The Western Cape High Court has ruled in favour of the parents of a Grade 11 Riverside College pupil who believe their child was unlawfully expelled from school after it accused him of destroying a spy camera hidden in a classroom clock.
On Thursday September 8, Acting Judge Penelope Magona granted an urgent interim interdict allowing the 16-year-old pupil to return to class after missing a week of school. According to the court affidavit, made by the mother, the pupil was accused by the college, an independent school in Burgundy Estate, of being involved in defacing school property.
The respondents in this case were the owner of Riverside College, Elana Edwards; the principal, Dave Swart; the school management committee; and the Western Cape Education Department (WCED).
The affidavit reads: “In or about July 2016, a group of Grade 11 pupils in (his) class at Riverside College took apart a clock in their classroom to see the security camera inside. (The boy) was in the classroom at the time of the incident but was not involved therein.”
According to the affidavit, two other pupils admitted to the offence and were given a warning after a disciplinary hearing.
The pupil was notified to attend a disciplinary hearing on Monday August 1.
The charges brought against him included malicious damage to school property and removing the security camera and other parts from the clock and the destruction of these parts.
The mother filed an objection to the charges claiming that “the way the charge is set out in the notice makes it impossible for the learner to understand and to plead to”.
The school emailed the mother saying the hearing would be postponed but this too was objected to by the parents who believed it would not be in their child’s best interests and that it would not “remedy the flaws in the investigation and disciplinary process”.
According to the affidavit, the mother received another notification of a disciplinary hearing for Monday August 29.
The mother then contacted the WCED to lay a complaint against the manner in which Riverside College was conducting the disciplinary hearing. She asked for the hearing to be postponed until the WCED investigation had been completed.
The college had denied her request, and, according to the mother’s affidavit, her questioning of the disciplinary process was deemed to be disruptive by Mr Swart.
The pupil was found guilty of misconduct and expelled with immediate effect.
The following day, the mother sent a letter appealing the decision and received a termination of service letter from the school.
The mother claims in the affidavit that her child was expelled because she “challenged the disciplinary process”.
On Thursday, Acting Judge Magona ruled, among other things, that the pupil return to school the following day and be allowed to remain at Riverside College until the end of the year, as well as be allowed to write his Grade 11 September examinations, which started yesterday.
She also ordered that all costs involved in obtaining the urgent interim interdict be paid by Ms Edwards, Mr Swart and the school management committee.
Mr Swart said a surveillance camera had been installed in the senior examination room only.
“This is to ensure that examinations are conducted fairly and with integrity,” he said.
“With regards to the pupil in question, we are able to confirm that due disciplinary process was followed, the same as with the other learners who were all linked to the same incident, but, unfortunately, the pupil’s mothers’ lack of collaboration with the school did not allow us to follow due disciplinary process which resulted in us not being able to have the pupil’s disciplinary hearing.
“Following this, I informed the parent that due to a breakdown in communication, the school will have to terminate services to the learner and official notification was sent to the family the next day. The parent took further action, as is her right as a parent, and this is still an ongoing matter on which the school cannot comment at this stage”.
He said that while the matter was still being resolved, the pupil is at school and writing his third-term test series.
Regarding Riverside College’s discipline policy, Mr Swart said that it was reviewed annually and updated as required.
Yvette Cloete, the parents’ attorney, said the respondents had received a punitive cost order and that costs on that scale were only granted in “exceptional cases”.
“It reflects the court’s dissatisfaction with the respondents’ conduct,” said Ms Cloete.
WCED spokeswoman Jessica Shelver said the parent had complained to the department that her child was being subjected to an unfair disciplinary hearing because the school had not wanted to clarify the charges against her child, and the pupil had been found guilty without a disciplinary hearing taking place.
“The WCED investigated this matter because we have an obligation to ensure that all learners are subjected to due process which guarantees a pupil a fair hearing,” said Ms Shelver.
Asked if surveillance of pupils in the school classroom was legal, Ms Shlever said that in this case the camera had been hidden in a room used for exams.
She said the WCED was not part of the disciplinary process at an independent school.
Ms Shelver said that in instances where pupils were suspended shortly before exams, the WCED asked that the school make an alternative venue available for these pupils to write exams in.
“The parent should bear the costs if the school has to appoint an additional invigilator. The pupil is not allowed to mix with the other pupils. He/she should only come to school to write the examination, and has to leave the school as soon as he/she has completed the exams” she said.
* The pupil’s name cannot be published as he is a minor.