BY: Mpofu Sthandile.

In an effort to mitigate tragedies affecting the lives of special needs learners across the country, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has prioritised over 400 schools for Learners with Special Education Needs (LSEN) in South Africa for disaster risk management planning and training – a key aspect of school safety.

The partnership for disaster risk management in LSEN schools was formed between the DBE, the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) and Santam, South Africa’s largest general insurer, to reduce risks to our most vulnerable members of society and has rolled out in a multi-phase programme across four provinces (Free State, Gauteng, North West and Limpopo) since 2018. The programme was first piloted at the St Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg.

“Differently-abled children face challenges with mobility or communicating effectively during an emergency situation and are extremely vulnerable during disasters,” says Tersia Mdunge, Santam CSI Manager.

One example of the critical need for in-depth risk assessment, training and appropriate functional equipment at LSEN schools are deaf learners who are unable to hear sirens when a fire breaks out and may not react quickly enough. The severity of the level of risk these learners face was evidenced in the 2015 tragedy that occurred at the North West School for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children hostel where three pupils lost their lives and another 23 were injured in a fire that engulfed the school’s dormitories.

Santam, in partnership  with DBE and NDMC,  based on its own survey practices, developed a Standard Risk Assessment tool that assists the DBE to identify risks in Special Needs Schools and the broader schools in South Africa. This current paper-based self-assessment is a first step for a school to conduct a risk assessment and it enables the DBE and its partners to ascertain the level of risk in different schools (identify hot spots) and respond appropriately thus optimising resources.

In the latest phase of the programme, Santam partnered with 19 schools in Limpopo and spent over R3,2m mitigating risks at schools for children with special needs.

Representatives from the DBE, the Capricorn Municipality, Executive Mayor and the Capricorn Fire Chief came together at an event hosted by Santam showcasing the risk management initiatives implemented at LSEN schools. Held on 13 April, the programme included a visit to the Phatlaphadima Special School in Maune Village in the Ga-Mashashane district of Limpopo to demonstrate the risk assessment work done in selected LSEN schools, as well as a handover of firefighting and disaster management equipment at the Polokwane Fire Station.

Mdunge explains: “Inadequate safety measures and equipment in special schools can pose a physical threat to learners, teachers and the school infrastructure. As South Africa’s largest insurer, we consider it our responsibility to help society, particularly its most vulnerable members, to be better prepared and become more risk resilient by providing the tools, training and equipment required to withstand the risks they face.”

Ronnie Mohlabi, Principal at Phatlaphadima Special School, says the school first opened in 1999 serving just 65 learners. It has since grown to incorporate a boarding school and caters to the needs of 216 learners aged six to 21 years with intellectual disabilities.

Many children with disabilities attend school away from their families and communities and stay in hostels – their safety and security is therefore critical.

Mohlabi says since the partnership with Santam commenced in 2022, the school has benefitted greatly, and staff members are now more conscious and better equipped to tend to the safety needs of the school and its learners. “We are very grateful for the support which has enabled our staff to take responsibility for the special learners under our care and to ensure we maintain well-functioning disaster risk management procedures and equipment at all times.”

She adds that safety risk assessment training will continue to be rolled out across all provinces to empower LSEN schools’ management with the tools and skills required to conduct vital self-assessments. “Self-assessments create momentum for school safety and ensure that safety becomes sustainably embedded in the long term,” concludes Mdunge.


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