Durban - About one in eight schools has on its staff a registered sex offender or someone caught harming a child.
This is the experience of a Durban-based detective agency, specialising in children’s issues, which has been hired by schools around the country to do “clearance checks” on teachers, administrative and support staff.
“This year, we were called in by 148 mainly private schools around South Africa. We’ve had 18 positives and discovered some who are still awaiting trial and so are not on either of the registers yet,” said Marc Hardwick, formerly a child protection unit detective and now the owner of The Guardian agency.
The issue of compulsory vetting of anyone who deals with children came into the spotlight recently with the arrest of a local high school drama teacher on charges of creating child pornography.
The teacher – who cannot be named until he pleads to the charges – allegedly groomed some of his pupils and paid them large sums to pose naked and participate in filmed sexual performances at his Glenwood home.
It emerged soon after his arrest – and it was confirmed during his bail application – that he had a previous conviction of sexual assault dating back to 2002 relating to a 15-year-old pupil at another school where he had worked.
The teacher claims to have disclosed this to the former headmaster of the most recent school where he worked.
Hardwick said in an interview with The Mercury that, if this was the case, the headmaster should never have hired him.
He said there were two registers of “offenders” and a teacher or anyone else who worked with children had to be cleared on both.
One, the child protection register, is governed by the Children’s Act. It stipulates that if a person is found guilty in any hearing – criminal or not – of hurting a child, be it physical, sexual or through negligence – their names will be put on the list administered by the Department of Social Development.
“For example, if you work at a nursery school and are disciplined because you neglected a child, or hit a child, then your name will be on the list and you can never again work in an environment where you come into contact with children,” Hardwick said.
The second is the sexual offenders’ register and lists all people convicted of committing a sexual offence with a minor or a mentally disabled person.
This list is administered by the Department of Justice.
He said the onus was on the employer to make sure staff were “cleared”.
The penalty for employing a listed person could be imprisonment of between seven and 10 years.
But job seekers should be proactive and get themselves cleared, said Hardwick.
“It’s a bit like a driver’s licence. Your boss won’t pay for you to get one, but he won’t give you a job without one. And he must satisfy himself that you have one and it is valid.”
He said business had been brisk since the arrest of the Durban teacher, and he was now being called in to do more government schools.
“This is our only piece of proactive legislation and it should be policed really well. We find that there is a lot of employer ignorance, especially among school principals.
“Parents should be asking the right questions, not just checking on academic and sporting achievements and teacher-pupil ratios, but also seeing if the staff have all been cleared.”
Hardwick said parents should also check their domestic staff.
“It does not apply only to teachers, but to anyone who has regular contact with children.
“If someone is positive, we don’t get involved in the nitty gritty of who, how or why. In the case of the schools, we report it to the principal who, I would expect, would take the necessary action immediately.”
The teacher arrested on charges of creating child pornography has been denied bail and will appear in court again later this month.