27/07/2017 11:55 SAST | Updated 28/07/2017 11:26 SAST

Elite Johannesburg School Engulfed In Race Crisis

St Johns College has retained a teacher accused of multiple acts of racism towards learners despite some parents wanting a dismissal.

St John's College

One of South Africa's most elite schools, St John's College in Johannesburg, is engulfed in a roiling race crisis.

A teacher found guilty of misconduct in an internal hearing about a racist campaign against South African black, Indian and Greek students, as well as foreign students, has been given a final written warning but retained by the school. Parents have told HuffPost SA that he should have been dismissed and say he has been given a slap on the wrist.

Geography teacher Keith Arlow is alleged to have:

  • Told a black learner who received high marks in a test, "You disappointed the blacks by getting a good mark";
  • Told black learners in his class that the only reason they were getting good marks is because they sat next to white learners;
  • Told a black scholarship learner who got a good mark, "Well done, you've started thinking like a white boy";
  • Called Indian learners "Nawab", a term used to describe native governors during the Mogul Empire. It is used as a term for Muslim nobles or a person of high status. Not all Indians at the school are Muslim;
  • Admitted publicly to disliking learners in the sixth form because there are too many foreigners in that grade and called foreign nationals "aliens";
  • Told a learner he was "dirty" because he is Greek;
  • Told Indian learners in his class they were all going to be Golf GTIs because they are Indian, and then laughed; and
  • Claimed the geography teachers at a dinner were bus drivers because they were black and so should not be served.

In a letter to the school community this week, headmaster Paul Edey said "...the staff member has been found guilty of serious misconduct and, having taken into account a number of mitigating factors, has been issued with a final written warning". Arlow has been stripped of senior positions and his salary and benefits reduced, said Edey in the letter.

'I feel so helpless'
But three black parents who spoke to HuffPost SA on condition of anonymity, because their children are still at the school and they fear victimisation, are furious.

"I feel so very helpless," said one parent, adding that she feels the school has closed ranks around Arlow. If her son were not a senior, she would have removed him from the school in protest. "Everyone pretends the school's perfect, but it's not," said another parent, who alleged that racism is rife at the school. A third parent was angry that efforts to get Edey, Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi and Anglican Right Reverend Dr Steve Moreo to properly investigate had failed.

Teachers reportedly clapped when Edey told them in the school staffroom that Arlow would not be fired. The school has denied this. Many interpreted the investigation into the racist campaign as victimisation, said one member of the school community.

St Johns, an Anglican school, is regarded as an institution of high excellence, attracting the children of the country's elite, both black and white. In addition, it has a substantial number of foreign students, mainly from the rest of Africa. Its faculty is still largely white and black learners are in the minority.

A botched hearing, followed by an apology
Edey told the school community that the investigation's outcome "includes requirements for restoration and apology. The staff member has apologised unreservedly to the boys who gave evidence and the parents and guardians concerned. He has also committed himself to being part of the process of restitution and reconciliation." The school will embark on a comprehensive journey of reconciliation and be opening up conversations where the voices of students and staff may be heard," he added.

However, Edey qualified a condemnation of racism and said teachers may have felt vulnerable because the investigation and hearing was limited by a confidentiality agreement.

Members of the school community alleged that the investigation had been botched from the start. They criticised the process and said it violated the rights of the boys who had given evidence, because their parents and guardians were not informed and there was no child psychologist present. The school says that a child psychologist attended the second and third hearings, but not the first. They also say parents and guardians were informed of the process and gave their permission for the boys to testify.

"Arlow was present during the disciplinary hearings and was often given an opportunity to interrogate learners on his alleged utterances." Parents said Arlow should have been suspended during the investigation and hearing. The school says Arlow never interrogated the boys. His legal representative questioned the boys in the presence of the school's lawyers.

'Shame and embarrassment'
They sought advice from the Johannesburg Parent and Child Counselling Centre (JPCCC) and it is highly critical of how the school handled the investigation.

"JPCCC voices our real concern about the adverse effects this alleged behaviour may have had on our learners at the school, and on their mental health, due to these incidents and the manner in which the hearing is currently being conducted.

"It is our belief that teachers hold a position of power, authority and influence over the children that they teach. Hence the allegations of ongoing, indiscriminate and systematic prejudicial and (we believe) racist comments made by Mr Arlow to learners can be construed as an abuse of power. We believe that the learners have therefore experienced extreme verbal abuse in their classroom interaction with this teacher.

"It is interesting to note that even learners who were not directly targeted in the alleged abusive statements have expressed feelings of shame and embarrassment at the behaviour they witnessed," said three experts attached to the counselling centre.

The JPCCC said the students who testified were vulnerable as they are boarders with little parental involvement. But the school has a different view.

Sjoe! It's over. But is it?
"We are happy to finally have the matter resolved. We appreciate the patience demonstrated by everyone –- our staff, our learners, parents and the larger St John's community –- which allowed us to conclude the inquiry in an independent, fair and objective manner," said Edey on Thursday, adding that the school had learnt many lessons from the painful process.

He added that, "We are embarking on a journey of reconciliation and opening up conversations where the voices of students and staff may be heard. Facilitated conversations involving our parent body have begun and, through these conversations, we aim to build a truly South African school very much committed to the national process of healing and growing a unified nation," he says.

But the parents HuffPost SA spoke to want more. Their demands include that the Gauteng government establish an independent body to investigate racial discrimination at the school; establish an independent investigation into the racist campaign; establish a safe forum where learners can raise issues of concern; and ensure the school develops adequate policies with regards to disciplinary proceedings relating to racism, hate speech and discrimination.

In addition, they want to establish a transformation and diversity committee at the school.

** This story was changed to reflect the school's comment.