War forces school closure

Parents locked the gates of schools in Lavender Hill, demanding that the education department and police do more to protect pupils and teachers in the midst of a gang war in the area.

Teaching at schools in Lavender Hill has come to a standstill because of ongoing gang warfare.

Since last Monday, pupils, parents and teachers have had to take cover as members of at least three gangs shoot at each other.

Last Wednesday, May 24, parents took a stand and locked the gates of Hillwood and Levana primary schools and Lavender Hill High School, calling for intervention by police and the Western Cape Education Department (WCED).

Hillwood Primary School headmaster Gavin Alkana said several teachers had been booked off for trauma and shock and two were admitted to hospital when they got sick at the school, one for treatment of a stroke and another for heart problems, because of the trauma.

Hillwood Primary School is situated opposite a notorious gang battle field in Depsiton Crescent.

“Since last week Monday there have been continuous shootings in the area which have left pupils and teachers traumatised. It sounds like a war zone in Lavender Hill and we are caught in the middle. We cannot teach in such circumstances,” said Mr Alkana.

Levana Primary School principal Andre Lamprecht said the situation is getting out of control.

“We feel like we are under siege at the school. The parents took a stand and are saying that enough is enough and I don’t blame them. All we want as teachers is a safe environment to work in,” said Mr Lamprecht.

Schools were closed on Thursday May 25 for Ascension Day and on Friday May 26 only a handful of the more than 2 000 pupils at Levana and Hillwood came to class.

The schools were also closed on Monday May 29 and yesterday, Tuesday May 30.

Parent and Hillwood School Governing Body (SGB) chairperson Adrian Coller said locking the school gates was the only way for parents, to get the attention, of both police and the WCED.

“We as parents are extremely worried about the situation in Lavender Hill and the safety of our children and the teachers.

“The safety officers were removed from the school at the end of March and now there is no security personnel at schools that desperately need it. We also want police to step up and increase visibility. We decided it’s time to take action and that is why we locked the gates until they do more to ensure our children and their teachers’ safety,” said Mr Coller.

Hillwood Primary teacher Gail Johannes said coming to school every day is a risk.

“We cannot teach because not only are the children stressed but we are as well. We worry about whether a bullet will come flying through our windows. When will there be intervention? When a pupil or teacher is shot and killed?” asked Ms Johannes.

This is not the first time schools have asked for intervention from police and the WCED.

In October last year, a mass meeting was held at Hillwood Primary School with Education MEC Debbie Shäfer, Community Safety MEC Dan Plato and teachers and parents from the schools (“Call for violence to end,” Southern Mail, October 19, 2016).

Some of the requests from staff at the time included more visible policing, particularly during the times pupils walk to and from school, secure fencing, more security, the closure of the lane between Hillwood and Levana primary schools and meaningful engagement and programmes for youngsters in the area.

WCED spokesperson Millicent Merton said the security officers were posted until March but that was an initiative of the Department of Community Safety and not the WCED.

She, however, said that Safe Schools is providing emergency security at all the schools in Lavender Hill. “ “The WCED immediately notifies police when incidents of gang violence occur in communities and requests increased police presence around our schools within that community. We ask for extra assistance when learners are travelling to and from schools,” said Ms Merton.

The district also offers trauma counselling to pupils and staff.

Steenberg police station commander Colonel Jan Alexander said they are doing all they can to stabilise the situation in Lavender Hill.

“We have deployed more vehicles, especially early in the morning and in the afternoon when pupils travel to and from schools and have requested assistance from other forces within provincial,” said Colonel Alexander.

He asked the community to come forward with names of gunmen and gangsters.

Visible Policing Head Lieutenant Colonel Adriaan Saulse said they are moving towards stabilising the area.

“We have made some arrests and are concentrating on the gang leaders. We also have our forces constantly in the area so we are hoping this will help the situation,” said Lieutenant Colonel Saulse.

The Southern Mail asked Jessica Shelver, spokesperson for Ms Schäer, what the department’s response was to parents wanting more security at the schools.

We also asked what measures the WCED would put in place to safeguard both pupils and teachers, what is the WCED’s response to parents demanding action from the department and if there had been any more discussions between the WCED, the MEC and parents and teachers.

Ms Shelver said community safety depends solely on the police.

“While we do everything possible to protect our learners while on the school premises, community safety and crime control rests with the South African Police Service (SAPS). The inability of SAPS to support at critical times is a great concern as it leaves our learners and educators vulnerable and at the mercy of invading gangsters. It also puts inordinate pressure on other spheres of government and government departments to step in where they should not have to.”

She said it is evident that the police is not making any major inroads in preventing, combating and investigating crime, and that they are failing dismally in protecting and securing pupils.

“It is mostly not because they do not want to, but because they simply do not have sufficient resources, both human and physical,” she said.

She adds that the police need to be equipped and properly trained to deal with serious issues in communities such as Lavender Hill.

She added that WCED is doing all it can to address the problem, by working with the police to address school safety.

“This shows our commitment to engaging with the necessary role-players and constantly reviewing how we address learner and teacher safety. We will continue to work with all concerned to ensure the safety of young people, both in school and after school hours, in line with our various responsibilities,” she said.