My Only Story Season 2: Back to School is a podcast series and live investigation. It is written and edited by Deon Wiggett and is a co-production of NPO My Only Story and News24.
Time heals all wounds, but for a grieving Eastern Cape father, the ticking of time’s hands serves only to remind him of the many unanswered questions that consume him since his son’s death at one of the country’s most prestigious private schools in 2018.
The death by suicide of 16-year-old Thomas Kruger, a Grade 10 pupil at St Andrew’s College at the time, remains a mystery for his distraught father, Charl.
Almost three years on since his son’s tragic death, Charl, a financial advisor, said believed there was more to the angst and suffering that made his son take that fateful step.
But the 166-year-old Anglican school said it had conducted all probes and found no triggering event.
The lives of the Kruger family changed forever on 18 November 2018 when they received the news that Thomas was found hanging from a first-floor window of the sanatorium building at the school in Makhanda.
On the fateful night, the teenager squeezed through a small window and hanged himself.
By morning, Thomas, clad in shorts and a white T-shirt, was found hanging from the sickbay’s window which faces the school’s water polo pool, where he spent hundreds of afternoons straining every muscle in his body playing a sport he loved.
The teenager, affectionately known as Tom, was a promising and passionate water polo player and had embraced the sporting code offered at the country’s elite and third most expensive school since his admission in 2016.
But three years later, Charl is still questioning what could have burdened the teenager so deeply that he took his own life on the hallowed grounds of a school he fought against the odds to attend.
The father of two described his pain and grief as being equivalent to an influenza infection gripping one’s body – only a thousand times worse, with body aches and shakes that never ceased.
He speaks at great length about his grief and the circumstances of his son’s death in the second season of My Only Story, a podcast series co-produced by Deon Wiggett and News24.
Kruger, who said Thomas often shared some of his most private thoughts, is still devastated that there was at least one thing his son felt he could not talk about.
“This loss and pain, knowing that Tom was in my eyes carrying a burden that was too great for him to share… He just couldn’t share that with me – I think he realised that there was no way out for him other than to end his own life… And there was a way out. There was a way out. We could have dealt with it,” he added.
St Andrew‘s College – a dream realised
Thomas, who lived in Espin House, one of six boarding houses at the school, excelled at several sporting codes since his primary school days in Johannesburg and Gqeberha. He was awarded the Duthie Memorial Scholarship in 2015 to start Grade 8 at the school in 2016.
Soon after enrolling at St Andrew’s, he was selected to represent various sports codes, including the under-14A water polo team.
When his son enrolled at the prestigious school, Charl said Thomas did not exhibit any signs he might have been struggling with any mental or emotional stressors – instead, he was excited about attending the renowned school after discovering the scholarship and applying for it himself.
By the time he reached his second year, Thomas, now in Grade 9, showed drastic behavioural and attitude changes, his father recalled.
The death of Thomas Kruger, 16, a Grade 10 pupil at St Andrew’s College remains a mystery. (Supplied)
However, Charl said he and his wife did not take it too seriously, assuming it was all part of the growing pains of a boy going through puberty.
The heartbroken dad added: “He became a different child, and to a certain extent, both of us [him and his wife] felt we’d lost our child.”
In an attempt to assist their son, whose mental health they noticed was deteriorating, the Krugers moved Thomas to Grey High School in Gqeberha in July 2018, hoping being closer to home would give him a sense of stability.
But later, Thomas urged his parents to re-enrol him at St Andrew’s in November, a request they agreed to.
The young boy’s return to school coincided with the annual Grade 10 excursion – the Fish River Journey camp, or simply “Journey”, as pupils commonly call it.
However, three days later Thomas found himself back at St Andrew’s, having been sent back due to a transgression.
As a matter of procedure, he was sent to the sanatorium, where he would be housed for the night.
But Charl questioned why his son was sent to the sanatorium and why they were not informed he was being sent back to the school – even if temporarily.
Speaking to News24 this week, St Andrew’s College headmaster Alan Thompson said Thomas was found with contraband.
It was standard procedure to send him to the sanatorium and not inform his parents, he added.
Thompson said Thomas would have returned to the camp the following day after it was established what had happened.
Asked of his role when a pupil was sent back from Journey like Thomas was, he added: “I was informed that he was coming in. And he wasn’t coming in for a disciplinary hearing. Yes, so I am informed, but I don’t have a direct role.”
Thompson said a leader from the camp signed Thomas into the sanatorium before he was due to explain the items found on him to receive a warning and possibly be sent back to Journey.
According to him, the school always had policies in place regarding admission to the sanatorium, saying boys were signed in or out by their housemasters or someone who was responsible for them.
Charl looked upon his son for the last time as he departed for the Great Fish River.
This memory is one that pains him the most.
He said he and his wife went to great lengths to get through to their son, whose behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic in 2017 and 2018.
He had fallen into depression during this time.
Thompson said while the school was aware Thomas had a “general unhappiness”, it was not obvious what caused it.
Explaining Thomas’ unhappiness, he said: “We knew he had become unhappy, but he had just come with us on a marketing trip where he was making speeches to other schools around marketing St Andrew’s. So, he was not displaying obvious behaviour of being unhappy.
He did then report being unhappy. When we asked him what it was, he said he wanted actually to go to Johannesburg to St John’s to be with his friends from when I think he was at Pridwin [Preparatory School] in Johannesburg before he came down to Grey Junior. There was no obvious thing reported there.
According to the headmaster, Thomas was well-known at the school, saying his family was also “deeply loved” members of the community.
Charl said he believed there was a lot more to his son’s depression and subsequent death than what he had managed to piece together on the information given to him.
“There are no words to describe the loss of a child. I know it’s highly clichéd to say no parent should ever have to bury a child. Your life gets turned upside down…
“It’s like you are getting flu, and your body starts to ache; well, multiply that by a thousand times, and that’s how I feel sitting right here now. And it won’t go away. You can’t drink it away… There is nothing I can do to get rid of it.”
Since Thomas’ death, his father has conducted research and claims to have found similar cases were rife at institutions across the country.
Charl wants justice for his son, saying the school had promised to investigate what happened, but he had not received any findings from it yet.
But Thompson maintained the family had been informed about the probe that was undertaken, saying a legal counsel had reviewed the school’s actions and interviewed everyone involved.
He added the reasons for Thomas’ suicide remained unknown.
“We do not know, and to speculate and to engage with rumour would dishonour the memory of Tom, which we cherish and respect deeply.
“We have reviewed every step of this incident and believe that we did everything possible in the best possible faith with the information that we had.
“We investigated every aspect of this incident, reviewed it independently, and found no obvious triggering event.”
Thompson said the school offered the Krugers support and he had previously been in contact with Charl when visiting Gqeberha.
He added Charl would often tell him he was not ready for a visit, a position he understood.
My Only Story S2: Back to School will be published every Thursday at 05:00 until 21 October.
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