EXCLUSIVE: Corporal punishment claims rock Paarl Boys' High School

Being hit against the head for not greeting. The "five-star treatment" on your back when your homework isn't done. Spanking with a cricket bat - all in the name of "discipline".

These are some of the claims levelled at well-known Paarl Boys' High School - and in particular the deputy headmaster and head of discipline, Richard Visagie - by six sources, including a current parent and former pupils.

School management has strongly denied that corporal punishment, which was outlawed in South Africa 23 years ago, is still prevalent at the rugby powerhouse nicknamed "Boishaai" in the Boland.

A parent of a young boy, speaking on condition of anonymity, told News24 how their son was "hit on the head" for not greeting.

"You get whacked arbitrarily in passages for things - if you don't greet with the right attitude, if you are being 'clever'... The culture of the school is one of violence," said the parent.

READ: Mom arrested for 'assaulting' son's teacher with umbrella to 'teach a lesson'

According to the parent, punishment ranges from the "five-star treatment" - a hard slap on the back, which leaves the marks of the fingers and thumb; "jungle justice", which is meted out between peers, and being hit with a plank or cricket bat in Visagie's office.

The parents would not report it to the school for fear of their already distraught son being "frozen out", nor to the police because it would require a statement by the child whose identity would then be known.

Another pupil, who recently left the school, told News24: "Boishaai has become this sort of bastion of masculinity. This whole thing of 'If you're not going to get hit, you're not like one of the guys.' [There's] this constant rhetoric of being a guy, a guy's guy, back to 'How it used to be.'"

Also speaking on condition of anonymity, he alleged that his parents were told during his entrance interview for a highly sought-after place at the pristine government school, that corporal punishment was practised.

READ #SansSouci: Mom lays charge after teacher slaps child, teacher lays charge of her own

His parents were asked if they were "okay" with it and, since it had been a part of schooling from their era, they did not object.

Richard Visagie

Paarl Boys' High School deputy headmaster, Richard Visagie. (Paarl Boys' High website)

'You have to thank him afterward'

Corporal punishment at school was outlawed by the SA Schools Act in 1996. An application by Christian Education South Africa to be exempt on religious grounds, and allow pupils to be punished this way in terms of religious beliefs, was dismissed by the Constitutional Court in 2000.

READ: Pupil captured on video as he hurls abuse at teacher

The former pupil's first hiding was after being sent out of class in Grade 8 for not doing his homework. He was called into Visagie's office and allegedly beaten with a plank. "You must also thank him afterward," he said.

The boys would draw stripes on the back of their school ties every time they were beaten. That become "like a badge" to compare who had been hit most.

The source said he had decided that it was better to get beaten with the plank as punishment and "get it over with", than go to detention.

"I would think, do I really want to spend two and a half hours of my Friday afternoon with the principal in detention? Your teenage boy brain thinks, 'No that's a terrible idea.'"

He said that there were teachers who specifically did not send pupils out of the class, in order to avoid them being subjected to corporal punishment. They gave out writing lines or writing out pages from books instead as punishment.

"I’m not sad that I went there. I got a good education, but I just think that it has a few faults," the source said. "I would just ask them to change how they look at things.

School culture and norms

Another old Boys' High pupil, who matriculated in the early 2000s, said it wasn't only Visagie who still practised corporal punishment, but at least two or three other teachers.

"I grew up in a house where corporal punishment was the norm. The school was a natural extension of home."

Asked why they accepted illegal punishment from teachers, the man said they were told that "things had to be controlled in a way" at a boys' school. He acknowledged that there were other ways to discipline boys, "but there weren't any more cost-effective ways".

Corporal punishment was understood to be an integral part of the school's culture and discipline.

The man recalls being punished in Visagie's store room, jokingly referred to as "the dungeon". However, he also remembers Visagie as a "brilliant English teacher and rugby coach; not someone you can easily put in a box".

Another ex-scholar, who matriculated in the late 1990s, said he accepted that corporal punishment was part of the school's culture.

"If you see something that has been working for over 100 years, then you think to yourself, the system probably knows better."

Paarl Boys High School

Paarl Boys' High School. (Jenni Evans, News24)

'Done in the name of discipline'

Another source told News24 how a group of more than 10 Grade 8 boys recently received the "five-star treatment" after failing to fix a button to their ties and blazers to "mark" them as Grade 8s.

"All the Grade 8 boys were gathered in the hall and Mr Visagie asked those without buttons on their ties to leave the hall and stand in a queue. All the boys had to watch as he gave each of them the five-star treatment. Some of the boys started to cry and had blue marks on their backs the next day."

Another ex-Paarl Boys' High pupil, who requested to remain anonymous, said it was a well-known fact in the Paarl community that corporal punishment continued to be practised long after the introduction of the Constitution in 1996.

"Visagie was the first rugby team coach and untouchable. Everyone knew he was hitting us, but the community condoned it because it was done in the name of 'discipline'."

The man said Visagie's "five-star treatment" was a common occurrence when boys neglected or forgot to do their homework.

"He would stand behind you and hit you very hard between the shoulder blades. His red hand marks were visible on our backs. Repeat offenders were given a screwdriver to unscrew the wooden plank at the back of their school benches, which Visagie then used to give them a hiding with. Afterward, they had to screw the plank back onto the bench."

'Absolutely not. It's illegal'

When interviewed by News24 about the multiple allegations of a culture of ongoing corporal punishment, school governing body (SGB) chairperson Ritzema de la Bat and principal Derek Swart denied that it was happening.

"Absolutely not. It's illegal, and all staff members are aware of it," said De la Bat.

Asked if parents had signed a document giving permission for corporal punishment, he said: "In terms of legality, such a document, if it had ever existed, would not be worth the paper it's printed on anyway."

He said they had only had one complaint before and it was handled by the Western Cape Education Department (WCED).

De la Bat said, besides being illegal, corporal punishment was also against the school culture of raising young men who would "have compassion, emotional strength and the ability to make a positive difference".

He said that, when he was at school before corporal punishment was outlawed, being caned seemed a quick way to be punished, instead of being called "dumb" for days.

He said, with corporal punishment outlawed, teachers had to find new ways of punishing pupils, and sometimes found it difficult because parents were leaving it to the school to deal with ill-discipline.

Nonetheless, De la Bat said corporal punishment was "unacceptable in any way".

Paarl Boys High School

Paarl Boys' High School. (Jenni Evans, News24)

'It's not our policy'

Swart told News24: "It's not our policy. There is no corporal punishment."

After a mini-tour of the school on Tuesday, where Swart told boys to pull up their socks and tuck their shirts in, he said the school was strict about the boys' appearance and insisted that they were polite in their interactions with others.

But he said parents would not strive to get their children into the school if it had a culture of violence.

He said the only way to deal with the allegations of corporal punishment was for parents to come forward for an investigation.

"If something is reported, we will act on it immediately," said Swart. "The whole purpose of the school is to produce young men who can make a positive contribution in a negative world."

He was not aware of the outcome of a complaint to WCED that the SGB referred to and suggested that WCED itself was asked. He said Visagie was a respected teacher for around 40 years and had received accolades for his work.

He added that there was CCTV at the school and, if a child was being hit, it would be detected.

Hennie Warnich, chairperson of Paarl Boys’ High School Old Boys' Union, said he was "disturbed" by the claims.

"Everybody understands that corporal punishment is illegal. The headmaster himself addressed the staff on more than one occasion on this.

"If any incident should ever be reported, the teacher in question would immediately be subjected to a proper investigation, and if allegations are found to be true, the appropriate disciplinary process [would follow]."

The school would not allow News24 to interview Visagie without permission from the WCED, according to policy regarding teachers speaking to the media.

'District's has received several complaints'

However, the provincial education department revealed that there had in indeed been at least one official misconduct allegation against Visagie.

"Our Labour Relations Department has confirmed that the alleged educator was charged with misconduct last year for reportedly hitting a learner. He received a final written warning and a fine on 15th October 2018," said Jessica Shelver, spokesperson for Education MEC Debbie Schäfer.

"New complaints were received on the 23rd January 2019 from a doctor who was reportedly treating a learner that was assaulted.

"The parents of the alleged learner have reportedly again been reluctant to give consent for consultations. The matter is still under investigation."

Shelver said in earlier correspondence said that the department had received several complaints about corporal punishment at the school, but that nobody was prepared to let their children give evidence and testify.

"The district has reportedly received several complaints, yet they are not able to take action as parents reportedly do not allow their children to testify in this regard."

The complaints were referred to the department's labour relations unit for investigation.

She said the department had zero tolerance for corporal punishment and was investigating the allegations against Visagie raised in News24's queries on the subject.

Do you have a similar story? Please email any tips to Jenni.Evans@24.com

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