Oprah Responds to School Sex Claims

On Monday, Oprah Winfrey responded to allegations of child abuse at her school for South African girls. Farai Chideya talks about the press conference and what's to follow with Allison Samuels, a News & Notes contributor and national correspondent for Newsweek magazine.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

There's an old saying that goes leaders are born not made. But scores of prominent people including Colin Powell argue that leadership is learned, so apparently does media mogul Oprah Winfrey.

She founded a girls' leadership academy near Johannesburg, South Africa. But last week, claims of child abuse surfaced at Winfrey's Academy for Girls. One dorm matron faces 13 charges of indecent assault and injury for allegedly harming at least six students.

During a press conference yesterday, Oprah Winfrey said she was devastated by the news and is conducting a private investigation. She also praised the students who reported the abuse.

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Founder, Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls): They represent, those 15 girls, the new generation of youth in South Africa who fearlessly take back their voices to speak up about their concern for their fellow classmates. This is really what we're trying to teach. This is what leadership is all about - to use your voice no matter what the personal consequences, so that abuse will end and good will prevail.

CHIDEYA: Here with more is Newsweek national correspondent Allison Samuels. Hey, Allison

Ms. ALLISON SAMUELS (National Correspondent, Newsweek): Hey. How are you doing?

CHIDEYA: So you visited the school and you saw Oprah interview people who wanted to work for the school. What do you think went wrong here?

Ms. SAMUELS: I think the main thing is that she hired people for the higher-up positions, for the sort of main positions, and I think she allowed them to choose the people who were sort of more the regular, you know, sort of dorm matron, for example. She didn't hire those people exactly. She hired the people on top. And I think that, you know, inevitably, you're going to have a bad apple. I think no matter how much you interview people or how many references they get, you can't be sure that everyone is going to be the right person. And, unfortunately, it has only been a year. It hasn't even been a year for the school. So I think that's the disadvantage of what's going on. And let's be clear, she's half a world away which makes it very hard for her to sort of monitor who's doing what.

And also you're looking at girls who are mostly orphans, so I think, unfortunately, people can take advantage of girls like that because they feel like, who are they going to tell, but really - clearly, they did tell someone. But I'm sure that that was sort of the feeling of these girls are worlds away from their home, you know, I can do what I want to do and it's not going to get back. But, obviously, that's not the case. So - for Oprah, I feel bad for her because I know she went through a lot of effort and time to get the girls and the staff. And for this to happen less than year before the, you know, before the year anniversary, I can only imagine how devastated she is.

CHIDEYA: What do you think of her response and the press conference? Was it, in some ways, overkill and reverberating the story - not that people weren't paying attention.

Ms. SAMUELS: Right.

CHIDEYA: Was this the kind of thing that actually laid out her plans and her vision or did it draw more attention to this?

Ms. SAMUELS: Well, I don't think the story was going to go away because it's Oprah. And let's be clear, she took such a hit when she opened the school. People were so critical about why did she open it up there and why she doesn't do more here. I think that she had to sort of answer, hey, I did it. I'm not apologizing for it, but this is what went wrong, and this is how I fix it. I think she had to sort of be pro-active on that because I think the story was not going to go away without her sort of explaining how this might have gone wrong.

And also you have to see those girls. Those girls have already been through so much, had already been so damaged. I think she felt very strongly about saying, I'm going to help these girls get over this and move on.

CHIDEYA: There have already been other conversations reported that the parents of the students have complained that the school is too strict and they have too little access to their children - obviously, the children who are not orphans - what do you make of those allegations and were those mainly cleared up before this happened?

Ms. SAMUELS: I think that this is a work-in-progress. I mean, you know, she just opened the school. It hasn't been a year. I think this was something that - this is an undertaking no one's really done before there. So I think it's a lot of trial and error. And, you know, I could tell from what she was doing that it was going to be a strict school because there are so many activities she has them involved in. There are so many classes that they're taking. She's trying to expose them to so much, I think it doesn't really allow for them to go out much or to have people come in to visit them, particularly in the beginning. I think she's - because she's taken these kids away from their home base.

And I think she was concerned that if they spend too much time with other people, they wouldn't able to handle being away. So I think there is a method to what she's trying to do, but I think the main thing is just trial and error. And, unfortunately, this has been a very hard year; some hard lessons for her.

CHIDEYA: Now, the woman who is accused of these molestations and attacks says that she didn't do it. Would Oprah run a risk of actually getting into legal - reverse legal action from someone like that?

Ms. SAMUELS: I mean, I - obviously, if she didn't do it, I mean, it's going to trial. So I would think that, at the end of the day, they're going to have to try - they're going to have to prove it: the investigators - and Oprah's hired her own investigators. But it's hard for me to imagine that after everything that's happened that they didn't pinpoint the person that is at least somewhat responsible for it. I think that given that South Africa is investigating and Oprah has her own people, I have to believe that they sort of narrowed it down to the right person at this point.

We shall see, but I think the investigation is in continuing. So I think she's being clear. She doesn't want to have that happen where it's not the right person. I mean, because those girls are still in that school; she doesn't need this to happen again. So she has to make extra sure she has the person, you know, that's responsible for it. So I don't at all think that she has the wrong person.

CHIDEYA: Oprah Winfrey herself has talked about being molested, abused as a child. There's no doubt that she must view this school as an accomplishment and this as a huge personal setback. How do you think that plays out with how she's put her life story out front and center?

Ms. SAMUELS: Well, I think that's probably the saddest part about this is that, you know, this is what she built the school for: to avoid that, to sort of give these girls a new life and a life where they didn't have to worry about poverty and things like that, and that - like, things that a lot of them were suffering from. So I think that for her, like I said, I can only imagine that she's just hurt to the core because she couldn't protect them from this, and I think it also shows that sometimes you can't protect your children all the time.

I think that's sort of the saddest part about it. No matter how hard you try, your children are still sort of vulnerable to other people sort of getting in there and having, you know, having, you know, having some impact on them negatively. So I think that's the reality of it. And I think Oprah's always tried to sort of be real and honest about these are the sort of, you know, negatives that are out there, and you just have to find a way to deal with them.

CHIDEYA: What do you think lies ahead?

Ms. SAMUELS: What I think - for her? I think the school will continue, you know, to sort of go on. I think she will keep her head up and, you know, continue to sort of push it through and just use this as an example of how these girls have been able to, you know, they're resilient. They're going to get over this and become the leaders she wants them to be.

CHIDEYA: Well, Allison, thank you so much.

Ms. SAMUELS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Allison Samuels is a national correspondent for Newsweek magazine. She joined me here at our NPR West Studios. And you can watch all of Oprah's press conference by going to our blog nprnewsandviews.org.

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