Posh school in race row

2017-10-08 05:47

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‘Intimidating” messages on a class WhatsApp group, a father’s behaviour on the sports field and an alleged racial attack on a young pupil have opened a can of worms for a Johannesburg boys’ private school.

Pridwin Preparatory School, in the expensive Johannesburg suburb of Melrose, is embroiled in a lengthy dispute with a father whose two children were expelled after he allegedly intimidated an official at a school cricket match in November 2015.

The man and his wife cannot be named to protect their children’s identities.

They lodged papers with the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) last month and directly petitioned the Constitutional Court, to challenge the school’s decision to cancel its contract with them, in effect expelling their children.

Leave to appeal has been granted and the couple is awaiting a date for a hearing from the SCA.

This was after the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg found in favour of the school, but ruled that the children could attend for the remainder of the 2017 academic year.

In their papers before the Constitutional Court, the parents accuse the school – which costs up to R130 000 a year per child – of dealing with discipline in an inconsistent manner.

They cite a case involving two white Grade 7 boys who allegedly beat up another Grade 5 black child after a rugby match.

In May, another parent posted about the “graphic and disturbing” attack on a class WhatsApp group saying:

“My heart is broken as I tell you all that [the boy] was badly assaulted by two Grade 7 boys at our school on Wednesday evening after the rugby match at St Benedict’s.

"He was beaten using metal studded boots, choked by his scrum cap, punched in the ribs and stomach, and pushed over the stairs, where he suffered a minor concussion.

“He was picked up by two brave and kind Grade 6 boys who helped him up and walked him out. He is deeply traumatised. The two boys who assaulted him are still walking the corridors of Pridwin.”

Subsequently, the school’s principal, Selwyn Marx, accused the expelled boys’ mother in his court papers of sending “intimidating and divisive” messages about the incident.

In her affidavit, she denies this, adding that she asked for contact details for the boy’s family so she could offer them counselling. She is a psychiatrist.

She also questioned the way the school dealt with the matter after Marx wrote a letter to parents in June, saying the Grade 5 child would not be suspended because the school found he had been sufficiently punished during the assault.

Reduced suspension

However, the Grade 7 boys who attacked him had their suspensions reduced by two days because, Marx wrote, the “Grade 5 boy did much to provoke the situation”.

The mother wrote in her affidavit that her messages were firm as she was expressing concern at how the school, in her view, failed to deal with an “extraordinarily ugly racial attack”.

“But they can hardly be described as aimed at intimidation or in any way improper.”

The woman adds that Marx wrote a further letter to parents in which he “sharply criticised” the Grade 5 parents for discussing the matter and criticised them for laying criminal charges.

“I remain acutely concerned, as I believe do many other parents of colour, that Mr Marx’s response to this incident and the internal disciplinary committee’s findings are highly inappropriate.

"It simply beggars belief that the assault of a child by two older children can be justified on the basis of provocation, particularly when there appears to be a significant racial element in the assault,” she wrote.

A source at the school, however, said that while the SCA case remains, the parents’ Constitutional Court application was dismissed.

She also said the mother of the Grade 5 pupil involved “has distanced herself from any attempts for her son’s case to be used to bring the Pridwin community into disrepute”.

“She has expressed satisfaction with both the manner in which the school handled the matter and the outcome and considers it closed,” she said.

In response to racism allegations, Marx said his school had a zero-tolerance policy on racism and believed in the power of diversity.

“We have a diversity forum – comprised of the headmaster, one white board member, two sets of black parents, one set of Muslim parents and one set of Jewish parents – charged with expediting the transformation process.”

He said the school had an anti-racism policy for all students, staff and parents, and that teachers received “anti-bias training”.

Racism cases the school had dealt with this year, he said, included a “white boy telling a black boy that he could not sit on a bench. The white boy was suspended.

"A black boy was disciplined for being racially derogatory to an Indian boy.”

Marx said disciplinary cases involving children were conducted according to a fair, open, transparent and legal process.

However, the behaviour of parents and their contractual obligations to the school were, in law, a different matter, he said.

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Read more on:    education  |  racism

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