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[Commentary] Random drug testing to be considered for schools
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-17 07:47 (KST)   
For 6 months this year I taught economics to eleventh graders at Brebner High School in Bloemfontein, central South Africa. The principal once proposed random drug testing (especially for cannabis), until he discovered it was illegal to do so. Now, after a 14 year-old scholar was recently stabbed to death by a fellow scholar of Forest Hill School, Education Minister Naledi Pandor has proposed random drug testing.

South Africa already has a number of urgent crises -- from AIDS to crime to unemployment. What makes the necessity for the passing of this law so distressing is that it points to another fast emerging crisis: a crisis in education.

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Local payTV channel, MNET, on their Sunday night edition of Carte Blanche highlighted the shocking conditions in Eastern Cape schools. A viewer might be forgiven for thinking that environment makes a school "good" or "bad." True, poorer communities can make schooling more difficult, but often the children in these communities are more determined and passionate to get an education than their spoilt urban peers. Children who walk 15 kilometers barefeet to school have an appreciation for the privilege of education that other classes of children don't have.

But drugs in schools are just a symptom of the underlying maggoty issues festering inside classroom walls.

At Brebner for example, it is simply appalling to see cellphone-toting brats 35 strong overwhelming each class with noise and disruption. The level of dishonesty and deceit going on -- children lying about their whereabouts, routinely coming in late or simply walking out of their class on a whim is scandalous.

It's virtually impossible to teach a lesson when there is a collective effort to disrupt lessons on a daily basis. Tests are also impressive displays of cheating and subterfuge. When they are caught cheating they're simply given a re-test, so it actually pays to cheat because if you get away with it you score, and if you don't you get a second chance (effectively a postponement).

Only a handful (perhaps five, no more than ten) in each class seem to be genuinely interested and disciplined to work. Also on a daily basis a teacher teaching a class beside mine was in tears, and on the other side, a gentlemanly teacher with impeccable manners found himself resorting to swearing.

Before I taught at Brebner I had probably not completely lost my temper in 8 or 9 months. Suddenly I found myself shooting a gasket every half hour. Imagine a situation where your job is to teach children, and they simply don't listen to you. They're hooked up to their MP3 players and you can't do anything about it. What happens is you eventually get very frustrated, especially when merely communicating text out of a textbook requires you to shout it to the few who are listening. Try shouting two pages of text for 6 hours straight -- that alone is exhausting.

Brebner, by the way, has one of the best records around. There are plenty of other schools where discipline is worse, and where the list of incidents has grown to alarming proportions. The trend demonstrates things are rapidly getting worse. Brebner has used a recent allocation of funds (R120 000) to build a high security fence around its premises (to keep loitering drug sellers out). Imagine spending that kind of money on a fence, when, in a different world, it could go to buying sorely needed books, or computers, or projectors for a classroom with just a green board, or air conditioners.

On my third day at Brebner, after just introducing myself to a new class, a kid got up and came to the front of the class and came within an inch of head-butting me. Just a demonstration of who was in charge. I remember at the end of one particular day I told a rowdy class they could leave (I guarded the door) once they had managed to achieve total silence for 5 seconds. They didn't come close to quietening down. Instead of deigning to rein themselves in, half of them jumped out the window. On another occasion a bag intended for the Deputy Principal was intercepted. When it was opened there was a dead white cat inside, with the words: "You're next, bitch."

In the last two weeks, a lemon was thrown through a glass window of my class, a grade 11 girl in my class violently shoved a female teacher, and I was threatened to such an extent in my class that other students felt they had to come to my rescue. The offending student was not allowed to attend my class for a week. This is the sort of punishment that seems more like a reward than an effective reprimand. In the staff room the principal said, more than once: "This year is the worst year we've ever had. I've never seen these children behaving worse than this year."

This is the reality of teaching in a world without corporal punishment. It may be the stuff idealists dream about, but the human rights given to the children are abused in a way that benefit no one: not them, nor the teachers, nor their parents paying school fees, and not the community that must somehow deal with a pack of hounds unable to constrain themselves once they matriculate.

It seems to me that South Africa (not only this country but especially this country) has a habit of avoiding dealing with harsh reality. In a country where 50 people are murdered a day, we still have no effective weapon against these criminals. We have the world's worst AIDS statistics, and a health minister who advises the millions who are sick and dying to eat beetroot. Our President talks about an "inclusive" society, yet we have the world's worst unemployment statistics, and the worst levels of economic inequality on Earth. And in our schools, our future leaders are being educated in disorder and deceit. God help us!

It's a worldwide phenomenon. In England teachers teach behind bars. There a teacher has to be very careful not to be sued by parents acting on behalf of their children. I fear for this world when the tide suddenly changes, and we are no longer so flush. In a world where the weather and the economy erodes the quality of suburban life, I doubt there are enough people to hold the fabric of society together with things like human decency. We have conditioned ourselves to get what we want. Our children have an even worse sense of entitlement, to gadgets and convenience, burgers, Jennifer Lopez and cargo pants, and when they cannot indulge their desires they become irrational, often uncivilized and violent.

And somewhere in this malaise are drugs, like tuk (the most addictive drug in South Africa, yes, even more than cocaine or heroine), and cannabis. What happens is the kids take these drugs during breaktime or between classes. Then their behaviour starts to deteriorate. They tremble and become erratic -- sometimes having uncontrollable bursts of rage. In the confined space of a classroom, with teachers stretched to breaking point, this is a time bomb waiting to go off.
The author worked at Brebner High School from mid-April to the end of September of this year. South Africa is currently facing a shortage in teachers. Many leave the country to teach in wealthier countriers where salaries pay double or triple local rates.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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