With sex crimes at school, victims must come first

31 March 2019 - 00:00 By Sunday Times

It is a heartbreaking reflection of our society that the department of basic education has had to release a protocol on how to deal with pupils who commit rape, sexual abuse and harassment at school.
Children raping children is a clear sign of a country in trauma, and it is shocking that incidents in school have taken place frequently enough for a protocol to be necessary. At the same time, the department is to be congratulated for facing the problem head-on with its progressive and comprehensive intervention.
Any attempt at justice must put the victim first. This is true in any context but school children who have been sexually abused by their classmates are especially vulnerable. Not only do they have to face their abusers until those are removed from school (if indeed they are removed), but they will sometimes also have to face a cohort of fellow pupils who may be aware that the abuse took place. At a fragile emotional time of life, they will have to endure an environment that reminds them daily of their trauma - a trauma that will significantly inhibit their mental and sexual development.
Yet the victimisers are themselves usually young enough to be rehabilitated. The consequences, including punishment, for their actions must be designed with the possibility in mind that they can turn their lives around.
The protocol, which we report on today, sets guidelines for counselling for affected pupils and notifying the correct service providers. It has also developed a guideline with increasing levels of offence and discipline, ranging from verbal warnings for rude jokes to opening criminal cases and recommended expulsion for rape. Significantly, it also calls for counselling or life skills programmes for offenders who are not expelled.
This is where the wasp hits the windshield. It is essential for their healing that the victims are not pressured into taking part in any intervention, no matter how beneficial it may be to the rehabilitation of the perpetrator or the harmony of the school. Violent sexual abuse deprives victims of control over their own bodies. They need to feel safe and in control and no effort must be spared to assist them in this regard. Only if there is a real and tangible benefit to the victim should an effort at restorative justice be contemplated.

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