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Durban - The parent community at a top KwaZulu-Natal private school raised the alarm after a 16-year-old pupil was allegedly locked in isolation for three days because her parents had defaulted on school fees.
Children’s rights activists have also expressed outrage, saying that the school was wrong to have punished the child for something she did not do, calling it “abuse”.

Parents came forward this week claiming that they, as well as their children, were horrified with the way the Epworth School, a boarding institution in Pietermaritzburg, had handled the situation.

Apparently other pupils feared they would be disciplined in a similar way and brought it to the attention of their parents.

However, the president of the Independent Schools Association of SA, Lebogang Montjane, said the school had not been wrong to act in the manner it had.

He said it would have treated any pupil in the same manner, citing what a challenge school fees defaulters had become.

The Epworth pupil, who cannot be named to protect her identity, was allegedly locked in the sick room for three days and was unable to attend classes or interact with her peers.

She only interacted with staff members who came to speak to her and give her food.

The pupil’s father, who was contacted after other parents came forward, said his daughter had been at the school for the past three years.

“She is now in Grade 10. The school fees are R60000 a term and some parents paid R15 000 monthly. I’ve been having financial difficulties this year and was R12000 short for the last term so the school wanted me to pay the R60 000 for this term in advance. They said they could not take the risk of me defaulting again but I couldn’t raise those funds,” said the father.

He said he informed the school that he was not able to raise the funds and asked for more time so he was shocked when he found out that his daughter had been “punished for my sins”.

“I’m not happy about how they handled the situation with my daughter. No child should suffer that kind of humiliation,” he said.

He said taking her out of Epworth was not an option as that might upset her more as she would be taken away from friends and teachers that she was used to.

“She is a very strong and intelligent child and as her parents we just want the best for her, which is why we sent her to Epworth. We are going to keep working hard so that she remains there until she finishes high school,” he said.

He thanked the parents who had expressed concern for his daughter.

Children’s rights activist and former head of Childline, Linda Naidoo, said criminal charges should be laid against the school because it had defied the constitution and abused and infringed on the rights of the child.

She said such an incident also had psychological implications for a child.

“Irrespective of how wrong the parents were, a child should not be treated this way. A child is not a prisoner and the Children’s Act is very clear when it states that a child should be protected and the rights of the child should be considered first before anything else.

“The child should not have to suffer for an adult fight. Criminal charges must be laid against the school,” she said.

The South African Council for Educators supported Naidoo’s claims. Spokesperson Themba Ndlovu said the parents should institute a civil claim against the school because private schools did not have a right to place a child in isolation.

Epworth’s principal, Laura Bekker, said their policy was to contact debtors prior to the end of a school term if fees outstanding exceeded R100 000 to warn them that their child may not return to school to start the new term.

“Unfortunately, parents sometimes refuse to comply with this request. They do not answer our mails or calls.

“Despite this, some drop their children off at school. Pupils arrive at boarding prior to the start of the working week and before the finance department is open. In the case of defaulting parents, these pupils are then moved to a safe place within the school until the parents either collect them or settle the outstanding debt,” said Bekker.

She said parents made an informed choice to enrol their children at an independent school and entered into a contract with the school. Bekker said the school might therefore expect payment of fees.

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SUNDAY TRIBUNE