Staff vetting to be strengthened

2016-08-23 06:00

The Western Cape Education Department will now increase efforts to ensure staff appointed to schools are properly vetted.

This after the discovery that a convicted paedophile had been appointed as a tutor at a southern suburbs school.

“In the wake of the recent discovery that a convicted paedophile had been employed as a tutor at one of our schools, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) is taking further steps to strengthen its vetting systems for staff,” says Debbie Schäfer, provincial education minister.

Convicted paedophile Brian Shofer was employed by a school governing body without the knowledge of the department.

He was later arrested and committed suicide in his holding cell (“Paedophile commits suicide”, People’s Post, 2 August).

His arrest had followed reports in the daily media that he was advertising his services online as a tutor for school children despite having been found guilty on sex-related charges involving children in 1994, and again a few years later after working at a youth centre in Hanover Park while on parole.

Lentegeur police spokesperson Sergeant Cathy Meyer says Shofer’s whereabouts were brought under the police’s attention by his landlord. Police were also not notified of him living within their police precinct.

Schäfer says: “On being alerted to [his appointment], I immediately requested information from my department as to how such access could have been given, and how we can avoid such access in future.”

“The WCED is known for viewing any allegation of sexual abuse in an extremely serious light and we give top priority to investigating these cases.”

The department also has strict processes in place when appointing new permanent employees. Vetting of new employees at a departmental level, which includes teachers and support staff, is done painstakingly, Schäfer says.

Applicants seeking employment within the department are required to be fingerprinted for external background checks.

“The service is probably more reliable than the Sexual Offenders Registers of the justice and social development departments, which have for some time now been woefully inadequate, because it works with original data bases and does not rely on a third party to copy the data across,” says Schäfer.

The WCED also checks the government’s employee records system, Persal, to establish whether a potential employee who worked previously for government was ever convicted of an offence, including sexual offences. The department also checks whether teachers are registered with the South African Council of Educators.

However, the department has identified two loopholes within the system that will now be addressed.

The first loophole is that principals often employ substitute or relief teachers for a short period, ranging from a day to a few weeks.

“This sometimes needs to be arranged at short notice – for instance when an educator is unexpectedly hospitalised. In such cases the schools submit the relevant documentation to the district offices and then onto the head office where the relevant checks are completed,” Schäfer says.

In some cases, the relief teacher may have already completed their service at the school before the documentation reaches our head office, she says.

“Therefore, should a convicted sexual offender be employed for the first time as a relief teacher, at short notice for a short period of time, their previous conviction may not be known to us until they have completed their service.”

The second loophole is that people employed by school governing bodies, either permanently or on contract, are not subjected to the same rigorous checks as those employed by the WCED. This is possible partly because there is no policy governing the appointment process for such positions.

Governing bodies are required to ensure teachers are registered but registration could be pending at this time.

After talks it has been decided that a policy regarding governing body appointments is necessary and will be developed, which will need to include compulsory steps to be followed before anybody is allowed to be employed at a school.

The department will draw up a list of approved substitute or relief teachers who have been vetted for schools to choose from.

“Once policies and procedures are in place, compliance is crucial. This is why we will work with governing body and principal associations to improve compliance, and ensure accountability measures are enforced if they fail to comply. Any person or educator who works with our learners should have to comply with the same rigorous checks that the WCED conducts prior to the appointment of an employee,” says Schäfer. “I appeal to all educators, parents and learners to remain vigilant to sexual predators and to report any suspicious behaviour or activity to our Safe Schools Hotline. Any form of sexual abuse should immediately be reported to the WCED.”

 The Call Centre’s toll-free number is 0800 45 46 47. This toll-free line operates from Mondays to Fridays between 8:00 and 19:30. Weekend calls are recorded and responded to on Monday mornings. The Call Centre’s operators can assist callers in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa.

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