“Sir, someone stole my expensive cellphone!”
It happens at the very best of schools; in fact, it happens in every school. Yet there are many schools that keep incidents of theft to a minimum. At others, theft is rampant, but it isn’t only the children who steal. Parents, staff members and visitors thieve too. What can be done?
The starting point to preventing thieving lies at the school gates. Most schools today have controlled access; every visitor has to sign a register. Some schools insist on visitors having to get their entry slip signed off by a staff member before they’re allowed to leave the property. When a person has signed the visitors’ register, he or she should be escorted, if staffing allows it, to the reception office. This helps prevent visitors from strolling unchecked around the school.
A vital part of the physical security of a school is to have as few entrances as possible. Make sure that there are no holes in the fence, and that overhanging trees don’t allow thieves to jump into the grounds. Where school funds allow it, have closed circuit cameras that link the gates to the reception office.
Children have a responsibility to look after their own property. Insist that they write their names on all their exercise and textbooks, clothes, items of stationery and sports equipment. Teachers should make regular inspections to ensure the children have marked all their belongings.
There are children who steal because they have a desperate need. They steal because they arrive at school hungry, or they want to play a particular sport but there’s not enough money at home to buy the required soccer boots. At assemblies and grade meetings with the children, this matter should be discussed openly. If there’s a need, tell the children to talk to their teacher or principal. Funds should be made available to help such children. Children have to understand very clearly that it’s inexcusable to steal when the school will do everything that it can to meet their genuine needs.
Teachers are often sensitive to the needs of their children simply by being observant. They see the child with tattered and unkempt clothes; they see the pale, malnourished face that is not fed at lunchtime. Telltale signs of unmet needs are numerous, and caring teachers quietly ensure that such children are clothed and fed.
Common sense is an easy way to reduce theft incidents. At break times, when nobody should be in the classroom, lock the door. Ensure that valuables aren’t left in the classroom, and if it has curtains, close them at the end of the school day. Don’t invite temptation for peering eyes.
A common problem is the child who brings an expensive gift to school. The birthday boy wants to show his classmates his new cellphone; the birthday girl has sparkling jewellery to be flaunted in front of other fashion-conscious friends. Discourage children from bringing valuables to schools. Should they do so, remind them that it’s their personal responsibility to safeguard them.
When a theft occurs — as will happen — the whole community needs to know that the school is unafraid to take decisive action. Obviously, counselling might be needed, particularly if a child is the perpetrator. Do a thorough investigation, but be acutely aware of the legal ramifications and restrictions around doing a body search. Restorative justice has to be done; wrongs need to be corrected. On occasion, there might even be a need to lay a charge of theft at the police station nearest to the school.
By being proactive and vigilant, hopefully major thefts won’t happen. Thefts will be minor and infrequent, and you won’t have to deal with a distraught child tearfully telling you or a colleague, “Sir, someone stole my expensive cellphone!”
Dr Richard Hayward is a former principal of two public Gauteng schools. He does South African Council for Educators endorsed professional development programmes across the country, under the aegis of the South African Quality Institute. Programmes at disadvantaged schools are sponsored. His contact details are firstname.lastname@example.org and 011 888 3262