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New plan to handle school sex offences

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“Up to now children and parents have been reluctant to testify afresh due to the secondary trauma that pupils would be subjected to"

File picture: Pexels

A NEW collective agreement reached with teacher unions will change the way that sexual offences are handled at schools, closing current loopholes for paedophiles and sexual predators.

The agreements, which have been welcomed by the Department of Basic Education as a positive development for pupils who are either the victim or witness to the offence committed by teachers, were presented to the portfolio committee on basic education in Parliament on Wednesday.

The department’s spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, said the most important agreement was with regards to sexual offences committed by teachers against pupils, in particular where pupils were either the victim or a witness to the offence.

“In the past there were three platforms available to pupils who are victims of sexual misconduct or witnesses, these were: the provincial Department of Education’s internal disciplinary hearing processes; the South African Council Of Educators (SACE) investigative process where the child is also required to testify; and the Education Labour Relations Council (ELRC) arbitration process, in the event that the teacher refers a dispute to the Council. The pupil is required to testify in all three processes and has to relive the trauma.”

Mhlanga said that Collective Agreement No. 3 of 2018 will now provide a one-stop process (arbitration) that replaces the department’s internal disciplinary hearing and prevents the child from having to testify multiple times and go through secondary trauma.

“Up to now children and parents have been reluctant to testify afresh due to the secondary trauma that pupils would be subjected to. This resulted in the absence of witnesses in many instances and a lack of evidence for the employer to act on.”

He added that as a result of this, sexual offenders would often be reinstated through the Education Labour Relations Council arbitration outcome and the teacher would not be struck off the roll of educators by SACE. “This created a loophole for paedophiles or sexual predators to re-enter the sector.”

According to Mhlanga, the one-stop arbitration process will replace the department’s internal disciplinary hearing. There will also be a special panel of suitably qualified and experienced arbitrators to deal with these matters related to sexual misconduct between pupils and teachers.

“Intermediaries have been appointed and trained to aid the child victim or witness to give evidence at a special venue such as the Children’s Court and two-way mirrors will be used.”

Mhlanga pointed out that with the current scourge of sexual crimes, particularly against children in the country, this agreement would be instrumental in ensuring that justice prevailed in cases where educators were accused of sexual misconduct involving children.