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'Bullying ring' may be tip of iceberg

Ten boys have been charged after reports of assaults at school. Allen Edwards reports

Visitors arriving at Hall Cross School in Doncaster drive up an avenue of trees towards its red-brick gothic buildings. It is not a school easily associated with bullying and gang violence despite being alleged to be the scene of a brutal extortion racket.

A teenage gang is alleged to have used blackmail and beatings in an eight-month reign of terror inflicted on around 20 children aged 12 and 13 at the school, it is said. They allegedly laid in wait outside school and forced their victims to hand over dinner money.

Ten boys aged 12 to 15 have been charged with a total of 35 offences, including blackmail, robbery, assault and affray. They are due to appear at Doncaster youth court on June 19.

The Doncaster comprehensive, which has had to face the glare of the national media, has a good reputation locally, has achieved high scores for GCSEs and A-levels and does well in the school league tables in the South Yorkshire town.

It has a mixed catchment area, including affluent private housing in the suburb of Bessacarr together with the less well-off area of Hyde Park.

The allegations may represent the tip of an iceberg affecting a range of schools across the country, according to children's charities that deal with bullying.

One group, the Anti-Bullying Campaign, estimates that 10 deaths a year are linked to bullying, most of them suicides.

After police raids, Hall Cross's headteacher Brian Ford said: "This action should serve as a message to all would-be school bullies. Bullying often includes criminal acts and the schools, together with South Yorkshire Police, are determined to eradicate offensive behaviour.

"Hall Cross has operated a strong anti-bullying policy for many years and has excellent relationships with parents over this and many other issues.

"We are very grateful for the support we have had from the police."

A ChildLine report in May 1996 showed that one in four of the 10,000 children calling the national helpline every day was concerned about bullying.

More boys were calling about violent bullying, with 43 per cent of those calling about bullying in 1994 being worried about violence compared to 31 per cent in 1990.

Pauline Hasler, the director of the Anti-Bullying Campaign, said: "From what we hear through our helpline, bullying normally involves gangs picking on victims, especially among older children.

"There tends to be one instigator, then the rest of the gang follow like sheep because they are frightened of becoming victims themselves.

"Bullying tends to last for a long time. It can include verbal abuse like taunts or violence, which in extreme cases can involve beatings. We have had a case of a craft knife being held to a child's neck."

Ms Hasler said the charity gets calls from children from all over the country in state and independent schools. It was set up by parents after the death of a schoolboy who was killed in a road accident while cycling fast to try to avoid bullies.

She said bullies were often insecure themselves and may have problems at home.

"Victims can suffer terribly," she said. "We get calls from children having sleepless nights, some suffer bedwetting and, in general, victims tend to feel very isolated.

"Bullying can continue to affect them in later life, such as not being able to trust people."

Ms Hasler said parents and teachers should try harder to overcome the barriers that can build up between them and victims, who may feel they do not want to burden their parents with their problems.

She said: "Years ago we had bullying at school but society is becoming more violent and children are accepting that they are going to become victims."

* Magistrates have ordered a teenage student charged with raping a fellow pupil to be allowed back into school to sit GCSEs.

North Tyneside Council was criticised by the father of the 14-year-old alleged victim for not warning the family the boy would be in school. He has now withdrawn his daughter from school.

A spokesman for North Tyneside Council said the school had followed the advice of police in line with bail conditions set by magistrates who barred the boy at all other times. He was met at the gate, escorted to the exam and afterwards escorted off the premises.

"He was supervised one-to-one at all times and did not mix with other pupils or take part in the school day at all," he said. The rape is alleged to have taken place off school premises on January 1 this year.

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