Sexual misconduct is no joke

2019-10-22 06:00

Memes poking fun at something that shouldn’t be a laughing matter flooded social media following the release of Bishops Diocesan College principal Guy Pearson’s statement that the prestigious private school is investigating allegations of misconduct by one of its teachers.

According to the Sexual Offences Amendment Act, the age of consent is 16 for boys and girls in South Africa. This means a consenting relationship between an 18-year-old and a 30-year-old, for example, is not deemed a criminal act.

However, Dr John Buswell, chief executive officer (CEO) of Rape Wise, says when the older person is someone who holds a position of authority over the younger, it could hold severe emotional implications. Rape Wise is an organisation made up of health care professionals who are responsible for running rape crisis centres and who provides training to the departments of education, health and justice.

Buswell says Rape Wise handles about 200 to 300 such cases a year. In some instances, learners engage in sexual relationships with teachers in exchange for extra marks or extra tuition.

He poses the question: “The moment the one party is in a position of authority over the other, the relationship is manipulative and, therefore, wrong. The problem is, as the younger party, how do you break away from it?” He says learners often feel forced to continue with the relationship. This can lead to anxiety attacks, panic attacks and even idealisation of suicide. “Learners are not emotionally mature enough to handle a stressful situation like this. It can lead to not wanting to attend class or to failing exams,” he explains. The South African Council of Educators’ (Sace) code of conduct stipulates that teachers should refrain from improper physical contact with learners; from courting learners from any school; from any form of sexual harassment (physical or otherwise) of learners; and from any form of sexual relationship with learners from any school. Teachers accused of contravening these stipulations can be called to appear before a Sace tribunal and, if found guilty, it has the right to remove them from Sace’s registered list of teachers, barring them from teaching again.

According to Sace’s 2018/2019 annual report, the occurrence of sexual abuse in schools is increasing.

Reports of sexual abuse by teachers rose by more than 230% since 2014, Sace told parliament on Wednesday 9 October, when it presented its findings to the portfolio committee on basic education, Media24 reported. Sace CEO, Ella Mokgalane reportedly said 636 files were opened during the year under review. Of the cases dealt with by Sace, 93 were of sexual misconduct.

Buswell says it is important for parents to keep communication channels with their children open.

“And they should not be enforced. Children should feel free to approach parents. They need to know that their parents will listen and advise, not judge,” he says.

A change in children’s’ behaviour should be a warning sign for parents. This could include increased anxiousness, withdrawing from social and school activities or becoming secretive or private about what they are doing. “Also keep an eye on their social media activity. Do they have a startled or fearful response to a message? Is there a change in their habitual use? For example, where they previously would read and answer WhatsApp messages in front of family members, are they now going to their room to do so,” Buswell concludes.

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