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Despite allegations, Oprah's school supported

  • Story Highlights
  • Dorm parent accused of abuse at Oprah Winfrey's South African school
  • One mother of student supports Winfrey: "Oprah is an angel"
  • Allegations under investigation by Americans, South Africans
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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- A mother whose daughter and granddaughter attend Oprah Winfrey's school in South Africa considers the talk-show host heaven-sent, despite allegations of abuse being investigated there.

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Oprah Winfrey cuts the ribbon at the opening in January of her Leadership Academy in South Africa.

"Oprah is an angel, she is God-sent," Masechaba Hine said Wednesday from her small home in gritty Soweto township. "She came to my rescue when my husband was not working."

Hine's daughter Palesa and her granddaughter Alebohang, both 14, were among the 152 students chosen to be the first class to attend the high-tech, high-profile Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls when it opened in January. Her faith remains unshaken by the news that South African police have opened a criminal investigation into allegations that a dorm parent mistreated students at the school.

Hine said her children "have no problems about the school, they are happy about everything."

Investigators declined to provide details of the alleged abuse, but the academy's CEO, John Samuel, said in a statement issued earlier this month that an internal inquiry was launched based on a claim of misconduct involving a dormitory parent. Video Watch why school is being investigated »

According to an article in The Cape Argus, a Cape Town newspaper, the dorm parent allegedly grabbed a pupil by the throat and threw her against a wall, the girl claimed. Girls at the school also claimed that the matron swore and screamed at the girls and assaulted them, the newspaper reported Saturday.

The newspaper said one of the pupils ran away from the school, blaming the alleged abuse.

Winfrey personally selected the school's students, all of them straight-A students from underprivileged backgrounds. The students get free tuition, free uniforms, free accommodation and free meals at the school in Henley-on-Klip, near Johannesburg.

In Hine's case, her children's status as the "poorest of the poor" that the school aims to serve was clear-cut: Hine supports the five people who live in her small two-bedroom Soweto home on the $50 a week she makes from a fruit and vegetable stand. Hine also is caring for two other orphans -- a niece and a younger granddaughter -- as well as Palesa and Alebohang, whom Hine took responsibility for when her own mother died of AIDS.

Along with the money she scrapes together, the family survives on food baskets they receive once a month from a charity.

Hine attended an emergency meeting with Winfrey when the talk-show host came to the school two weeks ago.

"She was emotional, she was crying when she was talking about her daughters. It is not our daughters anymore, it is Oprah's daughters," Hine said.

Winfrey did not give the parents details of the allegations other than to say that the dormitory parent "didn't treat the girls the way she likes," Hine said. She said parents were told at the start of the meeting that Winfrey "does not want the thing to be in the media. It was a private meeting."

The controversy that now surrounds the school now offers a sharp contrast to the glitter and air of limitless hope when Winfrey brought a gaggle of Hollywood stars with her to officially open the well-appointed school. The criminal probe was opened after a team of three American experts hired by Winfrey gave police the results of their initial investigation, police said.

"We came to the conclusion that there were criminal elements and then we opened the case for investigation," said Police Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini.

Dlamini told CNN that the team of U.S. experts hired by Winfrey to conduct the internal investigation included Robert Farley, a retired Cook County, Illinois, detective. He said two American social workers were also on the team.

Previously, Winfrey -- who has spoken publicly about the abuse she suffered as a child -- issued a statement on October 17 saying, "Nothing is more serious or devastating to me than an allegation of misconduct by an adult against any girl at the academy."

In the statement, Samuel said South African child protection services were notified and the dorm parent was removed from the campus.

"We have engaged professional investigators of the highest standing from South Africa and the United States to conduct a fair and impartial inquiry into these claims," the statement said.

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The school's head has agreed to take a paid leave of absence pending the results of the investigation, although she is not the subject of the allegation, Samuel said.

The national prosecuting authority is deciding whether criminal charges will be filed. In an October 23 statement, Samuel referred inquiries to the South African Child Protection Services Unit. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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