Durban - The parents of an 11-year-old at a high-end boys’ school in Hillcrest, who was called a “monkey” on several occasions by fellow pupils, are fuming at the institution’s failure to act decisively.
They believed that if Highbury Preparatory School’s management and board of governors (BOG) were truly cognisant of the jibe’s connotations for a black person, strong action would have been taken when the first incident of name-calling occurred in July.
Instead, their son was subjected to more of the same taunts, including being called a “fat monkey” on October 19.
Initially the parents suggested a way forward to the school, but it wasn’t heeded. Their son endured further taunts and they issued the BOG with a list of demands last month.
Among them were the dismissal of a senior manager and a sanction against the principal over how the matter was handled. The parents have also complained to education authorities and were poised to approach the Equality Court for relief.
Principal Roland Lacock agreed that the pupil was subjected to “racially derogatory name calling”. He said they treated such incidents as serious and always aimed to deal with such matters in a restorative and educational manner.
KZN Education Department spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi confirmed the department was looking into the matter.
“Based on findings, the appropriate actions will be taken,” said Mahlambi.
The child’s mother said on July 19 a pupil greeted a few black boys, including her son, with “goodbye monkey”.
She said she complained to the teacher.
On August 22, the same pupil shared a joke with her son and asked, “what do you get when you buy a pregnant slave? Buy one, get one free”.
The mother requested a meeting with the teacher, and a senior manager attended and promised to investigate the matter. The parents also asked to meet with the other pupils’ parents.
She said the manager met with Grade 6 and 7 pupils on August 30 and gave them a “free pass” to call each other monkeys, saying they should not take offence as he also called his daughter that.
Her son was ill at the time, but when he returned a day later he was called a monkey by numerous boys.
She said he became emotional when he related the incident. They met a parent of the pupil in question, who apologised and gave assurances they were not racist.
On September 5, the mother got a call from the principal. He told her it was hate speech to call anyone a monkey, but she felt he hadn’t acknowledged that the manager was wrong in allowing the free pass.
They then requested a meeting with the BOG, but only Lacock, the manager and their transformation committee attended on September 29. As a way forward, the school agreed to circulate a letter to all parents, explaining the incidents and remedial action, at the beginning of the fourth term.
They would also hold workshops and training for the boys and teachers on racism and bullying, etc, the consequences and how it would be handled.
The mother said the letter from the transformation committee did not cover areas agreed upon, and on October 19 another boy called her son a monkey. “The teacher present said to my son he was over-exaggerating and asked whether he would feel offended if he was called a lion. My son said to her, ‘ma’am, you are right by saying that because you are not black’.” she said.
The mother said Lacock called her about the incident. She accused him of attempting to “cover” things up, as he was yet to produce a report from the teacher as promised. “I can’t comprehend how a white educator can tell a black pupil he must not be offended with being called a monkey,” she said.
She said their issue was not with the children involved, but the school’s “shocking” handling of the matter. Therefore, they had issued a letter of demand to the BOG on October 21, calling for the dismissal of the manager and sanction against Lacock. “What about the harm done to my son?” asked the mother.
She viewed the BOG’s suggestion that professional assistance was needed to help the school deal responsibly with race-related issues as a case of not knowing “right from wrong”.
“The BOG and management has failed our child and the school’s 600 pupils,” she said. Lacock said the parents were right to feel angry and such incidents should never happen, as they had pursued a policy of inclusion and diversity for decades.
He accepted that they could improve in their handling of inclusion and diversity. Lacock said they had talks with the grade in question, teachers and the boys involved and provided counselling where necessary.
He said letters were sent to parents to emphasise their stance against racism, bigotry and bullying, they had run workshops on inclusion and racial sensitivity for the boys over the years.
“We are on an ongoing journey of improving the environment for our boys. We will run more focused training workshops to ensure teachers are further equipped with the right skills and methodology to handle similar incidents,” he said.
He said they would be appointing an independent expert to assess the incidents and to improve their policies on racism and bullying. “We want to be a school whose boys are sensitive, empathetic, inclusive and sensitive to the negative impact words can have on people,” said Lacock.
Lebohang Montjane, the executive director of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (Isasa), said they advised member schools on best practice, but they could not compel them to take a particular course of action.
He said Highbury was a primary school, therefore the handling had to be age-appropriate and developmental in nature, rather than excessively punitive. “Isasa will reach out to Highbury to see if there is any assistance we can offer,” said Montjane.