'Code of silence' broken with schools anonymous reporting app
A home-grown anonymous reporting app – the brainchild of a former child protection unit police officer – is helping keep children safer at schools by breaking down the traditional "code of silence".
Last week, Parktown Boys' High School announced that it was now using The Guardian Schools anonymous reporting app. This after its former water polo coach pleaded guilty to 144 counts of sexual assault and the release of a damning report that assaults had been ongoing at the school's hostel since 2009.
But many other schools have been using the technology for about a year and report huge successes.
The app was developed by Marc Hardwick, who founded The Guardian – a private child protection agency based in Durban.
He now holds the worldwide patent on it.
"In all investigations of sexual abuse the first report is paramount. But sometimes it takes years for that first report to come. And in the meantime, the abuse continues," said Hardwick.
R1 250 once-off fee for schools
"I was wondering how I could be more effective. I was sitting in the lounge watching my own teenage son playing on his phone and the idea struck me."
With no IT skills and no real money, he rounded up some "like-minded" investors who ploughed about R3m into the development of the app.
It is aimed at high school kids who have cellphones and the cost to participating schools is a once-off R1 250 and then R500 a month.
Pupils download the free app and register with their names, what school they attend and their cellphone numbers.
It then gives them a drop-down option of "complaints" including abusive relationship, bullying, depression, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, fighting, racism, sexting, sexual assault, stealing, unacceptable behaviour by a staff member and weapons at school.
From there, the "reporter" fills in a form, detailing the complaint and has the option of adding a picture or video.
Complaints dealt with through app
"The rules, which the reporter has to agree to, state that the report will be anonymous. The information goes through to our server. All details are scrubbed from the report and these will never be disclosed unless the reporter is at immediate risk – or has lied," Hardwick said.
From there the report goes to the school where it is dealt with by at least three designated ambassadors – usually the principal, deputy principal and the guidance counsellor – and investigators, who are usually heads of grades.
Should they need to communicate again with the reporter, they can do so via the app.
"Every time the ambassador or investigator does anything with the case, they put a note on the management system. So everyone can see what is going on. And the case can only be closed with the consent of all the ambassadors," Hardwick said.
The app also has a push notification facility – a noticeboard – so it becomes entrenched in the running of the school.
Hardwick says data gathered from users shows on average between 15 to 18 reports are made in the first week of its introduction and, within the first three months, 12% of the school had used it.
At least six teachers suspended
"If you extrapolate that out, that is about 48% of learners, one in two children, every year," he said.
While bullying, drugs and depression feature prominently, "what knocked my socks off", was the number of complaints about inappropriate behaviour by staff members, he says.
"We have seen everything from teachers using corporal punishment, to bad mouthing and bullying and even teachers selling drugs.
"At least five or six teachers are currently suspended as a result of information coming from the app."
Reverend Deon Lombard, the chaplain at St Andrews in Bloemfontein, said since the school started using the app, there had been an increase in the culture of reporting.
"It seems to have broken the trend of the code of silence… it is no longer seen as snitching.
'Nothing swept under the carpet'
"And we have had two disclosures of sexual abuse in the home environment coming through."
Lombard said the system ensured that nothing could be swept under the carpet and "it holds everyone to account".
"The learners know that this is serious and for every report there is an action."
Trevor Hall, headmaster of Westville Boys' High School, said the school had been using the app for six months and "found great value in it".
"We have a grievance policy and the app complements it.
"We have received reports ranging from minor to more serious issues. A big benefit is that this has enabled us to promptly address certain issues that could have escalated into more serious problems," he said.