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Shops offer refuge for the bullied

Protection scheme is possibly the first of its kind in the UK, reports Nadene Ghouri.

Shopkeepers against bullies unite. In the North Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough, shops have joined the fight against bullying by setting themselves up as safe havens for local primary school pupils.

The Safe Routes To School Scheme tells pupils that if they feel frightened, lost or hurt they can go to a participating shop and be guaranteed a warm welcome. If need be, the shopkeeper will contact the police, parents or school.

The need for such schemes was tragically highlighted by the suicide of Kelly Yeomans, 13, last weekend. She took an overdose after persistent bullying by youths on her Derby housing estate. Kelly had also complained about bullying at her school, Merrill College.

Philip Bentley is head of Friarage county primary, the first school to pilot the new scheme.

He insists it hasn't been set up in response to particular problems. "It's a pre-emptive strike really, but what it does is offer reassurance to both children and parents.

"A lot of our children do walk to school alone and even if they never do need help, it's nice for them to know it's there," he said.

On the first few days of term, the school's 500 pupils were each given a map showing the nine shops taking part. But even without the map, the shops can be recognised by the large "safe routes" posters in their windows.

All shops (and shopkeepers) have been vetted by police and trained in what to expect from upset or angry children.

Wendy Perkin, who runs a newsagent's shop in Scarborough, has an eight-year-old daughter, Natalie, at Friarage Primary.

"As a mum I think it's such an obvious and brilliant idea, I don't know why we don't have it everywhere,"she said. "My shop is right next to a dark alleyway and last year there was a fair amount of bullying going on there. Not just on the way to and from school, but after hours and at weekends.

"We open long hours and can be there for any problems out of school and the little ones playing on the beach. All the kids know the shop and call in for sweets anyway, so I don't feel they'd be embarrassed to ask me for help. "

Inspector Bill Clayton, the area police liaison officer, said that the idea came from an officer who had seen a similar scheme in Australia.

"The Aussie scheme was about safe houses and neighbours, but I felt that would be too risky and possibly attract paedophiles. It would need an awful lot of vetting. With shops and businesses things are kept that bit more official, " he said.

Inspector Clayton would like to see more "safe routes" and has already been approached by community officers in Bradford and Huddersfield.

"Scarborough is a pretty safe place for children anyway, it's a small community where people tend to know each other. I don't know if the scheme could transfer safely to nameless housing estates or rough parts of a city. Sadly, I suppose that's exactly the kind of place it's needed most," he said.

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