Monday, March 12, 2007

Oprah Winfrey's School: Human Rights Scandal?

Scroll down for current (March and April, 2009) updated information
Oprah Winfrey's boarding school for 10-12 year old girls in South Africa is the subject of a breaking story--and a possible scandal. When Oprah showed us her school on TV we learned about how carefully Oprah had chosen the children, the expensive art she installed for their viewing, the costly architecture, the sharp-looking uniforms. Come to think about it, do you remember any content on academics beyond "talented teachers" or "state of the art?" I definitely don't remember anything about caring for the "whole girl" or any spiritual program.

The news is troubling, beginning with rumblings a week ago about a girl who dropped-out due to illness (the school refused to discuss this, but still let it slip that "illness" was the reason) and another girl not allowed to return home for a family funeral because it wasn't "immediate family."

Parents now are beginning to complain that the now can visit their daughters only once per month (down from from twice per month) and that four people are the limit to family visitors a girl can receive at one time. Particularly troubling is that girls are subject to sanctions if the family brings a gift of treats, as this type of small gift is likely within the economic ability of parents.

The school has not only taken the girls away from their family, it limits the girls' telephone calls home to weekends. In a society that has scooped up poor girls who are most likely from families that live from day-to-day rather than a calendar planned months in advance, the fact that parental visits require informing the school two weeks in advance is particularly troubling.

Oprah isn't financing this operation all by herself; she actively seeks donations from others including an online collection effort. While financially her contributions are generous, they also result in substantial tax benefit to Oprah.

I urge readers to follow this story, to discuss it with their friends, and to speak out for the girls. It troubles me that Oprah may have unwitting created the poshest detention facility in the world for children replete with complete and utter lack of cultural sensitivity. Oprah is not a product of private school, nor was her family, compounding her lack of understanding.

In the US today, there is a fair amount of talk about how American Indian schools removed Native Americans from their cultures, and the suffering involved. It is time for Oprah to re-examine her concept, and time for change,
Update: It's October, and Oprah's school is predictably back in the news. Seven month's ago, I was concerned about conditions at the Oprah Winfrey Academy, and this time the news is much worse. Another girl has been removed by her parents, the local police are claiming that access to the school is limited, and child protective services have been called in. Some students are receiving counselling. The Headmaster of the school (the same person who discouraged parental visits in the first place) has been placed on paid leave, following serious allegations of unspecified misconduct made against a "house parent." Investigators from the US have been called in, and Oprah is making statements about her concern for the girls. Troubling, but the school isn't talking so there aren't any details.
Further Update: Oprah's been working hard on this scandal, going so far as to fly the students' parents from around South Africa to attend a two hour meeting at the school. The allegations involve serious criminal conduct. Even worse, there are allegations that the CEO of the school failed to act upon the first reports of wrongdoing. You can read the information that has leaked out in South Africa newspapers by clicking here to read News24, and clicking here to read the article in the Sowetan. Both articles have additional information to the right of the story, and you might want to read those as well.
Halloween Update: Oprah has yet again returned to South Africa where she appologized to school parents. South Africa's News24 is now reporting that "the girls had often complained of being grabbed by the neck, beaten and thrown against a wall, and being sworn at. " Gauteng police have confirmed that their Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offenses Unit (FCS) has been called in. You can read more about what the FCS Unit investigates by clicking here, which will take you directly to their website. CNN has a 4 minute video report here.
South Africa's Cape Argus has an exceedingly negative report about the Oprah Winfrey Academy, claiming that "[T]hroughout the many controversies, Oprah has all but ignored the negative incidents at the school, while it is notoriously difficult to get anyone at the school to comment on anything," and includes the information that Academy parent Bongiwe Aviwe has removed her daughter, as the school not only failed to respond to her concerns about abuse, but that the abuse intensified after her complaint.
November 2, 2007 Update: A former employee of the Oprah Winfrey school was arrested yesterday by the South Africka's Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit. Charges include alleged assault, indecent assault, crimen injuria and soliciting under age girls to perform indecent acts. You can read the News24, South Africa, story by clicking here. NPR has interviewed the Sowetan's reporter, Gertrude Makhafola, who has been covering the story, and you can hear that interview, online, by clicking here.
Did Oprah Winfrey personally kick-out a girl from the school for complaining about abuse? The father of an Oprah Winfrey Academy student tells how Oprah's school didn't bother informing the family of Oprah's decision, and simply never showed up to pick his daughter up after a weekend visit at home following the girl's complaint. Click here to read the story directly in the South African Star for yourself!
November 5, 2007 - Update: Oprah Winfrey has had a one-half hour cry for herlself, and is reported as saying:
"Knowing what I know now the screening process was inadequate even though I was not directly responsible for recruiting dorm parents." "No, I don't think as a school we have failed the girls. I feel there are systems within the school that failed the girls. I don't feel that it has harmed my personal reputation because I have done nothing wrong."
It is likely that these girls, if they had not been cut off from their families, would have been spared this situation. We believe that Ms. Winfrey must take responsibility for this ill-advised action.
March 30, 2009 - Update: Another scandal has occurred at the Opraph Winfrey School, but this time it's not the administration that is charged with wrongdoing, it's seven of its girls. South Africa's Times has the story, as does South Africa's News 24. The South African website, IOL, has additional details.
April 7, 2009 - Update: It is reported that before being banished, accused girls at Oprah's school, were imprisoned in their rooms with guards posted and that when they were expelled, even the shoes given to them by Oprah's school were taken away.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When she first opened her school, I was furious. She was quoted in a weekend tabloid that she had "tried" with US kids, but taking them places, giving them things didn't work out. HEY! I am a social worker, and we have a national organization that should have been contacted on how to help disadvantaged children. What crap--so what you get is this hand-picked, hyper-controlled environment. Poor kids.

Oct 23, 2007, 9:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And let me add the quote from the mag--doesn't that last sentence make you want to say--NO SHIT, OPRAH??? Good Lord! Winfrey says candidly that when she has tried to help kids in this country, "I have failed." Attempting to mentor a group of girls from her adopted hometown of Chicago, "I took them on ski trips, we had etiquette classes ... you'd teach them how to do their makeup, we'd read and talk about books. And when they went home, they were criticized and beat up because their families said, 'Who do you think you are?' " The failure taught her "you can't just give people money, new homes, new stuff and think that you're giving them a new life."



Oct 23, 2007, 9:59:00 PM  
Blogger Publia said...

Thanks for your comments, M. Rossi. What troubles me most about the school is Oprah's values. I have no doubt that Oprah has good intentions and wants to give these children what she believes to be the best, but I worry about the girls themselves. Families matter, and there are plenty of poor and uneducated people who are wonderful parents with strong values.

These girls won't be hurt by time with their families and with limited amounts of junk food, but they maybe won't turn into in Oprah's image of the perfect daughters that she never had. Can you imagine the dilemma if you are a very poor parent with a child in this school which gives the girls everything material and nothing that really matters?

This celebrity trend of going to Africa to get kids has got to stop. It is demeaning. These are people, not puppies. Life is a great deal more than ski trips, etiquette classes, and fancy makeup.

Oct 24, 2007, 1:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Harold R said...

Oprah is a racist! Hates the white folk that made her zillions and the STUPID WHITE FOLK ARE BLIND TO SEE!

Got a pprob with Oprah??? I'm not the one who Patronizes her, het TV , her books etc........

Blame the trailer trash who enjoy being stupid!

Oct 29, 2007, 2:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Oprah ought to have consulted with the african culture to find out what is valued before venturing to help those girls.
Im certain she had good intentions but in Africa, being locked away from your children or being in boarding house for prolonged periods without seeing ones children is not done.
But Im certain the case will be contained.Her school is not the first to have such scandal and It wouldnt be best If the case is given so much publicity just because its oprahs' and it may end up in those girls losing out totally on an education they could never have afforded!!!
Oprah, I think youre on the right track in trying to sit with the parents and discuss.

Oct 29, 2007, 7:29:00 PM  
Blogger Publia said...

Harold R,
We value your viewpoint, but I don't think Oprah is a racist. There is no evidence of that, and there's no evidence of racism at the Oprah Winfrey Academy.

I am not sure where you are writing from, but if you follow this link from the Sowetan,, you will see that many South Africans report deplorable conditions at their boarding schools. In fact, your comments are very similar to those from South Africa. It's possible that Oprah was too quick to accept the current culture in South Africa regarding boarding schools. I don't think her problem is one of cultural insensitivity to children, its a result of not knowing much about boarding schools and not knowing much about children.

I sincerely doubt whether Oprah will pull out of this venture based on publicity about these problems. She has a strong commitment to this school, and I am pretty sure negative publicity will encourage her to solve the problem, not walk away from it. In fact, that's why I posted the original article in the first place. Thank you for your thoughts on the matter.

Oct 30, 2007, 5:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Girls locked away from their parents except for 2 hours a month. What could go wrong? I don't think there will be any girls reporting abuses in the future, though. Oprah has surrounded the school with a barbed wire perimeter. Oprah is destroying herself and I don't think she will stop until she is washed up in show business. Oprah is a human rights violator and an enemy to the institution of the family.

Nov 4, 2007, 8:47:00 PM  
Blogger Publia said...

Anonymous, Do you have a picture of the barbed wire perimeter you could send us?

Nov 5, 2007, 11:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone have a child in boarding school? Her rules at the Oprah Winfrey Academy are just as strict as US elite boarding schools. I am sick and tired of people in America complaining about their schools and Why oprah didnt try. Why dont the parents and community try and stop leaving it up to celebrities? Why ask the obviouse when you dont want to work with your own kids. My kids have a great education backgound not because of Oprah but because of me their Parent!!!

Nov 6, 2007, 8:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frankly as much as I sympathize with the plight of foreign countries, American celebrities have a bad habit of cleaning up everyone else's backyards before they clean up their own. I am sorely disappointed that they feel that American children are not as valuable as those of other countries and have let a few bad apples sour their opinions and desire to help those kids here who do want to learn and prosper as others. I was truly disheartened when I saw her show about the Chicago public school system and found it ignorant and pathetic that it took Bill Gates who does not live here to point out to the great Oprah that the Chicago Public Schools were crumbling and that these kids need help too. Is this really believable. Now I have heard more disparaging remarks she allegedly has said about CPS students- my child is one, and is excelling in academics despite a disability as other kids I know. Well "if" she said it,I am truly disappointed and find her remarks totally ignorant, unsubstantiated and unfair. When she insults theses kids she insults mine too. There are too many factors involved as to why these problems exist in our society including socio economic ones to start off so is she so blind that she thinks she can put a band aid on this huge problem and fix it with ski trips and high priced makeup. Her head is in the clouds now and even though I stopped watching her years ago because I am not in her "demographic viewing audience" I find her to be a traitor as far as playing a positive role in helping to alleviate some of the problems in various communities or at least bringing them to the forefront moreso in the media. She diefinitely has the power to do so. Where is her voice and other celebrities voices, on all the teen violence happening today? Is it silent because it is primarily minority crime and not as huge as the Columbine massacre? Is it any different? Back in the day when her show was formatted like Jerry Springer she would have been all over it. So just as many others she has forgotten where she came from. We are taking over where these celebrities fail and are doing a documentary at my school concerning youth violence and school violence. Anyone wishing to participate with stories, feedback or comments on this issue please e-mail me at To heck with Oprah!

Mar 20, 2008, 5:05:00 AM  
Anonymous cora said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

May 13, 2009, 2:31:00 PM  
Blogger Publia said...

Anon with the CPS student:
A school with involved parents, engaged children and interested teachers will turn out students able to compete sucessfully with anyone else, including every student from an elite school.

I also think it is important to remember that Oprah's job is as an entertainer.

Sep 11, 2009, 1:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know staff at the Oprah school, and things aren't all roses. No-one will talk for fear of their jobs.

Oct 5, 2009, 7:04:00 PM  

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