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  • Norman Brook

Questions that need to be asked

Opinion Piece by Norman Brook MBE, International Sports Consultant & Campaigner for Safeguarding in Sport in Africa.

Schools and sports clubs are required in law in South Africa to check both staff and volunteers working with children or adults with a mental disability against the sexual offenders register and staff and volunteers are required in law to inform their employer if they appear on the register.

Schools are required in law to check if any person they employ or who has access to children which would include volunteer sports coaches against Part B of the Child Protection register.

When we consider the following three cases, we might want to ask are schools and sports clubs undertaking their legal duty to vet volunteer sports coaches and are the requirements in law enough to safeguard children against abuse or do schools and sports clubs need to do much more.

We might also wish to enquire how the Department of Basic Education, Department of Sport and Recreation and South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee are coordinating efforts to safeguard children practicing sport from harassment, abuse and exploitation.  Each organisation carries responsibility for the environments where children are engaged in sport, through physical education and school sport, through mass participation initiatives and through club and high-performance sport. The question is are these organisations coordinating the safeguarding of children or are there gaps that are allowing perpetrators to commit crimes against children practicing sport.

There are no guarantees that vetting will catch all potential predators, but it should catch those with previous convictions or who have been deemed unsuitable to work with children, and vetting should act as a deterrent to perpetrators aware that the school or sports organisation is on its guard against potential non-accidental harm.

It is part of our legal and moral duty of care to safeguard children from harm. On the legal side we must conduct police clearance checks to ensure that those we employ as paid staff or unpaid volunteers who will have access to sport are not deemed unsuitable to work with children. We should also be covering ourselves as schools and sports organisations in terms of the sexual offences legislation by sending a list of names and ID numbers of our staff and volunteers to the Registrar of Sexual Offences for clearance.

In addition, we should be asking for at least two written references from people of good standing vouching that the staff member or volunteer is of good character and that the referees have no concerns regarding them have in regular contact with children.

Next, we should ensure that they are registered with their National Sports Federation and are qualified as a coach.  We should not be engaging unqualified coaches. If someone is volunteering to assist in coaching sport, they should always be supervised and be committed to undertaking coach training with their chosen sport’s coach education programme.

When interviewing for staff or volunteer positions we should include questions that explore the candidates background of working with children. Here are some examples:

  1. Explore a timeline of previous roles in sport and any other roles that involved them working directly with children, young people, persons with a mental disability;

  2. Assess their attitude and commitment to safeguarding children;

  3. Assess their previous experience of working with children both inside and outside of sport;

  4. Provide the applicant a scenario of a safeguarding nature such as child not being collected after a gymnastics session and ask what they do in that circumstance;

  5. Ask the applicant if they have ever been refused work that involved contact with children, young people, persons with a mental and/or physical disability; or anything that the school or club should know that could affect their suitability to work with children, young people, persons with a mental and/or physical

Let’s look at three cases that have recently been covered in the media.

The first involves Collan Rex, a former Parktown Boys’ High School water polo coach who was sentenced last year to 23 years in prison on 144 counts of sexual assault and 14 of assault. His prosecution and sentencing have been extensively covered in the South African media along with concerns about the culture at the school that enabled this abuse to take place.

Here are some questions that need be considered not just by the school that employed him but also by the various role players who should work together to put in systems to safeguard children taking part in sport.

  1. Was Collan Rex properly vetted before being given the role of water polo coach at the school? Was a police clearance certificate provided? Was he checked against the Child Protection Register Part B and was he checked against the Sexual Offenders Register? Did he undergo a formal interview for the position which explored his history of coaching and working with children? Was he a qualified water polo coach registered with Swimming South Africa?

In respect of the second case we cannot name the alleged perpetrator who has appeared twice in court as he is yet to plead to charges being brought against him by the state. He was however immediately dismissed by a disciplinary committee at Bryanston High School which found him guilty of misconduct. Following his dismissal, a 17-year-old pupil and her mother opened a sexual offences case against the 33-year old netball and rugby coach.

Again, we should be asking similar questions in this case around vetting at the school and be considering the lessons to be learned by role players who should work together to put in systems to safeguard children taking part in sport.

The third case is somewhat different but highlights the risks of convicted perpetrators moving jurisdictions to coach. There is a need for governments, national sports federations and international sports organisations to consider this challenge.

Graham Hawkins, then aged 57, was jailed in the UK for 30 months in July 2012 after pleading guilty to eight charges of indecent assault against a child. This was a historical child sexual abuse case going back some 30 plus years. Hawkins was 29 at the time of the offences and his victim was aged 15.

In addition to receiving a 30-month sentence, Hawkins was placed on the Sexual Offenders Register in the UK and was subject to notification for a 10-year period that ends in 2022.  He was disbarred from working with children in the UK due to the nature of the offence.

Despite being banned from working with children in the UK, Hawkins has been coaching in South Africa where he has been working with some of the 220 youngsters, aged between 5 and 13 years, who attend the Khosa Mini Hockey club, based in the Krugersdorp area of Johannesburg.

According to the Club Chairman, who considers Hawkins to be a good friend, he has also been coaching other clubs and at a school all of whom were aware of his background.

This again raises questions about vetting and why schools and sports clubs would employ someone who is disbarred from working with children in another country. The excuse is that the offence happened a long time ago and that Hawkins was a young man at the time. This is true and these are facts that were most likely considered in mitigation prior to his sentencing in the UK. The fact remains that he had to serve a jail sentence for this crime, his name was placed on the Sexual Offenders Register for ten years and he is automatically disbarred (subject to representation) from working with children in the UK.

There is a question about the judgement of the schools and sports clubs who it is claimed knew of his offences and disbarment in employing him as a coach. It also suggests a system failure at a national level that someone disbarred in another jurisdiction from working with children faces no restrictions in doing so in South Africa.

There is also the question of Hawkins’ own judgement in thinking it is okay for him to coach children in South Africa whilst being banned from doing so in the UK and the judgement of others who have defended this situation.

This takes me back to my questions for the schools and sports clubs:

  1. Was Graham Hawkins properly vetted before being given the role of hockey coach at the schools and clubs he is alleged to have worked at? Was a police clearance certificate provided and given that he had come from overseas had international police clearance certificates been requested? Did he undergo a formal interview for the position which explored his history of coaching and working with children? Was he a qualified hockey coach registered with South African Hockey?  Did South African Hockey check his credentials with the Hockey Federations in England and Gibraltar?

What these three cases suggest is that there is a need to ask questions about the vetting procedures for employing paid or volunteer coaches in schools and sports clubs who will have regular contact with children or adults with mental disabilities. There is a need for the Departments of Basic Education and Sport and Recreation to come together with SASCOC to strengthen measures to ensure children can participate in sport free from harassment, abuse and exploitation. There are existing gaps in the system that are placing children, young people and adults with a mental disability at risk that need to be resolved.

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