A voice for the victim

5th December 1997 at 00:00
How does a school cope with murder? Gerald Haigh visits the Kent village where Lin Russell and her six-year-old daughter Megan were killed last year, and talks to staff, including Teacher of the Year Lynda Roberts (pictured above), about the rehabilitation of Josie Russell.

On July 9, 1996 six-year-old Megan Russell and her mother Lin were murdered on their way home from Goodnestone Church of England primary school in Kent. Megan's nine year-old-sister, Josie, was also attacked and left grievously injured. The effect of the murder upon Lin's husband and family is unimaginable. It is only slightly easier to grasp what faced Goodnestone Primary, an 85-pupil village school which, plunged into grief, had to decide what part the staff and pupils could play in Josie's rehabilitation.

As Josie lay in hospital that summer, unable to speak, the question arose as to whether she should return to school or be in special education. Goodnestone's headteacher, Daryl Peek, argued for Josie's return. "We thrashed out all the options, but I felt very strongly she needed to come back to us. Josie's father was of the same mind." The other children were confident of the outcome, she says. "From the moment I told them in assembly what had happened, they were always sure that Josie was coming back."

The group to which she would return was a mixed-age class - Years 4, 5 and 6 - of 33 pupils. Running a class like this is a big enough challenge, and Mrs Peek was concerned about the progress of all the children, including Josie. "I had to meet all the children's entitlement to a good quality education," she says.

Another difficulty lay with the physical surroundings. Goodnestone is a 160-year-old building, which, according to one teacher, "looks a little tatty but feels like home".

"We didn't want her to trip up in class, or hurt herself on the playground, " says Mrs Peek. In the event, says Josie's teacher, Lynda Roberts, "She defied us all and was soon doing handstands and cartwheels in the adventure playground."

Mrs Peek's confidence that the school could help Josie was based on her respect for Mrs Roberts, who was named Disney Channel Teacher of the Year earlier this term. "I knew I had an exceptional teacher - her organisational skills are wonderful and she has qualities that are over and above most other teachers."

"For more than 20 years," explains Mrs Roberts, "I could never bear to think of any child not being able to achieve. I have had that basic desire to motivate all the children. I feel I'm successful, and because of that I am very happy in my job."

Nevertheless, it was clear that Mrs Roberts would need support. As Daryl Peek puts it: "Because Josie had total lack of communication, I knew we would need another adult."

Kent education authority's Individual Pupil Services Department made an inspired choice: Angie Murray, an experienced teacher of art and craft who, in semi-retirement, had been doing a range of special needs support work. "The service wanted to know whether I would work with a special needs child returning to her school," she recalls. "Not until the third phone call did they tell me who it was. I became aware then that it was a unique job, and that it was very important to handle it correctly. But I felt that, given the atmosphere in the school, I could do it."

Josie returned gradually, resuming her full-time education after the autumn half-term of 1996. There were many challenges. As well as her speech loss - still severe, though the health authority's speech therapists had made considerable progress - she had also partly lost her hearing.

The only response was to get on and do something. For three mornings a week Josie worked on art and craft projects with Miss Murray, who talked to her continuously about the work and encouraged her to communicate. Her aim was to let Josie make choices. "She was very sure of what she wanted to do. We had a glove puppet project, and we made her promise that the puppets would eventually talk."

It is clear that Miss Murray was in two-way communication with Josie from early on, and she finds it difficult to recall now what was done through speech and what through other means. Sure enough, the language slowly came back - though not in a steady, progressive way. It was, says Mrs Roberts, "much more sophisticated and complicated than that. And she changed from day to day. In the early days she used odd words, not necessarily in their correct context. "

There was a continuing concern that by unlocking communication her teachers might reawaken hidden terrors.

But what Josie was doing, all her teachers are sure, was trying hard to be her old self. "She wanted to be Josie," is how Mrs Roberts puts it, and her teachers recall small markers of progress: "She was suddenly cheeky, lining up for lunch one day," says Miss Murray; and Daryl Peek remembers her miming taking a mobile phone call and telling Mrs Peek the call was for her. "She always had this beautiful sense of humour."

When she was not working with Miss Murray, Josie was in class with Mrs Roberts, always doing the same work as the others and as fully integrated as possible, with the help of an extra classroom assistant. "I use a lot of body language and facial expression anyway," explains Mrs Roberts, "and the other children took their lead from me." It was, in fact, for her work with the whole class that Mrs Peek recommended Mrs Roberts for her Teacher of the Year award.

This close school community suffered emotional shock that July. Some of the stories and discussion topics which were off-limits while Josie was there are still difficult to tackle. Many children are reluctant to read as much as they once did, finding it difficult to confront the often dark-hued imaginative challenge that lies in good children's fiction. Creative writing is also inhibited, something Mrs Roberts is dealing with by working on the writing of smaller pieces, particularly poetry.

Almost a year ago, Josie and her father returned to live in Wales, where they had once lived as a family. The parting, last Christmas, was painful for the school community. However, Mrs Peek and her colleagues were much heartened, when they met Josie at the Teacher of the Year presentation, to see the progress she had made. "Her new teachers have obviously continued to do excellent work with her," says Mrs Peek.

Goodnestone, too, continues to recover. A very good Ofsted report this spring encouraged everyone. The hurt, though, will be a long time in the mending. The floral "M", for Megan, planted by the children in the grounds will continue to bloom each spring. Counselling is still going on, for children and staff. To meet Mrs Peek, though, is to be left in no doubt that she has the strength to pull her school through. Before she came to Goodnestone - only two terms before the murders - she had run a unit for teenagers excluded from school, and had earlier worked with young offenders. She was, as she puts it, "used to horrendous happenings".

Above all, though, you feel that her strength is driven by a deep anger at what has happened, and a determination that "the person who did this is not going to destroy our school".

The search is on for the 1998 Disney Channel Teachers of the Year. The organisers are looking for "Teachers who have shown dedication and commitment that are an inspiration to others, individuals whose innovative teaching qualities have helped pupils to reach their full potential". Nominations to Disney Channel Teacher of the Year 1998, Freepost, LON7405, or e-mail teacher@aspectgroup.co. uk. Please include your own telephone number and address as well as the teacher's

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