School deaths: communities must come together

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The first term of the 2020 academic year will draw to a close soon, bringing an end to a term that has brought trauma and grief for several Gauteng parents, learners and teachers alike.

While the brief school holidays will grant some relief from the manic rush of school mornings, for some the time will be used to reflect on the unexpected passing of a friend or what others would call a “familiar face from school.”

On the other side of the coin, the maxim that no parent should have to bury their child, has now become a reality to contend with on a daily basis.

Among the names that have become synonymous with the tragedies of the first term across Gauteng schools, is that of Parktown Boys High School pupil, Enock Mpianzi.

The 13-year-old drowned during a river rafting exercise while on a school excursion at Nyati Bush Camp in Brits, North West.

In a shocking series of events, various safety measures were flouted by the school, the provincial department, teachers and facilitators at the bush camp.

An investigation into the teenager’s death, conducted by Harris Nupen Molebatsi Attorneys, listed a whirlwind of mistakes that sent the entire trip down the rabbit hole of tragedy.

Inaccurate roll calls, a lack of life jackets issued for water activities at the facility as well as no appropriate authorisation for the trip being granted by the provincial education department are among the things that went wrong on that school excursion.

Overall responsibility for the well-being and safety of learners was found wanting.

In another incident over the course of the school term, the loss of lives took place outside the school grounds where two learners travelling in a minibus taxi, as well as a motorcyclist, died in an accident near Tembisa.

With the death of pupils and teachers not always confined to the school grounds, the sentiment that children’s safety and education is a societal matter, has been cast into the spotlight.

This as Chief Executive Officer of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS), Paul Colditz  condemned the deaths.

“What we have seen in Gauteng is the unnatural death of children and even in some instances violent deaths. What we have seen here is unacceptable behaviour from people. Where an unnatural death takes place, the community must take responsibility, “said Colditz.

Colditz’s comments come as a principal from a school outside Orange Farm was gunned down in what seemed to be a plot by some teachers and members of the School Governing Body (SGB).

The school principal was said to have stood in the way of the SGB’s chances of obtaining a lucrative contract to deliver textbooks to the school.

Clinical Director at the Teddy Bear Clinic, Dr Shaheda Omar, said the trauma experienced by learners, could lead to survivor’s guilt where one feels guilt by surviving a traumatic experience when others have not.

“When we look at the most recent deaths where learners have maybe not known their fellow learners very well,  they have seen them before and it could trigger past trauma [and a] previous history of victimisation.

“It might also trigger feelings of survival guilt that I was with this person, we went together but I came back alive. I’m okay my parents are happy to have me [and] I’m relieved to be back home but look at that other family [who have been] shattered,” says Omar.

The range of emotions experienced can vary, while it can also have long-term effects on the wellbeing of those involved.

Depression, said Omar, could replace the enthusiasm that children once had for activities they previously enjoyed.

“These are things that one needs to consider and factor seriously. I think the post-traumatic factor is a critical one in the lives of children and the lives of everybody [else],” she said.

With the death toll of Gauteng learners seemingly on the increase, the deaths have also affected Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi.

Lesufi, who bears the brunt of delivering bad news to parents and affected families, said he too was experiencing trauma and has recently developed what he coined “phonephobia”.

 “Every morning, I’m scared. When one gets a call that comes from the spokesperson or office, you panic because you don’t know what it is that they are saying this time,” he said.

With the entire school community affected, it is apparent that child protection, and by extension school safety, is not just the business of schools but of communities across the country as well.

While psychosocial unit after psychosocial unit has been dispatched as social workers rushed to offer comfort to the various affected schools, parents and affected communities, Omar is of the view that much more still needs to be done.

 She said government alone cannot address the issue.

“These crises are opportunities for us to look at what can we do and how can we prevent this violence. This is not just the responsibility of government, it is not the responsibility of communities only. We need to work collectively. Currently we are working in silos,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the report into the circumstances that led to Mpianzi’s death, Harris Nupen Molebatsi Attorneys have made several recommendations.

Among these recommendations is that Nyati Bush Camp be held liable for negligence; that educators face disciplinary action and that amendments be made to the safety regulations in the South African Schools Act on supervision.

These however, only address transgressions by the school fraternity.

Additionally, these measures do not take into consideration the trauma and psychosocial impact of those left behind.

Omar has suggested that communities look into programmes such as “Adopt-a-Cop”, an initiative that connects police officers to schools in an effort to improve local safety and security.

Ideally, social workers should be placed at every school but with capacity constraints, Lesufi says other measures have been devised to address these issues.

“We have also established a system where there is a teacher at every school, so learners can have someone to talk to,” said Lesufi.

The impact of these tragic incidents will be felt for years to come by those who have experienced the trauma of seeing a school mate die or those who receive the news that their child who left for school in the morning will never return.

By joining hands and returning to the ubuntu proverb: “it takes a village to raise a child”, the psyche of societies can be changed to one where the life of a child is valued and the protection thereof is everyone’s responsibility.