Clash over sports ban

Sienna Noon and her mother, Charlotte Damgaard.

Sienna Noon is 11 years old. She plays netball for Western Province. Sienna is confident, eloquent – and a type 1 diabetic.

She is also at the centre of a storm which hit social media last week when her school principal banned her from a netball tournament, citing her mother’s “untameable” behaviour.

Sienna told the False Bay Echo that she cried all the way home after her ban last Saturday at Zwaanswyk Primary School.

“I still don’t understand. I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.

Sienna was the only Grade 5 to be selected to play for Western Province in the southern region this year. The sport is her passion.

Sienna’s mother, Charlotte Damgaard, challenged Sun Valley Primary school principal Gavin Keller’s sports ban on her daughter, and claimed the school was discriminating against diabetic children.

Ms Damgaard believes Sienna is being punished for her own exuberant behaviour at matches, although she says the last time the school spoke to her about her excitement at matches was three years ago. She says she has never been given a red card.

A meeting was scheduled to take place at the school on Tuesday, August 28, between Ms Damgaard and Mr Keller and a representative of the Western Cape Education Department to discuss Sienna’s netball ban, Ms Damgaard’s ban from all matches and school functions, and the school’s diabetic policy.

But it was cancelled after Ms Damgaard arrived with her lawyer, whom she said was there to listen without prejudice.

Ms Damgaard said Mr Keller had sent a note at the beginning of the school year, called “You be the Chemist”, to parents, saying the school would no longer be dispensing medicine for children with diabetes without signed instruction from parents, and then, only if a staff member was able and willing to do so.

The note said the receptionist was not trained to “manage diabetic children” and it was up to parents do so, using available technology to monitor blood sugar levels.

It was the next two points on the note that upset Ms Damgaard: “Intervention must be done by the parent or someone employed by the parent to come to school and perform the necessary duty. This is not within the school secretary’s job description.

“Parents who cannot afford this equipment will need to consider placing their child at a school equipped with a medical practitioner.”

Ms Damgaard claims she was ignored when she tried to meet with Mr Keller to discuss this.

The False Bay Echo sent a list of questions to Mr Keller on Monday, August 27, and asked for a copy of the school’s diabetic policy. We wanted to know how many diabetic children attended the school; whether other non-diabetic-related medicines were dispensed; how many staff were trained for medical emergencies and why Sienna was banned.

He did not respond.

The Echo then posed the questions to the school’s management and governing body. Cindy Lilley, executive assistant to the group CEO, said the school would not be commenting until after the meeting scheduled for Tuesday had taken place.

On Tuesday afternoon, after the meeting was meant to have happened, the Echo sent another written request for comment to Mr Keller, the school governing body and Ms Lilley.

Ms Lilley’s response was: “The school does not comment on issues that may compromise the well-being of a student. The WCED circuit manager will communicate with her supervisor, and make a statement should they deem it necessary.”

With regards to Sienna’s ban and her own ban from attending her daughter’s matches, Ms Damgaard said the school had last spoken to her about her “sideline excitement” three years ago.

“I was told not to speak directly to any of the coaches, and I have not, since. I did write a letter to another school asking them to look into the bias of their ref, and that letter was extremely well met by the principal of that school, who called and wrote to me, and we ended our conversations on a really positive note. But Mr Keller said I brought his school into disrepute by writing this letter,” she said, “and he banned me from all Sienna’s games and all her school functions, issued five demands to be met: including that I had to provide a medic to be on hand whenever Sienna played a match in my absence. He said if I could not meet his criteria, he had attached an exit form, for me take Sienna out of the school.”

Sienna is mortified at the thought. She loves her sporting activities and does not want to leave her school.

Western Cape Education Department spokeswoman Jessica Shelver and the department’s director of communications, Bronagh Hammond, both tried to reach Mr Keller, the school and governing body for comment, to no avail.

Ms Hammond could then only answer questions relating to the WCED’s guidelines for administering medicine at public schools.

WCED guidelines, issued in 2012 to help public schools forge their own policies on medication, say schools must create a climate for teaching and learning, and while it is not for the school to diagnose and treat the ailments of pupils and school staff, the pupils’ ability to learn, according to Ms Hammond, is influenced by their overall well-being “and, as such, becomes the responsibility of the school”.

Ms Hammond said a principal had a professional responsibility, under the authority of the head of education, to follow the departmental guidelines on medication.

The guidelines say principals must alert parents and school staff to the possible implications of giving medication to pupils at school and appoint trained staff to do it; no public school can exclude a pupil simply because they need medication, unless it can show that it can’t do so safely or make alternative arrangements to do so; the school must support pupils needing medication and not discriminate against them, and the school must keep the pupil’s health condition confidential.

Ms Bronagh said: “Educators or staff at the school are in loco parentis as regards learners during school hours and school activities, which imposes a duty of care upon the educators and staff of a public school.”

This means the school staff must give the same care as reasonably careful parents would to their children.

Ms Damgaard said she had received overwhelming support from other parents and ex-parents of the school, some in letters, and also in the form of crowdfunding for legal costs.