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Breaking the silence of abuse in schools

The horrific account of sexual abuse at Parktown Boys is the subject of veteran journalist Sam Cowen’s new book. Mark Potterton examines the merits of the account but expresses ethical concerns regarding the victims’ right to privacy.

Sam Cowen is a former TV and radio presenter who has been in the media industry for over two decades. She revisits the Parktown Boys High School abuse tragedy in her recent book, Brutal School Ties: The Parktown Boys’ Tragedy released earlier this year by Melinda Ferguson Books.

The book opens on the night of 3 November 2016 when the police arrived at Parktown Boys High School to arrest the assistant water polo coach, Collan Rex. Rex had been caught on CCTV camera footage fondling a 15-year old pupil from the boarding house. In the year that followed Rex was charged with 327 offenses: 110 counts of attempted murder, 199 of sexual assault one of rape and two of sexual grooming and eight of assault. He pleaded guilty to 144 charges of sexual assault and stood trial for the remaining 183.

In November 2018, Rex was found guilty of 144 four counts of sexual assault and 12 of common assault. He was sentenced to an effective 23 years in prison. The story captured a lot of media interest and made front page news.

Public knowledge vs right to privacy

Brutal School Ties is based on Cowen’s interviews with the victims and their families, the perpetrator, teachers, hostel parents and experts. Cowen also visited Rex in prison and interviewed his former girlfriend. The accounts are sensitively written up and reveal the abhorrent behaviour that had become normalized at the institution. The interviews also reveal, to some extent, the kind of pressure that young boys were under to remain silent.

The accounts reveal the abhorrent behaviour that had become normalized at the institution.

One of my central concerns is that despite Cowen’s attempt to anonymize some of the people, their stories remain identifiable. The controversial nature of issues Cowen investigated makes the process problematic. There is an ethical concern over the tension between building trust and sharing very personal and private conversations.

The other concern is the conflict between the individual’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know. Cowen probably had to weigh up each circumstance and assess how much information was already in the public domain. However, individuals should have the freedom to say to what extent they want their personal attitudes, fears, doubts views and beliefs to be shared.

Academic researchers are required to establish whether the right to privacy has been violated. In these cases, an ethics board also needs to authorize the research. Generally, the principle employed is that the greater the sensitivity of the information, the greater the safeguards that need to be put in place to protect the privacy of the participants (especially the victims).

There is an ethical concern over the tension between building trust and sharing very personal and private conversations.

Much more could have been done to analyze the detailed accounts that Cowen assembled. It would have been beneficial to map out the various abuse-related themes and establish how the school perpetuated a culture of silence. Although Brutal School Ties is not an academic text, reference to the body of literature on the issue of abuse in school could have added weight to the content. 

For example, Cowen could have referred to policies and awareness programmes that inform students about the dangers of hazing. It is important to understand why hazing continues to happen on college campuses and in high schools, and how this threatens the health and safety of many students. The organisation www.stophazing.org argues that there is still a lack of awareness about hazing and its causes, and that this continues to be a major impediment to effective intervention and prevention strategies. It has conducted a study throughout the United States to collect baseline data that tracks hazing-related trends across different student groups and educational institutions.

Abuse in schools likely to be far more pervasive

Reading Cowen’s book, I was reminded of some of the testimonies in the Ryan Commission’s Report (Ireland), which demonstrated that “the entire system treated children more like prison inmates and slaves than people with legal rights and human potential, that some religious officials encouraged ritual beatings and consistently shielded their orders” through a culture of self-serving secrecy, and that government officials failed to stop the abuses.

Cowen’s book is a wake-up call for South Africans involved in the closed-world of boarding schools.

Cowen veers off to deal with the Enock Mpianzi drowning tragedy towards the end of the book to show that the school again neglected its duty of care. However, it detracts from the focus of her book. Brutal School Ties is a sobering reminder of how much harm can be perpetuated in institutions that should be wholly dedicated to the formation of whole persons.

Cowen’s book is a wake-up call for South Africans involved in the closed-world of boarding schools. Perhaps the next edition will include an endnote that outlines the key child safeguarding principles that every boarding school should adhere to.

Parktown Boys High School has been in the media spotlight for years, perhaps to the relief of many other similar schools. Sadly, I believe that if you scratch below the surface of similar institutions you will uncover similar stories. It is from this perspective of generating greater awareness that I would recommend the book.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.