Sexual predators in the­ classroom

Cellphones, social media and text messaging are making it easier for teachers to cross the line and have inappropriate relationships with pupils.

According to South Africa’s regulatory board for teachers, classroom sexual predators exploit electronic communication and social networking.

In a study published on the South African Council for Educators (Sace) website, titled “Factors and environment facilitating/enhancing sexual related misdemeanour between teachers and pupils”, it is noted that nearly 80% of pupils aged 12 to 17 own a cellphone, and 94% now have a Facebook account.

“Classroom sexual predators have been exploiting these new, unsupervised modes of communication to develop improper relationships with pupils out of the sight of parents and principals.

“The widespread use of social media platforms that allow pupils and teachers to easily communicate outside of the classroom is seen as a major factor in the rise of inappropriate teacher-pupil relationships,” read the report.

The report analyses cases on teachers’ misconduct reported to Sace between 2008 and 2016. It also suggested that provincial departments enforce stricter policies on electronic communications between teachers and pupils.

This week, The Witness reported that a Michaelhouse music teacher resigned after it emerged that he was involved in an “inappropriate relationship” with a pupil.

Parents were notified about the incident via a circular sent out by the school. It said that the relationship emerged via a social media platform.

The school said the matter was the subject of an ongoing and thorough investigation by the school.

In July, a 40-year-old KwaZulu-Natal physical education instructor who admitted to having sex with a schoolgirl was sentenced to correctional supervision, a suspended jail term and declared unsuitable to work with children.

The magistrate also declared that Rory John Balfour’s name be entered into the National Register for Sex Offenders and the National Child Protection Register.

Balfour admitted that he had kissed and touched the teenager inappropriately on many occasions last year.

At the time, The Witness reported that he said the teen initially used to send him “innocent” text messages but that things got heated when they exchanged half-naked pictures of themselves at night on WhatsApp.

He said they had kissed and hugged at school and even admitted that he had sex with the pupil last year.

Sace spokesperson Themba Ndhlovu said every sanction meted out is determined by the offence committed by the perpetrator.

“Sace may impose sanctions that vary from a fine to a removal from the roll of the teacher for a certain period, to a removal which is suspended for a certain period,” said Ndhlovu.

In looking at sanctions the teachers received, Ndlovu said Sace found that most were disproportionate to what they had been accused of.

According to the report, Sace received 2 233 cases of misconduct between 2008 and 2012. Of these cases, there was an outcome for 1 002 incidents of which 49 were related to teachers’ sexual misconduct and having sexual relationships with pupils while 209 cases dealt with corporal punishment.

Ten of the 49 teachers accused of sexual misconduct were found not guilty and four cases were referred to the police or the national department to resolve.

Four were not charged, three resigned, two received advisory letters, one died and one case was resolved amicably.

Of those found guilty, six were dismissed while 13 remained in their jobs, either on suspension together with a final written warning or without a final written warning.

Some were just given a final written warning together with a fine.

He said although there was no “reasonable explanation” why the improper relationships continued despite the existence of many laws, the “position” of the teacher was an important factor.

In the council’s 2016/2017 annual report, the body  said sexual relationships between pupils and teachers continued, despite the fact that this constitutes misconduct and gender-based violence.

“A qualitative study on factors and conditions facilitating and contributing to this kind of misconduct will be looked into,” the report read.

The report said there were 99 cases of sexual misconduct with regards to rape and love relations with pupils reported to Sace in 2016/2017.

KwaZulu-Natal ranked as the second highest for these cases, with Mpumalanga being first. There were 18 such cases reported in KZN and 25 in Mpumalanga.

Last week, KZN Education MEC Mthandeni Dlungwane reiterated that romantic and sexual relationships between teachers and pupils contravened the Employment of Educators Act.

Dlungwane, who was speaking in Imbali during the launch of an anti-drug campaign, said: “School managers have a legal and ethical duty to report such cases to the authorities.

“The department has a zero-tolerance stance on allegations of sexual assault, and strongly condemns any acts of sexual misconduct in schools. It is inappropriate for educators to partake in sexual relations with pupils.”

He encouraged pupils to name and shame teachers who are romantically involved with other pupils.

He said while the department was monitoring the situation, they were appealing to all teachers to refrain from all types of misconduct and instead focus on learning and teaching.

“There is no question of a consensual relationship between a teacher and a pupil. The power difference makes them unequal. It exploits the emotional vulnerability of the pupil and spoils the atmosphere of the class.”

Departmental spokesperson Kwazi Mthethwa said improper relationships between teachers and pupils were viewed in a serious light, particularly given the alarming nature of some of them.

“Teacher and pupil sexual relations are prohibited. Teachers are expected to play a parental role at schools,” said Mthethwa.

Mthethwa said the department would take strong action against any teacher involved in sexual liaisons with pupils.

South African Democratic Teachers Union provincial chairperson Nomarashiya Caluza said the organisation condemned teacher-pupil relationships and this was strongly reflected in its code of conduct.

“We were one of the first organisations to say that Sace must strike off teachers from their roll if they have committed such acts. It is against the law, immoral and just unacceptable,” said Caluza.

Room for exploitation

A local psychologist, who asked to remain unnamed, said when an imbalance of power exists in a relationship it creates vulnerability for abuse or exploitation.

“This is true regardless of the age or apparent maturity of the less powerful person. At times this exploitation may appear as nurturing and kind, as is evidenced in the process of ‘grooming’.”

The psychologist said that although the vulnerable person in the relationship may enjoy or even initiate the attention, this is exploitation nonetheless because there is a lack of complete awareness of the real consequences.

“Positions of authority, such as parenting, teaching, and counselling, require a necessary element of trust in the person who is authorised with this position of influence because it usually involves a relationship with persons with a certain need or vulnerability. Expressed differently, a person with a need is in a relationship with someone with a perceived capacity to meet that need.

“Educational institutions assume the deferred authority of parents and fulfil certain roles to which they are ethically bound. Exploiting such positions breaks the trust of the pupil and his or her parents and can have long-lasting psychological consequences for the child,” the psychologist added.

He said it was necessary for those in such positions of authority to recognise that temptation to exploit the responsibility and power of their positions is probably inevitable at some stage of their career.

“The first sign of vulnerability in crossing this boundary of trust would be when someone over whom they have authority is perceived as meeting their needs, and gestures and communication begin to express their own desires.

“Parents, teachers and counsellors have a primary responsibility to meet the needs of those entrusted to their care and are not in these positions to have their own emotional needs met.”

A battle on two fronts

According to Sace, researchers found strong indication that school trips were being used as a spring board for sexual exploitation of pupils by some teachers.

The research also revealed that many pupils are not willing to testify against perpetrators due to feelings of shame or fear of repercussions.

Sace spokesperson Themba Ndhlovu said that teachers, especially in rural schools, used money to bribe and silence the pupils, in some cases by promising parents that they intend marrying the victims or by paying a fine in admittance of guilt.

“The battle against the abuse of pupils is not to be won until parents come to the party and take responsibility to protect their children,” he said.

Sonke Gender Justice spokesperson Nonhlanhla Skosana said the issue of some parents allowing romantic relationships between their daughters and teachers was “very worrying”.

“If somebody is hurt by another person, how is it possible to make that person live with them and be in a binding relationship. The violation will continue until there is an absolute clampdown and accountability.

“At the moment, I fear we continue to see a kind of concern that ‘Oh, you’ll ruin the career of the educator,’ and misinformation about whether it’s the fault of the victim. All of these things undermine the basic principles of a safe school environment,” Skosana said.

National Association of School Governing Bodies chief executive officer Anthea Cereseto highlighted the role parents had to play, saying: “Parents must quickly bring to the attention of the school governing body and school management cases where the relationship between a teacher and a pupil is not of a professional nature.”

It’s not just the pupils who suffer predatory behaviour

A Pietermaritzburg teacher, who asked to remain unnamed for fear of reprisal, said while the general perception was that teachers preyed on pupils, young male teachers were often targeted by pupils.

The grade nine and 10 teacher from Edendale said that, earlier this year, female pupils had made inappropriate advances on him; however, he did not report the incidents.

“Certain female pupils would move to the front of the classroom and sit inappropriately, or lift up their school skirts to expose their thighs. Whenever that happened, I would move to the back of the classroom and continue with my lesson from there.”

“There is a lot we face but it’s just that we opt to keep quiet.

“It’s very challenging working in township schools, especially for young male teachers.”

The 30-year-old teacher, who said he was contemplating leaving the profession, said in another incident a pupil had jokingly told her peers at school that she was in a romantic relationship with him.

“I didn’t take it lightly. I reported the rumour to another female teacher at the school who then approached the pupil and reprimanded her.

“I allowed her, as a female teacher, to handle it because it would have compromised my position,” he explained.

Another teacher said he had witnessed an incident where a female pupil had tracked down a teacher on social media, took their pictures and reposted them on their own social media account.

“The focus in school is on protecting the well-being of the children but sometimes this can be at the expense of the teacher.

“You are not sure you will be respected or taken seriously. You are cross-examined to the point where you end up doubting your own experience of what happened,” he said.

Sace guidelines for teachers

The South African Council for Educators (Sace) has a number of guidelines relating to interactions between educators and pupils:

• Refrain from improper physical contact with pupils;

• Refrain from courting pupils from any school;

• Refrain from any form of sexual relationship with pupils from any school;

• Refrain from exposing and/or displaying pornography material to learners and/or keeping same in his/her possession; and

• Use appropriate language and behaviour in his or her interaction with pupils and act in such a way as to elicit respect from the pupils.