Winfrey: 'A Lot to Be Learned' from Academy Scandal

Oprah Winfrey is promising significant changes following allegations of abuse involving a former dorm matron and several students at her school for girls in South Africa. Dr. Bruce Perry, who recently traveled to the school with Winfrey, and Sowetan reporter Tebogo Monama update listeners on the latest developments in the case.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today: Allegations of abuse at Oprah Winfrey's school in South Africa. We'll hear from a reporter on the scene and a child abuse expert who helped advise Oprah on how to respond.

And later in the program, we'll hear from the Mocha Moms on building healthy self-esteem in a world that still makes much of skin color. We'll also have an update on the writer's strike, how it's affecting writers of color and the shows they worked on.

But first, last week we told you about allegations of abuse at Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Yesterday, a 23-year-old former dorm matron at the school says she was not guilty of charges related to alleged sexual and physical assault on six different students. She was released on a $450 bail but can't leave the area. And Oprah Winfrey spoke to reporters Monday for the first time since learning of the allegations last month.

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Founder, The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls): This has been one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating experience of my life. Like all such experiences there's always much to be gained, and I think there's a lot to be learned.

MARTIN: When she first learned of the allegations at the school, Oprah asked child psychologist Bruce Perry to travel with her to the academy to help assess the situation. He's back now, and Dr. Perry joins us from member station KUHF in Houston. We're also joined by Tebogo Monama. She's a reporter at the newspaper The Sowetan. She attended the Winfrey press conference yesterday.

Welcome and thank you both for speaking with us.

Ms. TEBOGO MONAMA (Reporter, The Sowetan): Thank you.

Dr. BRUCE PERRY (Senior Fellow, Child Trauma Academy): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Dr. Perry, first to you, you went to the academy, you were able to speak to several of the girls, as I understand it. How were they doing?

Dr. PERRY: I think the girls overall are doing relatively well. All things considered, there have - had lots of support from the school staff, from some health professionals and from each other.

MARTIN: And when Oprah Winfrey first called you, what did she want you to do?

Dr. PERRY: Well, I think there were several aspects to our conversation, and more than anything, I think she was reaching out to try and address the needs of the girls. And this is, I think, one of the most remarkable parts of this entire process is that, as she said there was about half and hour where she focused on her devastation and her emotional response. But after that she's been really primarily focused on the girls. And she knows that I have done lots of work with traumatized children and she sought my input on what were the best things that we could do to help the girls immediately, and what kinds of things we needed to do over the long term to make sure that nothing like this would happen again.

MARTIN: Well, she's discussed very publicly — that as a young woman herself, as a young girl herself, she was the victim of child abuse. Do you think that that experience informed the way she responded to these events?

Dr. PERRY: Oh, absolutely. There's just no doubt about it. She has been very open about her experiences. And one of the aspects of that experience -experience was that fact that when she spoke about it, she was not heard, that the adults around her were not as supportive as they should have been. And she wanted to make sure in this case that the girls who had stepped forward and have the courage the talk about their distress were heard, that the allegations were investigated in a professional manner, and that there was immediate action taken to protect the girls and ensure their care in the future.

MARTIN: I want to speak to Tebogo about this, too, in a minute, but just one more question to you, Dr. Perry, for now. At the press conference, she indicated that the school was built in such a way as to protect the girls from outsiders. There's a lot of security and there was a sense that the outsider was the person to be guarded against. And she said, you know - has — so often the case it's the person on the inside who is the one that really needs to be guarded against.

So I do have to emphasize that this person is innocent until proven guilty of these charges. She said she's not guilty, and, of course, that process still has to take place. Out of fairness, I think we need to say that. But having said that, did you get a sense that the girls were giving off signs that were ignored, that they had tried to speak up and were not heard?

Dr. PERRY: Yes, that is our understanding. And we know now that one of the unfortunate aspects of this is that many of the girls who were courageous enough to step up earlier and bring their concerns to adults in the system, and unfortunately, because of a variety of systemic problems and some leadership problems actually, they were not seriously heard. And that is something that is being - that has been addressed, has been altered, and that will not ever happen again at that school.

MARTIN: Tebogo, I wanted to go to you now. We talked to a colleague of yours at the Sowetan last week and she was the person who raised this question of school sort of being seen by the community as kind of this fortress. Did the press conference yesterday do anything to allay the community's fears that something's going in here that we're not being given preview to, that there's no transparency, that it's not really part of the community?

Ms. MONAMA: I think the community on the place (unintelligible) will always feel that the place is isolated; it's not for them. The press conference is not going to change it. But I think (unintelligible) place for the kids they have looked on some for the kids who were abused and all that, but they still feel the place is not open for them.

MARTIN: What would make them feel differently? I mean, is it more physical access? They want to see the kids' playing or what is it that makes them feel that way?

Ms. MONAMA: I think the committee expected when the whole school proposed they thought that they're going to have access to the kids, they're going to see the kids, the kids are going to walk around the community and things like that, but it's not like that. Security is really tight. You can't even talk to the security guard at the gate. You can't do anything. You can't access the school. I think they'd like to access the school.

MARTIN: Oprah Winfrey in her press conference did mention concern about the high rate of sexual assault in South Africa in general. Do you feel that given that her concern about security is reasonable? Tebogo?

Ms. MONAMA: I think she overplayed the whole thing. She wasn't supposed to have so much security at the school. Sure, there's abuse everywhere, but a lot of kids also abused by teachers at the schools in South Africa - so it's all the same, you know? Even if she had a lot of security at school, there's still teachers who can abuse the kids. So I don't think her school was different - it's different from any other school in South Africa.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the level of candor she attempted to demonstrate at the press conference yesterday meets the expectations of the community? And is that the norm there? Do school officials in a situation like this normally go before the press and the public and offer a timeline as she did and so forth?

Ms. MONAMA: No, just a few schools do that. Just mostly private schools do that but public schools, no, they never do that.

MARTIN: And Dr. Perry, I want to talk about what changes are planned for the school to assure that these things don't happen again.

Dr. PERRY: Well, there are several things underway, and I would like - actually, I'd like to comment a little bit about the perception of the community about the security issues at the school.

MARTIN: Please do.

Dr. PERRY: I do think that those are legitimate observations by the community and that there is significant security. And one of the challenges, and this is part of what is being addressed by this review process and some of the changes I hope will make the community feel more engaged in the school. But there's a balance between trying to protect these girls and making sure that they become a healthy part of the community.

And we believe very strongly that the borders, if you will, have to become more permeable. The girls have to feel connected to the community; the community has to feel connected to the school and to many of the girls. And there are plans to try and facilitate that in ways that I think will take time to grow. But ultimately I know that the school has every intention of being a healthy community partner, an anchor of health in the community, and it will only be good for the girls and it will be good for the community.

And but back to the question about - there are several things that are really important in trying to create a trauma-informed-and-child-sensitive system, and unfortunately, there isn't a place on the planet that has really done all it could do to ensure that the internal systems and the adults in charge of children are all as healthy as can be.

And I know that there are little pockets of excellence here and there, but one of the goals that we have for the school is to try and create training, staff selections, staff support, education for the girls, models of accountability and models of security that will all work to decrease the probability that any predatory person can be hired or can act out on the girls in the school.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example, though. Make it, you know, make it simple for me to understand. What other things…

Dr. PERRY: Sure.

MARTIN: …that need to happen? Is it that there needs to be more than one trusted adult in a girl's life? There needs to be, what, a sense that you can speak freely without being penalize? What is it that needs to happen? Tell me how that it feel from the standpoint of a student at the school.

Dr. PERRY: Those are two of the key things actually. That the more healthy adults that are in the life of each child, the higher the probability is that they'll feel comfortable talking about anything that makes them uncomfortable. So if they have teachers who are sensitive, if they have on-campus staff who are sensitive, if the cooks and the security guards are taught and trained to learn how to listen, to be respectful, to be kind, to be open to these girls, then they will have a much more powerful sense of trust that will allow them — if anything is bothering them or upsetting them — to disclose. And, of course, that has to be coupled with a continuous climate of openness and respect, or these girls see that their opinions and what they say are valued and…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Okay.

Dr. PERRY: So…

MARTIN: I wanted to give the last question to Tebogo…

Dr. PERRY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Tebogo, do you believe that Oprah Winfrey has made it clear that she wants not only to establish a fine education for these girls but to set a new standard for education for girls, not just in South Africa but throughout the continent, and indeed the world? Do you believe that she's going to be able to or that the officials of the school are going to be able to reestablish the trust with the community that would encourage parents to continue to want to sent their girls there?

Ms. MONAMA: I think she's going to be able to do that because right now she has reshuffling the whole school. At the moment, all the dorm parents have been suspended and everybody is looking what's going to happen to them. Are they going to get fired or anything? So if she gets new people and gets better security checks and everything, then she - I think the community is going to understand that she's trying to get a better education for the kids and better everything. And yeah, I think she's doing that.

MARTIN: All right. We're joined by Tebogo Monama. She's a reporter for the Sowetan newspaper. She joined us from her office. We were also joined by Dr. Bruce Perry. He's a child psychologist who was hired to work with the girls at Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy in South Africa. He joined us from Houston.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Dr. PERRY: Thank you.

Ms. MONAMA: Thank you.

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