Sexual safety at schools

Protecting learners and teachers alike

23 February 2021 | Education

Rivaldo Kavanga

Given the recent reports of sexual abuse of learners at schools, the need to know if learners are safe has never been more demanding.

When an incident of School-Related Gender-Based Violence (SRGBV) occurs, the affected learner may be reluctant to report it to a teacher or to school management. This may be due to feelings of shame, lack of confidence that they will receive help, or fear of retribution or of escalating the problem.

The case of an accused teacher sexually assaulting and raping learners in 2013 and again in 2021 at a school in Windhoek has sent shockwaves through the community of learners, teachers, parents and guardians.

Many parents and guardians now question the safety of their children from sexual violence, harassment, assault and rape at school. Their concern is based on the fact that cases of SRGBV are usually only reported after the incident has occurred and has become severe.

A total of 31 teachers were charged with sexual offences against pupils from January 2016 to 16 February this year. According to the executive director of education, arts and culture, Sanet Steenkamp, 29 of these teachers are male and two are female.

"Three cases are still pending," Steenkamp confirmed.

Many children remain silent about sexual assault and violence as they are not aware of the channels to follow when reporting an issue of this sort.

The National Safe School Framework (NSSF)

The Namibian government has the Namibia National Safe School Framework (NSSF) in place. The NSSF is a comprehensive document that outlines the guiding principles for building safe and supportive school communities, centred on the wellbeing of learners and educators. Part B of the NSSF outlines a practical guide for building safe schools and section 6.5 of section 6 provides a guide for School Related Gender-Based Violence (SRGBV) and abuse.

Forms of SRGBV include school-related, gender-based violence which may be in a verbal, psychological, physical or sexual form. The first form of school-related gender-based violence is verbal and includes homophobic name-calling, name-calling based on perceived sexual history, shaming, teasing or humiliation related to gender or sexuality and use of gendered language to abuse or put down others.

Psychological school-related GBV includes excluding those who don’t conform to gender or sexuality norms, circulating gossip or rumours, insulting/rude gestures, facial expressions or body movements. Physical school related gender-based violence comprises of harassment of those who do not fit gender or sexuality norms by hitting, pinching, pushing, kicking, throwing objects, etc., forcing gendered tasks or services (e.g. girls must do cleaning) and using more severe corporal punishment.

Sexual SRGBV encompasses unwanted kissing, groping or touching, making sexual remarks about another’s behaviour or reputation, forced sexual contact, rape, forced viewing of sexual acts or pornography, exchange of sexual services for better grades, unwanted photographing and filming and/or sharing of sexual acts. The National Safe School Framework (NSSF) also states that school-related GBV does not necessarily occur only inside the school. Other possible locations were school-related GBV can take place are on your way to and from school, at home, in the community and in cyberspace.

Preventive measures

Preventing instances of SBGBV from occurring should be a primary priority at all schools. Prevention is far easier than trying to address the problem once it has occurred or a culture of gender discrimination has developed.

Strategies should take into account school policies and relationships, classroom and learning environments and the involvement of parents and communities. The essential requirement for prevention is by having school policies that address all forms of harassment and violence, use of school discipline policy with an emphasis on training teachers in positive discipline methods, and use of a safe and confidential reporting system (of which all students and teachers are aware) for incidents of violence, active participation by learners (such as making classroom rules or having student councils), effective supervision of play spaces, toilets and open areas. The NSSF suggests activities to prevent SRGBV:

· hold assemblies to explain to the learners what GBV is and the different forms it can take and have detailed policies which forbid GBV in school and describe the consequences.

· Encourage the learners to use the reporting systems. Explain how these systems work, and offer regular refresher training.

· Ask the LRC or Edu Circles to focus on the theme of addressing GBV during some of their activities.

· Encourage the learners to identify some of their own beliefs and misconceptions about gender.

· Develop supervision rotas for the school grounds, and encourage the learners to report if these rotas are not being adhered to.

The NSSF also suggests ways schools can make it easier for learners to report incidents of SRGBV. This can be done by:

· Making use of ‘post boxes’.

· Inviting parents to visit the school or to send notes to teachers.

· Making phone calls or sending emails or notes to the school.

· Displaying counselling and support service hotline numbers clearly around the school.

· Assigning a certain teacher as a focal point for all GBV-related issues (with the understanding that reports can be made to other staff members if desired).

·

Procedures to follow after an incident of SRGBV

“All schools have at least one or two trusted life skills teachers appointed to take care of the well-being of learners. Thus, learners can report such cases to these life skills teachers who in turn can and will do investigations, after which time a report will be submitted to the office of the principal for onward channelling to the office of the inspector and the HR office, which deals with misconduct. An in-depth investigation will then be launched to unearth the truthfulness of the allegations,” says Paulus Lewin, acting director of education in the Khomas Region.

Lewin also says that each school can come up with various ways of soliciting information from learners and creating ways, such as a suggestion box or complaint box, in which learners can report such cases safely without being victimised by the perpetrators.

The Namibian National Students Organisation (NANSO) has a gender desk and asks that learners and students who fall victim to sexual abuse or violence of any sort reach out to them so that they can take it up with their legal secretary and legal counsel, who are ready to take legal action on behalf of learners or students.

Pathways after a reported case

“Under normal circumstances the case is immediately reported to the authorities, be it the inspector, the director and eventually through a detailed report to the executive director. A full-scale investigation with specific terms of reference will be provided to a team of investigators to unearth the truth of the allegations. A report will be submitted to the director, who will forward it to the executive director for disciplinary action and possible charges,” Lewin says.

He further adds that a meeting was scheduled to sensitise principals and heads of departments about ways in which they can ensure the safety of learners.

INFOGRAPHIC:

· A total of 31 teachers were charged with sexual offences against pupils from January 2016 to 16 February this year.

· 6 TIPS FOR SPEAKING TO POSSIBLE VICTIMS:

1. Explain that any information they give will remain confidential, but that the Child Care and Protection Act of 2015, the school has a legal obligation to report to the police any knowledge of child abuse.

2. Adopt a non-judgemental, supportive attitude and value what the child is telling you.

3. Use a sympathetic tone, but do not make the child feel humiliated. Listen carefully, and tell the child that his/her feelings are justified.

4. Show that you believe the child’s story.

5. Be patient. Children who have been sexually abused are suffering trauma and may be confused. Use supportive statements such as, “I am sorry this happened to you” or “You have really been through a lot.”

6. Emphasise that the violence was not his/her fault, and that the perpetrator is responsible for his/her own behaviour.

· ANONYMOUS REPORTING - Instructions for post boxes:

1. Find a suitable container for the post box. This should be a sturdy, lockable box. A locker or cabinet with space to slip paper into would also work.

2. Make sure the boxes are accessible to learners, but can also be used without attracting attention.

3. Develop a rota of different teachers/school management members to be responsible for clearing the post boxes every day. Make this rota available to learners, who may prefer to report on a day when a specific teacher will see the post.

4. Ensure that boxes remain locked so that notes cannot be easily removed.

5. Inform learners about the post boxes and encourage them to report incidents such as: a) bullying; b) corporal punishment; c) poor teacher conduct; d) violence and/or abuse; and e) damage to school grounds and property.

6. Ensure learners have paper which they can use to report incidents on.

7. Learners should be encouraged to write down what happened, who was involved and where it happened.

8. The school safety officer or the principal must read the reports each day, and complete an incident report for all serious incidents and, where appropriate, report to the Inspector of Education. The same incident might be reported more than once by the same or different learners. Minor incidents should be recorded in the incident record book.

9. Follow up on incidents reported, bearing in mind that not all reported incidents will be genuine.

10. Take necessary action. Make sure that procedures are in place for managing incidents reported by learners.

11. File the reports.

12. Provide feedback to learners and teachers, so that they know their reports are being taken seriously and followed up.

13. If learners are not comfortable using the post box for reporting, encourage them to speak to a teacher they trust.

14. A special email address or phone number could be set up for learners to send anonymous reports.

15. It is recommended that these ‘post boxes’ also be used to report positive things that happen in school.