By Kotie Geldenhuys
Photos by Kabelo Mokoena and the Internet
It was a difficult start to the 2020 school year. In Gauteng, several learners had died in various tragic accidents. These included the drowning of Enoch Mpianzi from Park Town Boys High on 15 January 2020 at a school camp and the death of Laticia Jansen from Dukathole in Germiston on 22 January 2020. This young teenager was stranded as the departmental scholar transport had left earlier that morning than scheduled. This made her an easy target for her perpetrators who brutally raped and murdered her before setting her body alight. On 11 February 2020, Kelobogile Molopyane fell to his death from a second- floor balcony at Ferndale High School.
During a media briefing which was held in Pretoria on 19 February 2020, Panyaza Lesufi, the MEC for Education in Gauteng, said that during a 28-day period, from 15 January to 11 February 2020, a total of 15 learners had died in the educational environment in this province. And yet, they are not alone - these children and many others lose their lives for reasons that are often entirely preventable. Those responsible for learners' safety must exercise due care and responsibility to keep these children out of harm's way.
When parents send their children to school, they want to know that they can trust the school where they send their children, that their children are safe and that care is taken of them and their education. But when a traumatic incident happens in the school environment, they question the educational environment and more specifically the school where the traumatic incident has taken place. They might even feel that the educational environment has failed them and their children. Such a traumatic incident in the educational environment does not only have an impact on the victims’ parents, but also on their fellow learners and these learners’ parents, the educators and the wider community.
Learners’ experience of trauma
Learners are in many instances both direct and indirect victims of trauma. They are frequently the witnesses to violence (such as bullying) and other disasters (such as when a wall collapses at a school) happening in the education environment. While children may have a range of coping capacities to deal with extreme stressors, the fact that some parts of their bodies, minds and brains are not yet fully developed means that they are often particularly vulnerable to the impact of trauma. Many studies have shown that the impact of trauma at early development stages can have a long-lasting impact on personality formation, behaviour and mental health (Kaminer and Eagle, 2017).
The intense, confusing and frightening emotions that follow a traumatic event, such as a violent act or a disaster, can undermine children’s sense of security, leaving them feeling helpless and vulnerable. Even learners who are not directly affected by an event can become traumatised when they are repeatedly exposed to horrific images of the event on the news or social media (Smith et al, 2019).
Every child experiences trauma differently
Although traumatic experiences may impact each child differently, there are a number of symptoms common to traumatised children. According to DeBellis and Van Dillen (2005), the four most consistent signs of childhood trauma are:
- Vivid memories that are recalled repeatedly;
- repetitive behaviours;
- trauma-specific fear; and
- negative attitudes about life and people in general.
Travis Wright, the founder-director of the BASES Project, a school and community-based intervention for homeless preschool learners, their families, and teachers in the USA, adds that traumatised children are likely to frighten easily, experience anxiety in unfamiliar situations and be clingy, difficult to soothe, aggressive and/or impulsive. They may also experience trouble sleeping, anxiety when trying to fall asleep, nightmares and/or bed-wetting, lose recently acquired developmental skills and regress to more immature functioning and behaviours. Being aware of these common symptoms may help to identify children who are experiencing trauma (Wright, 2017).
In their book Traumatic stress in South Africa, Dr Debra Kaminer and Prof Gillian Eagle (2017) argue that from the ages of about 12 up to 18 years, children move into the stage of adolescence which involves large physical, mental and social changes. Traumatisation during adolescence can take a number of paths when some adolescents become withdrawn, uncommunicative and almost “shut down”. Others become defiant, appositional and even aggressive in their manner. When one takes the propensity for experimentation and risk-taking at this age into account, trauma may trigger substance abuse and reckless behaviour. For many adolescents it is difficult to make sense of the event and what this means for their identity and their understanding of life values. Given that this is a strongly formative stage in terms of these dimensions, one can only hope that timeous intervention can help an adolescent to put the traumatic event into perspective without it necessarily leading to the setting of a negative life outlook. It may be difficult to persuade adolescents to accept help or support as this may be viewed as compromising their independence since they are often highly self-conscious in both individual and group therapy settings. Nevertheless, intervention from a trusted adult can often assist a teenager to negotiate the trauma in a more thoughtful way and to prevent the likelihood of a negative developmental trajectory. Although the individual developmental attributes of a child are important in determining how trauma manifests, it is clear that the environment in which the child is traumatised (be this family, immediate community or broader society) plays a significant role in the outcome.