A violent grade one pupil who was a “ticking time bomb” punched a classmate so hard during an unsupervised game of tag rugby that the boy lost an eye.
Now the Western Cape education department will have to pay damages to the injured boy after a Cape Town high court judge decided staff were to blame for the incident.
Acting judge Constance Nziweni rejected the department’s argument that staff at Bredasdorp Primary were not responsible for supervising pupils before the first bell of the day.
She said the school’s failure to monitor the “volatile and extremely risky” pupil left other children at the boy’s mercy.
It emerged during the trial that the boy subjected other pupils to “constant assaults” in the three months between arriving at the school in June 2012 and the rugby incident in September.
He attacked them with scissors, hit them during breaks, threw stones at their heads and swore at them. He tackled another pupil during class, swore at classmates and threw books around the classroom, Nziweni said in her judgment.
“Within a short period there were already repeated complainants of assault against [the boy], reported by other learners to the school staff,” she said.
“It was very apparent from very early on that the school was dealing with a learner with aggression problems. [The boy] relentlessly bullied other learners on an ongoing basis. Clearly … he was not a concealed source of danger to other learners.”
Despite that, said Nziweni, the school took no steps to protect other children from the boy or monitor him. His class teacher’s warning in a July report that “he explodes very easily [and] his classmates are afraid of him” went unheeded.
Then-headmaster WJ van Huyssteen testified that his approach had been to “walk the road” with the boy and his guardian, and the strategy with the boy had been to “get him on his side” so he could learn to distinguish right from wrong.
But Nziweni said this approach fell far short of what was needed. “The school authorities, after receiving initial complaints about [the boy’s] violent streak, simply threw caution to the wind and did not even do a follow-up investigation with [his] previous school,” she said.
“There were advance warnings that [the boy] was an inherent danger to other learners. It does not need a rocket scientist to figure out that [he] was a ticking time bomb.”
The claim against the education department was brought by the father of the injured boy. His son, now 16, testified that he usually arrived at 7am and played games on the school field before the first bell at 7.30am.
One of his friends told the court he saw the attacker punching the boy “twice in the eye with the middle finger which had the knuckle raised”.
The then-deputy headmaster and head of discipline, a Mr Van der Berg, initially told the court he was not aware of any “red flags” about the attacker, whom he saw as a “normal learner”.
But he later conceded that a behavioural report two months before the tag rugby incident “denotes the school dealing with a very problematic child”.
Nziweni said she was “astonished” by the education department’s argument that it owed no duty of care to the injured boy before the start of school.
“Surely, when a child is dropped off at school that is done on a reasonable belief that the child will be safe on school premises,” she said.
“Given the past conduct of [the attacker], it was surely not beyond the realms of human comprehension that whilst [he] was on school grounds, he was consistently a huge safety risk to other learners.
“Clearly, in the context of this case, the school employees should have foreseen the likelihood of [him] attacking or harming other learners in a situation of a game … as being real and immediate.
“The safety and protection of other learners around [the boy] should have been the school employees’ major concern.
“Remarkably, the school took the risk of leaving the situation with [the boy’s] guardian and only choosing to talk to [the boy]. In doing so the school essentially put itself in a dilemma by taking on the risk of other learners being attacked by [the boy].
“It is evident that the school seemed to have focused mainly on accommodating [the boy] at the expense of ensuring the safety of the other learners. The school did not even make an attempt to strike a balance between the interest of [the boy] and the safety of other learners. Instead the other learners were left totally vulnerable to persistent bullying.”