Jeppe High Preparatory School vs The Star

Complainant: Jeppe High Preparatory School

Article: School bars ‘possessed’ girl and sub-headlined Teachers mistake epileptic fit for ‘sword killer’ signs. Posters read:                        School bars demon child

Date: 06 July 2010

Respondent: The Star

Complaint
Jeppe High Preparatory School complains about a front page story in The Star on November 30, 2009, headlined School bars ‘possessed’ girl and sub-headlined Teachers mistake epileptic fit for ‘sword killer’ signs. Posters read: School bars demon child.
Shaikjee, the chairperson of the SGB, says the following sentences and phrases in the article are untrue, unfair and inaccurate:
  • “A 12 year old banished from her school…”
  • “Teachers at Jeppe Preparatory School prayed over her daughter…”
  • ‘The girl will have to repeat Grade 5…”
  • “…her child was ‘going crazy’…”
  • “Are they comparing my child to the Krugersdorp sword killer…?”
  • “In the third term, my daughter told me the principal told staff she is a mental case and needs to go to a mad school…”
  • “A teacher gave the child a Bible to take home.”
  • “…her child could go back to school after she was put on medication for epilepsy…”
  • “But the school refused…” (to allow the girl back into school)
  • “She asked the school for a transfer card, but it stated the new school would need a psychological report.”
Shaikjee adds that both the headline and the sub-headline are misleading and untrue.
Analysis
The story is about a girl who was described as being an epileptic and who was “banished” from Jeppe Preparatory High School after having a fit during a school camp. According to the story she screamed that she could see an “axe man” coming to kill two girls, her eyes “rolled back” (which frightened the other children) and she drew “evil signs” in the sand.
The story continues: The principal referred the girl to a psychiatrist and “removed” her from the school, saying that some parents said this incident reminded them of the Krugersdorp “sword killer”. (Roughly a year before this incident, a learner at a Krugersdorp high school confessed to the killing of a boy before seriously injuring three other people. The media linked this incident to a Satanic ritual.) When the psychiatrist later advised that the girl was ready to return to school, the school reportedly “refused” to take her back. The girl was then transferred to another school, the story says.
It is important to note at the outset that neither the principal nor members of staff was allowed to talk to the press. The newspaper therefore had to put its questions to the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE), who was still busy with its investigation.
This meant the following:
  • The GDE could (at that stage) not answer specific questions with regards to the child; it could only respond to general ones – no official response pertaining to this incident was therefore going to be forthcoming before publication; and
  • It was (understandably) difficult for The Star to verify its information.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint point by point.
“A 12 year old banished from her school…”
The word “banish” is in dispute.
The Star says the school itself admits that the principal told the psychiatrist “once the report from him was available on how the school should work with the child, she could come back to school.” The newspaper continues: This implies that the girl was not allowed at the school at the time. Besides, the fact that the psychiatrist said in his report the child should be “allowed back” at school indicates that she had been banished, The Star concludes.
These arguments are convincing. The following sentence in the psychiatrist’s report to the school (which was in the newspaper’s possession) is also noteworthy: “This letter serves to inform you that her difficulties could have been managed better by the school instead of ostracizing her.” (emphasis added)
The following facts are undisputed:
  • The principal recommended to the parents that the girl should leave school because she posed a danger to both learners and staff;
  • This recommendation took effect; and
  • The school said the girl would be allowed back on condition that the psychiatrist told the school how it should work with her.
These considerations combined gave the newspaper enough reason to use the word “banished”.
“Teachers at Jeppe Preparatory School prayed over her daughter…”
The school says its members of staff are very aware and sensitive to the different religious beliefs at school and the teachers would therefore not have “prayed over” the child.
Due to the nature of the school, this is probably true. However, the story does not state it as a fact – it quotes the mother in this regard.
“The girl will have to repeat Grade 5…”
Shaikjee says the fact that the girl was never going to repeat Grade 5 can be confirmed with the GDE. The mother was also never notified that her daughter would have to repeat Grade 5, he says.
The newspaper says the mother told the reporter she was informed that her daughter would have to repeat Grade 5 as the child had not written her exams.
The phrase in dispute is not directly attributed to the mother. However, it is used in the middle of a section that deals with the mother’s version of events. From this context it can reasonably be accepted that the phrase can be attributed to the mother – which (again) means that the story does not state it as a fact, only as the mother’s opinion.
“…her child was ‘going crazy’…”
In the story the mother alleges that a staff member said that her child was “going crazy” during a meeting between herself and the personnel.
The school says a witness can testify to the fact that those words were never said during that meeting; the minutes of the meeting also prove the same.
The newspaper concedes that the reporter did not request the minutes of that meeting. “It would have been correct for her to do so and we have advised her accordingly…” However, the school would probably have refused to give the reporter that information, the newspaper says.
This is an oversight by the reporter – but, given the circumstances, perhaps understandable.
And again, the story only quotes the mother.
“Are they comparing my child to the Krugersdorp sword killer…?”
Yet again, the story quotes the mother (who alleges that the principal said her child should be removed from school because of the Krugersdorp sword killer incident). Apart form the mother’s quotes, there is no mention of anybody else who made that comparison.
“In the third term, my daughter told me the principal told staff she is a mental case and needs to go to a mad school…”
The newspaper admits this sentence should have included the word “allegedly”.
However, this is a direct quote by the mother, citing her daughter.
“A teacher gave the child a Bible to take home.”
No source is quoted here – the sentence is stated as a fact.
The school says that, given its sensitivity towards different religious beliefs and the country’s Constitution, none of its teachers would give the child a Bible.
However, the reporter says the mother showed her the Bible in question – which makes it reasonable for the newspaper to report the way it did.
The newspaper (rightly) regrets that it was not stated in the story that the mother showed the reporter the Bible.
“…her child could go back to school after she was put on medication for epilepsy….”
Shaikjee disputes that the child had an epileptic fit – in the five years that the child had attended school, she never had a fit and no mention to that effect was ever made by the child’s mother. Besides, the school staff is trained to deal with learners who have epileptic fits, he says.
According to The Star the child’s mother said she did not know her child was epileptic until the psychiatrist told her that epilepsy can arrive unexpectedly and that her child had such an attack.
Although the story does not mention symptoms classical of epilepsy, our office is not in a position to decide whether the child had an epileptic fit or not. Our question is this: Was it reasonable for the newspaper to state that the girl had an epileptic fit? Given the information the newspaper says it got from the child’s mother, the answer is “yes”.
It must be noted that the newspaper was (again) not in a position to verify this information – neither the school not the GDE could comment, and no doctor would disclose a patient’s medical condition to a newspaper.
“But the school refused…” (to allow the girl back into school)
The phrase in question is stated as a fact. It is not attributed to a source, neither is it verified nor qualified (e.g. by using the word “allegedly”).
If there is any doubt here, the benefit of the doubt should go to the school. This is why:
  • It is not in dispute that the principal told the psychiatrist that once the latter’s report was available on how the school should work with the child she could return to school.
  • The psychiatrist later recommended that the school takes the girl back; and
  • It is therefore improbable that the school would refuse to take the girl back.
“She (the child’s mother) asked the school for a transfer card, but it (Jeppe School) stated the new school would need a psychological report.”
A copy of a transfer card reveals that there is a section that refers to a psychological report. There is therefore no reasonable need for a separate psychological report – hence the school’s complaint. However, from the context it is clear that the reporter (again) quotes the mother, albeit an indirect quote.
Headline: “School bars ‘possessed’ girl”
Art. 5.1 of the Press Code is relevant: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.” The spirit of the Press Code also dictates that headlines should reflect the truth and not be misleading.
Two words in the headline are in dispute:
  • “Bars”: I have already found that the use of the words “banished” and “bars” were reasonable. This also goes for the headline.
  • “Possessed”: The intro ends like this: “…after which teachers and pupils believed she was ‘devil-possessed’.” The word “devil-possessed” in the story is clearly a quote, which is reflected by the inverted commas in the headline.
Clearly both the disputed words in the heading accurately reflect the content of the story. The words are also not misleading – “bars” is reasonable and the use of inverted commas for “possessed” represent what certain people believed.
Sub-headline: “Teachers mistake epileptic fit for ‘sword killer’ signs”
Two phrases are queried:
  • “Epileptic fit”: The intro states as a fact that the girl had a “fit”. I have already found that it was reasonable for the newspaper to believe that the child had an epileptic fit, based on what the mother said the psychiatrist told her.
  • “ ‘Sword-killer’ signs”: The story says the mother said that the principal linked the incident to the “sword-killer” episode.
The sub-headline is therefore an accurate reflection of the content of the story and is not misleading – “epileptic fit” is reasonable and the use of inverted commas for “sword-killer” signs represents what certain people believed.
Posters: “School bars demon child”
As the school only mentions the posters in its complaint but did not specifically complain about it, the newspaper did not defend itself on this point.
It need not have tried to, anyway, as there is no reasonable defence possible. The word “demon” is an extremely harsh word – and it is not even used in inverted commas. This is a classic case of the opposite of what good, ethical journalism should be, namely maximum truth, minimum harm.
Given that the intro itself portrays the girl as being an epileptic, this poster is scandalous.
Verification
I have already mentioned that it was difficult for The Star to verify this story, as neither the school nor the GDE could provide answers to questions prior to publication. The press is often in this situation and there is nothing wrong with going ahead with publication if no substantial comment is forthcoming.
However, The Star should have mentioned this fact in its story, as the Press Code requires.
Finding
The complaint about the sentences and phrases that were said to be untrue, unfair and inaccurate is dismissed, except for the statement that the school refused to take back the child. This sentence is found to be in breach of:
  • Art. 1.1 of the Press Code which says: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and
  •  Art. 1.3 of the Code: “Only what may reasonably be true…may be presented as fact, and such facts shall be published fairly with due regard to context and importance.”
The complaint about the headline and sub-headline is dismissed.
The poster is in breach of Art5.2 of the Press Code which says: “Posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the reports in question.”
The story does not state that the accuracy of the story could not be verified. This is in breach of Art. 1.4 which says: “…Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such a report.”
Sanction
The newspaper is directed to apologise to:
  • the school for stating that it had refused to take back the child; and
  • both the child and the mother for the posters.
The newspaper is reprimanded for not mentioning the difficulty it had to verify the accuracy of the story.
The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this finding and the sanction on the front page. Our office should be furnished with the text prior to publication.
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lays down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at Khanyi@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman