Breaking the Code of Silence in Schools
On Friday 10 May, Durban High School will host the first in a series of seminars as part of the Safe Schools Project. Addressing the abuse of learners in schools, it is an immensely commendable, though long-overdue, gesture.
South Africa, like most other countries, has a hidden seam of predators who prey on children in institutional settings – in schools, churches, social groups like the Boy Scouts, and sports teams. These settings, if correctly managed, provide many invaluable resources for young people. Yet the benefits of such spaces are easily undermined by the actions of those people – mostly men – whose interest in the young is covertly sexual.
In most cases, predators follow the same series of actions: first, they enter an institution that caters to children or teenagers and establishes a position of relative power and trust. Second, they identify the young who are attractive to them. Third, they cultivate a relationship with the chosen child, single them out as ‘special’ and in doing so separate them from others. The predator then progressively oversteps boundaries. Finally, direct sexual contact is made. They rely on the victim’s dependency, confusion, and shame or the fear of imagined stigma, to keep the abuse secret. Silence follows the offense. The predator moves on to the next child.
Children entering high school – especially boys – are among those most defenseless. They are on the cusp of adolescence, in the early stages of understanding and shaping their sexuality. They begin to distance themselves from their parents, to become more autonomous, yet still respond to adult authority. They are increasingly dependent on the acceptance of their peer group and are anxious not to appear
different from friends. It is a time of exploration and uncertainty; a time of heightened vulnerability – particularly for those children who struggle with home difficulties and insecurities. It is a time in which learners would rather keep quiet following abuse than face the retaliation or stigmatization they fear might follow any disclosure. This silence is further enforced by the predator’s assumed authority, as teacher, coach, priest, or scoutmaster who exploits both his position and the victim’s shame to great effect.
This sexual abuse of young people in subordinate roles has gone largely unnoticed and unchallenged across institutions and centuries. However, there has never been a more prescient time in history to tackle the issue of physical abuse in our schools than now. The great Human Rights movements of the last century have increasingly drawn attention to, and challenged, abuses of power. Gender discrimination has been condemned, as has discrimination on the basis of race or creed. The physical abuse of children has been given the status of a serious social issue. More recent movements, like #MeToo, have more firmly drawn the line against abuse. Enough is enough! The spirit of the times, steadily gaining strength, is resolutely against the devaluation and abuse of the less powerful by the more powerful.
In this broader social climate, with the right support and education, the days of turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of school children are over. What is needed now is a careful fostering of awareness and empowerment, both on the level of the individual learners and that of the institution (staff, management, and governors).
Systems that deter predators and assist learners in identifying and calling out inappropriate behavior must become a part of every school in the best interest of its children. Whatever systems come to be implemented, special effort must still be made to protect positive and mentor-like relationships between teacher and learner, being those relationships that are beneficial, supportive and wholly appropriate.
Such are the challenges that Durban High School is seeking to address in hosting the Safer Schools inaugural event, along with its associates, including The Guardian, the Governing Body Foundation, Karri and DigiTv. The one-day seminar has been put in place to address secrecy faced in schools in order to “break the Code of Silence.”
Open to high school management and educators, Governing Body members and Representative Council of Learners members, the primary focus of the Seminar is to consider why learners choose to adopt a culture of silence when they are faced by the very many issues of adolescence today, of which sexual abuse is but one of a range. Coming out of that conversation is an opportunity for participants to examine and implement ways of creating suitable vehicles and environments that are conducive to enabling and encouraging teenagers to speak out about these challenges and no longer keep them a secret, resulting in safer schools for all.
Terry Dowdall is a clinical psychologist who was formerly Director of UCT’s Child Guidance Clinic and Head of Clinical Psychology at UCT. He has worked extensively in human rights fields nationally and internationally, and currently conducts forensic psychology investigations.
He is one of the guest speakers at the inaugural Safe Schools Seminar to be held at Durban High School on Friday 10 May. He will unpack reasons why the learner will not speak out and what we can do to help them.
For more information and to book your place, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The full programme is available on www.saferschoolguide.co.za.