By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—I can’t summon any schadenfreude for Oprah Winfrey, just sympathy—both for her good intentions and her determination to live up to them. And I pity anyone foolish enough to stand in her way.
I did wince Monday when she called allegations of sexual and physical abuse at the girls’ school she founded in South Africa “one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating experience of my life”—seeming to make it all about her, not the alleged victims. Still, my heart refused to harden.
I recalled that when Winfrey opened the $40-million school in January, I criticized her dismissal of inner-city kids here in the United States as only interested in “an iPod or some sneakers.” I thought that insult was gratuitous and wrong. But I couldn’t argue with her basic point that South Africa has desperate poverty and a rudimentary educational infrastructure, and I applauded her attempt to give a few special girls an opportunity beyond their wildest dreams.
Now that the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is back in the news, but for all the wrong reasons, I’ve got to applaud the way Winfrey is handling the situation. I have the sense that she wouldn’t hesitate to do a little “enhanced interrogation” of some staff members if that was what it took to get to the bottom of what really happened.
A now-fired dormitory matron at the school, Virginia Mokgobo, 27, was arrested last week. She pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of assault, indecent assault and soliciting underage girls to perform indecent acts, and she was released on bail. Police said that at least seven students had submitted statements in support of the allegations, but it was not known how many were alleged victims of abuse and how many were witnesses.
“When I first heard about it, I spent about a half-hour going around my house crying,” Winfrey told South African journalists Monday, speaking from Chicago in a video news conference.
All about Oprah? Not a fair question, when you recall that Winfrey has disclosed that she was the victim of sexual abuse as a young girl. There’s every reason to believe that the allegations of abuse at the school have, as Winfrey said Monday, “shaken me to my core”—not her celebrity core, but her real core.
Since first hearing of the allegations in early October, she has flown to South Africa twice. She put the school’s headmistress on administrative leave, and has since said she will not renew the woman’s contract—the first step in what she described in her news conference Monday as “cleaning house from top to bottom.”
She apologized personally to angry parents, telling them, “I’ve disappointed you. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” She has hired her own investigative team to assist South African authorities, and if someone is found guilty of the charges, I wouldn’t be surprised if Winfrey offered to build a new prison.
Of course, we don’t yet know if any abuse actually took place. The magistrate who released Mokgobo on bail told her, “These kind of offenses are very prevalent in this court”—an acknowledgement that sexual abuse of girls, usually by male teachers, is far too common in South African schools. But in the case of Winfrey’s school, we don’t yet know the specific allegations, much less whether there is evidence to support them.
We know that students complained months ago about not being allowed to eat junk food—hardly a red flag. But we also know that some parents began complaining in March, just two months after the Leadership Academy opened, that the school was too strict in limiting visits, telephone calls and e-mail contact with their children. In retrospect, that might have been an important warning.
Winfrey’s school—lavishly appointed, with state-of-the-art science labs and a yoga studio—is meant to be an island of unlimited possibility. But isolating the school’s 450 students so thoroughly from negative influences may also have kept out needed sunlight—and may have allowed problems to fester in the dark. As Winfrey cleans house, I think she might want to restructure the model and allow more of an organic relationship between the school and its community.
She gave the students her private phone number and e-mail address so they can contact her immediately with problems and concerns. Winfrey may not be an expert on running a school—yet—but I’m confident she understands the most important thing: There is no more sacred trust than caring for other people’s children.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group