similar challenges are faced in the vetting of teachers – a small division must vet thousands of new teachers. Moreover, vetting is only as effective as the records they must be checked against.

The Child Protection Register is the responsibility of the Department of Social Development, and one part is supposed to record the details of those who are not allowed to work with children. This finding can be made as part of disciplinary proceedings – the outcomes of which provincial education departments are supposed to report!

The Minister of Justice must also address the state of the Sexual Offenders Register, which records court findings of sexual offences against children. We have it on good authority that the people responsible for maintaining this register are a lot fewer, and that a large number of names were moved from ‘pending’ to ‘confirmed’ without the proper processing.

We will be submitting questions to ministers to determine just how many names are on the two registers, and whether or not those on them have actually been properly evaluated.

SAPS needs to dedicate resources to patrolling hotspot schools and preventing crime in and around schools. The Western Cape has pleaded with the SAPS to establish specialised gang units, which would help reduce crime at schools which are so often the victims of gang activity and violence.

SAPS needs to ensure that crime is prevented, but can’t be responsible for supervising children at school. As we saw last week, unsupervised classrooms can have tragic consequences. And yet, hundreds of SADTU-affiliated teachers in Gauteng repeatedly leave learners to fend for themselves in favour of protesting.

Surely it is time that we all support the call for the Essential Services Committee to declare key school staff members an essential service, so that children are not simply abandoned during school hours.

Learners, parents, teachers and communities must also have clear avenues for reporting violence, abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, vandalism and corruption. The Western Cape’s Safe Schools call centre (0800 45 46 47) for reporting school safety issues provides an excellent model that should be replicated in every province. It also provides information on dealing with pregnancy, substance use, racism and HIV/AIDS, among other issues.

Finally, learners will never be safe as long as the schools they attend are falling apart. More than twenty years into democracy, children are forced to learn under inhumane conditions, without water, electricity or sanitation Billions of rands have been allocated to addressing this situation, and yet, it persists due to mismanagement and insufficient support from the government.

The President cannot simply make vague promises on school safety issues. We need action now to keep our learners safe so that their futures are not sacrificed.

By Ian Ollis, DA Shadow Minister of Basic Education, 9 April 2018