‘Screaming queen’ and ‘goblin lookalike’ trump Joburg autism school ‘bully’
The labour court has upheld a CCMA decision in favour of two teachers who were ‘bullied’ by their ‘narcissistic’ boss
Being called pathetic, embarrassing, a goblin and a screaming queen are some of the terms two special needs teachers at a Johannesburg school for autistic children were allegedly subjected to by their former employer.
The pair resigned from the Centre for Autism Research & Education in 2017 after founder and director of the centre Rozanna Riback allegedly verbally abused them.
Thereafter, the former teachers and their employer went to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). The commission found their resignations constituted constructive dismissal as they suffered abuse and ill treatment by their boss.
Subsequent to this, Riback approached the labour court, seeking to set aside the CCMA’s decision.
She argued that her former employees’ failure to lodge a complaint was fatal to their claim for constructive dismissal.
In their testimony before the CCMA, the former employees described how their work environment became toxic under Riback’s leadership.
Rudolf Janse van Vuuren, a gay man, told the CCMA that Riback, on a number of occasions, referred to him as a “screaming queen”.
“She would shout at us for the most mundane things. She would attack people based on the fact that they are homosexual and that ... impaired my right to human dignity. As a homosexual, being called a screaming queen on a daily basis is derogatory, insulting and embarrassing,” he said.
According to the former colleagues, Riback also used derogatory terms to refer to parents.
Janse van Vuuren also told of an incident in Cape Town, where he, Karen van der Walt, Riback and another colleague attended a conference.
She came into the class, looked at me and told me I looked like a goblin. She called in other therapists to look at me [and] how sick I looked. I felt belittled in front of the children who respected me.Karen van der Walt
He and Van der Walt went out for a cigarette break. When they came back to a room full of international visitors, Riback told them they were “disgusting, humiliating and embarrassing”. She also told them they were pathetic and that she would send them back to Johannesburg.
Riback, according to Janse van Vuuren, made them open the door of their connecting hotel rooms.
“This made me feel uncomfortable. I walked to the shower and she said: ‘Hey let me see that little bum. Your boyfriend is a lucky man’,” Janse van Vuuren said.
Van der Walt testified that she once went to school without wearing makeup and Riback mocked her in front of the pupils.
“She came into the class, looked at me and told me I looked like a goblin. She called in other therapists to look at me [and] how sick I looked. I felt belittled in front of the children who respected me.”
She said Riback also told her she was thin and looked sick.
The labour court upheld the CCMA’s ruling.
“What the evidence discloses is a workplace operated by a narcissistic personality whose offensive and unwelcome conduct had the effect of creating a toxic working environment in which discrimination, degradation and demeaning behaviour became the norm,” the court found.
“I have no hesitation in finding that the nature and extent of the workplace bullying suffered by the third and fourth respondents was such that ... their continued employment was rendered intolerable.”
The court found that there was not an open-door policy at their workplace and that channels to lodge complaints were not available to them. It also found that the employer rendered their continued employment intolerable.
“The commissioner’s decision that the employees had been unfairly dismissed and are entitled to compensation is thus correct, and the application to set aside and review his decision stands to be dismissed.”
Contacted on Tuesday, Riback had “no comment”.