Tuesday, December 6, 2022

School still investigating assault claims against headmaster

No action has been taken against a Selebi Phikwe headmaster almost two months after he assaulted a male student during morning assembly. The victim’s mother says that her son, whose ear was damaged, has been severely traumatised and wants to transfer out of the school.

For starters, ‘action’ is not a word the regional education office director, Marcos Maedza, prefers. At the beginning of the interview when asked what action had been taken against the headmaster, Maedza bridles at that choice of words, stating that the question implies that the headmaster is guilty of an offence. He then suggests that the line of questioning should issue from what an investigation into the allegations has turned up. To fill that information gap, he goes on to state that investigation is still continuing. This interview was last Thursday and the assault happened on January 29.

Jabulani Nfila, the headmaster of Lebogang Junior Secondary School, assaulted a 15-year old Form Three student by slapping him hard across the face in full view of both teachers and students. The assault happened as the school was gathering for morning assembly. Subsequently, the boy’s mother had to take him to a doctor when he complained of pain in the ear.

There are hundreds of witnesses because of where and how the assault occurred and Nfila is said to have apologised to teachers at a staff meeting for his ethical lapse. For what appears to be an open-and-shut case, the investigation process seems to be moving at the pace of a badly injured snail.

However, Maedza says that the Selebi Phikwe education office and the school are pursuing the case and that the investigations are taking as long as they should.

“You have to understand that emotions are involved and for that reason the investigation should not be rushed. We should be slow and firm,” he explains, adding that his office has also engaged the boy’s mother.

The latter confirms that she has indeed been in contact with the Phikwe office but on the whole is very unhappy with progress.

“I feel they are treating this matter lightly and dismissive of my grievances. I have reported this matter to the director but to date no action has been taken. He does not even return my calls. Just yesterday [Friday] I left a message with his secretary but he never called me back. When i reported the case to him initially, he referred me to a junior officer and said I should report back to him if I was not happy with the outcome. I wasn’t but I have no way of reaching him because he doesn’t return my calls,” the mother says.

Position-wise, the officer she was referred to – a Principal Education Officer II – is on same level with Nfila.

In taking as long as it should, the investigation has yet to get to a point of involving the relevant people. A source at the school says that no one from the education office has visited to interview those who witnessed the assault. The mother says she finds the said investigation to be very unusual because not even the victim – her son – has been interviewed.
“I have never seen an investigation like this,” she says.

If it happens that witnesses are called, that would be next term because schools closed last Friday for the first-term holidays.

Excepting Nfila, other members of school management failed to respond appropriately to the incident. Asked whether this does not constitute administrative lapse on the part of management, Maedza’s response is that he is not sure who reported as the case originated from the Phikwe office. Conversely, the mother says the latter office only got involved after she was referred to it by Maedza whom she reported the case to. Upon calling at the school on the day of the assault, the mother says that deputy head, Banabotlhe Matsime pleaded with her to forgive Nfila. While Matsime told Sunday Standard that she was not present when the incident occurred, a teacher at the school says she was right behind the headmaster when he assaulted the student.

The victim’s mother says she is worried about her son’s change of behaviour. From verifiable accounts, the son has always been an A-student and until last year, was part of student government. The mother says that lately he has been playing truant and that she learned last week that he has not met the deadline of an important practical-subject assignment whose marks constitute the final examinations grading.

“He has also told me that he wants to transfer to a Gaborone school,” she says.
While this case totters along at stately speed, Childline Botswana says that incidents of this nature that have been reported to its office are numerous. However, as Olebile Machete, Childline’s programmes officer, explains the odds are heavily stacked against them to make meaningful and effective intervention.

“In places like Tutume where we have no office, we apply our referral system. We work with the powers that be to investigate cases but this is not a reliable form of intervention. Some headmasters try to conceal the abuse while others avoid us altogether. As regards walk-in cases we involve both parents and school management. On the whole assault cases are difficult to prove,” Machete says.

The real problem, as Machete suggests, is that society at large is tolerant, even encouraging of child abuse. There is an astounding amount of evidence to support that assertion. What the Penal Code squeamishly describes as “assault occasioning actual bodily harm” used to be the most preferred method of punishment in government schools. Incidences of teachers flooring students with upper cuts or judo sweeps used to be fairly common until the government legislative forbade such abuse and provided guidelines for acceptable corporal punishment. In some cases, students assaulted in this manner could not report teachers to their parents because they risked another round of corporal punishment. Machete says except in rare cases, there are still parents who accept excessive corporal punishment as a cultural norm.

What compounds the issue is that some teachers who abused students have gone far up the ladder to hold very high positions – like that of permanent secretary. On the basis of the foregoing, Machete points out that it is unrealistic to expect education officials with a history of child abuse to bring the right sensitivities to the issue.

Upon the conviction that the education system has failed her, the mother, herself a teacher at Selebi Phikwe Senior Secondary School, says she will seek legal recourse. In terms of the law, such recourse can be sought within a year of an offence being committed.

“I have been pushed too far and the headmaster shows absolutely no remorse for what he has done,” she says.

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