OPINION | Theuns Opperman: David Mackenzie saga - The importance of duty of care to our pupils

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In light of the David Mackenzie incident, the head of an independent school, Theuns Opperman, writes that more training needs to be given to educators and house masters to see the signs of  predatory and grooming behaviour. Opperman also writes that schools need to be concerned about the duty of care towards pupils rather than just concerns around a school's image.


"'Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.'

'Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.'

Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right—I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game." - The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

When the story around the death of Grade 10 St Andrews College pupil Thomas Kruger broke, I tried to maintain an aloof distance. This was yet another exposé of an inappropriate teacher. My jaded self was happy that another one might be caught, but I did not have the time or energy to follow proceedings too closely. But my daughter followed the News24 podcasts closely and kept on giving me feedback. Friends kept on asking: "How does this happen?" Then, I read the open letter of a previous victim of teacher abuse. And I thought about my own experiences as a pupil and now as a Head of a school. 

I forced myself to listen to all three episodes (at the time of writing) and look back at the media reports. This is my response.

Cover-up

My first reaction to all of this is to point a very definite finger at the very idea of boarding schools in general and monastic boys' boarding schools in particular. Especially in the case of the elite "good" boarding schools, they have become not dissimilar to the Catholic Church in their culture of covering up anything that might reflect poorly on the school. They appropriated the original ideas behind a Prussian Military School of two centuries ago, and ended up keeping only the military barracks culture. (A VERY sweeping statement, but like many generalisations, with more than a kernel of truth.) While this "barracks culture" is no longer policy at the vast majority of schools, it is still very much part of the student experience. While the context here is around a sexual predator and how he was able to get away with his actions, my focus is on the broader underlying systemic and cultural failure of these schools, which contribute to the environment within which this can happen.

First, a caveat: These schools do many wonderful things. There are excellent, caring teachers at all of them. Many boys can tell wonderful stories about what these schools meant to them. They offer excellent opportunities. These schools can (and should) be beacons of excellence and positive impact. 

But.

While there are excellent teachers who take their duty of care of their students seriously and who attempt to make connection with each individual student, as entities, these schools exist primarily to perpetuate their own myth. The identity, culture, heritage, history of 'The School' is sacrosanct, and nothing that threatens it can be tolerated. And the "threats" exist as they are perceived by the custodians of the image and heritage of 'The School'. This, by the way, is also why these schools struggle to transform in any meaningful way. All transformation efforts must still be in service of 'The School', as determined by its historical custodians, and not, finally, in the service of anything more significant than 'The School'.

At management and leadership level, this is tacitly understood. The marketing machine attached to these organisations goes out there and sells something so unattainably perfect that just maintaining the glittering facade becomes the primary goal. Anything less than perfect must be hidden and dealt with in the background. And this usually means getting rid of the problem, not solving it.

When it comes to getting rid of problematic teachers, we see the same process at play that we saw in the Catholic Church when it came to addressing cases of child molestation. The guilty party would merely be passed on to another parish. In the case of schools (and this goes much broader than just 'The Schools' under discussion), the teacher would usually leave before a full hearing or investigation could be conducted. And, as was the case with David Mackenzie, they would soon be employed elsewhere. 

The events described in the podcast are almost laughably typical: The pressure to act becomes so big that a disciplinary process gets under way. The accused party bolts. Everybody gives a sigh of relief. Not our problem anymore. Dodged THAT bullet. Let's move on.

READ | Analysis: Sheena Swemmer: David Mackenzie - What it reveals about the complexities of disciplining teachers

Because I am now also a Head of a school, I initially resisted my daughter's breathless insistence that 'The School' had mismanaged this process to an almost criminal degree. I knew the complexities involved in building a case that could be prosecuted. I knew how incredibly cunning and insidious a sexual groomer can be. I have had to deal with this in my school, too.

However, when you actually place your duty of care of the individual student first and reputational management of 'The School' second, certain things do become less "difficult".

When you have the actual WhatsApp messages indicating inappropriate conduct, you call your lawyers and start building a case. You don't call in HR to help with damage control. You immediately suspend the suspect pending an investigation. You believe your Housemasters and parents who point out the red flags, uncomfortable as that might be.

Remaining in the system

And you do not allow that teacher to teach again. When a case of sexual molestation was exposed at my current school after the guilty teacher had already left, we immediately supported the parents to lay criminal charges and reported the matter to SACE so that his registration could be revoked. In spite of this, he managed to find two other teaching positions before all the processes caught up with him. Because, as was the case with Mackenzie, schools do not always practice due diligence when hiring. I was phoned for feedback on this teacher only after he was accused of molesting students after leaving us at the school he went to. But the point is still: Unless the school acts decisively on any misconduct and follows through on disciplinary action, these teachers will remain in the system.

I started this piece with a quote from 'Catcher in the Rye'. Holden Caulfield has been the poster boy for the outsider in the elite school for decades now. But Holden really was an outsider. A misfit. And people who didn't "get" him found it easy to dismiss him.

However, all the victims at St Andrew's were boys who really wanted to be there. Who arrived with all the correct credentials. They did all the right things, participated in the right sports. And still, they didn't "make" it. Why?

I certainly don't have the answers. Just some questions that we might want to look into.

As the educational space becomes ever more commercialised, are we keeping our focus on the well-being of our students first and foremost? The affluent schools will immediately point to the psychologists, wellness programmes, Sanatorium staff, etc. that they employ to this end. But clearly, this is not the answer. I would suggest that we actually go to the trouble of doing a proper analysis of the load that our core teaching and boarding staff is supposed to carry. I sense that they are so overwhelmed by the increasing demands of parents and Councils and accountants that they do not have any "bandwidth" left to provide the deep level of "parental" care that comes with being an educator - especially in a boarding school. This provides the space for predators like Mackenzie to insinuate themselves into students' lives without us even noticing. In fact, they get away with it because so many pupils and staff see them as that "special" person who truly "understands" the children.

Military style discipline 

But in the end, Councils, Governing Bodies and School Leadership need to face this question honestly: Are we still about the children or are we about 'The School'?

If schools cannot meet the needs of the students that they serve, they need to stop existing. 

Maintaining a Prussian ideal of military structure in a modern-day school is ludicrous. Imposing these systems on students have done untold (pun intended) harm to thousands of students.

Boarding schools have always been places where a military-style discipline structure is imposed. This structure is enforced to a large part by the students themselves. Expecting immature teenagers to practice self-control when offered - tacitly or overtly - almost unchecked power is asking for trouble. Yet, the entire system is built on this premise. For generations now, boys who have attended boarding schools have lived through this process of institutionalised violence. Yet, even those fathers who had a very hard time themselves keep on sending their sons back for more.

My theory is that - because of our romanticisation of the suffering - we look past the real harm. We justify the bullying and dehumanisation as part of a process of growing up and "becoming a man". And if we ourselves had a really hard time and did not necessarily feel that we grew from the process, we tell ourselves that surely, by now, things must be better and my own child will not have to suffer all the indignities that I had to? 

READ | Adriaan Basson: The crisis of sexual predators moonlighting as teachers

Holden refers to the "hot-shots" in the quote above.

There are layers of experience in a boarding environment. There are Holden's "hot-shots" who excel at almost everything. These are the poster boys for the boarding establishment. Everyone is measured against them. These lucky few are the ones who maintain the dream of what 'The School' represents. Most (but not all) of them actually do have a wonderful time. When they themselves end up as teachers or Heads of these schools, they sincerely believe in the marketing and the myth of 'The School'. They are not bad people, but they often have a real blind spot for the different experiences that others might have had of the same space that they inhabited.

Secondly, there are those who do not necessarily excel at the recognised sports, but they have created a niche of excellence for themselves in something. If they don't rock the boat and their excellence in their field is appreciated, they can go through the system without too much hassle.

Thirdly, you have the bulk of the footsoldiers. Normal, average students who want to be part of the bigger whole and will accept the structures and get on with their lives. They accept the structures as "part of life", put their heads down and try to get on with it. The low-level anxiety present all the time is what you need to manage, along with the occasional incidents of real conflict. They buy into the "this is how things are supposed to be" narrative. This is also the group that does most of the romanticisation after leaving.

Lastly, you have the outcasts. The ones who either cannot or will not fit in. They are perceived as weak and must therefore be targeted for exclusion at best, elimination at worst. This is done physically and emotionally by the boys and structurally by ‘The School’.

And it is into this space, characters like Mackenzie insinuate themselves to create off-shoots of hierarchy that provides a home to those boys who might not feel that they have found their real home in 'The School' yet. They have always done this. What might be making it worse now?

Part of the reason I already alluded to: The good teachers and Housemasters (and they are the majority) simply have less and less time to engage sufficiently with all the students. It is crucial that we train all staff to recognise predatory and grooming behaviour, but also that we ensure that they have the bandwidth to do so.

PODCAST | 'My only story': David Mackenzie's conduct in the water polo pool in the spotlight

But mostly, it is a leadership issue. School leaders at elite schools are expected to first and foremost protect the image and legacy of 'The School'. The students are there to provide the money for the business to continue and be the marketing cattle to sell the myth. This might sound harsh, but if you as a leader make any concessions on your duty of care to each individual student in an attempt to limit negative publicity, this is essentially what you are doing.

And if this is not acknowledged by the Boards, Councils, and Old Boys, then Heads will continue to do it because that is what is expected of them. Until we are very intentional about truly being about every child first before anything else, we are selling a fake idea of school. Until we are intentional about meeting the needs of the children today, not the mythological child of 1950 or 1850, we are selling a fake idea of school. And until we are intentional about breaking the cycle of violence in our boarding establishments, we are lying to ourselves and our parents. And this does not mean expelling the odd boy for going too far in the system that we helped put in place. This means re-examining everything we think we know about discipline, school structures, hierarchy - everything.

- Theuns Opperman is head of a school. 

*This is an edited version of his article which was originally published here.

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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