Award won for defusing race tension

17th January 1997 at 00:00
When teenager Marlon Thomas was beaten up and left for dead in a racist attack, residents in St Paul's - a deprived, ethnically mixed district of Bristol - feared the worst. Some young blacks were threatening revenge and a repeat of the riots of the 1980s.

Few at Fairfield Grammar, Marlon's old school in Montpelier, were untouched. Several pupils were with him on that Easter night at the 1994 fair on Durdham Down after which 19-year-old Marlon, an ex-student and talented artist, was left with severe brain damage.

Fairfield, 65 per cent of whose pupils are from ethnic minorities, had a long-established anti-racist policy but had never before experienced such a trauma. The mood was recalled in an essay by Melvern Young who had been at the fair and saw Marlon lying unconcious on the ground.

"All the men were shouting racist remarks, then a man approached me and said: 'Why are you staring, coon? Do you want some? and he hit me on the knee with a long rusty bar'," Melvern wrote.

From within St Paul's and the surrounding neighbourhood there were strenuous efforts for a constructive response. Crucial to this was the attitude of Marlon Thomas's relatives, who called for justice not vengeance. The school counselled and supported all who wanted it. Some had to relive their ordeal by giving evidence in court.

Fairfield's efforts secured this year's youth award for good citizenship, organised by the Institute for Citizenship Studies and Commission for Racial Equality, and sponsored by the TSB. The school was praised for turning "an appalling incident into positive work on anti-racism ... feelings were running high, but the mature reaction of the individuals concerned reflected the school's ethos".

Direct action was taken - pupils and families supported the Justice for Marlon Thomas campaign and campaigned successfully for the fair to be scrapped. The judges applauded the channelling of energies into non-violent protest.

Fairfield RE teacher Father Paul Bartle-Jenkins recalls the tension after Marlon was attacked. "I expected black gangs to go back up there yet there was a call for peace, which was unusual," he said. "I think the factors were a concern for Marlon - there were 24-hour vigils - the dignified response of his family and that police were quick to say it was a racist attack. It meant that people could feel that the police were on their side."

Marlon's nephew Duane, who works at Fairfield helping slow learners, symbolises an enduring tie between family and school. He had a fortuitous escape from the violence at the fair. "I was at work and supposed to be going afterwards but they didn't wait," he said. "Afterwards, I felt shock and disbelief."

Marlon's presence at Fairfield is permanently recorded with an award in his name, given to a student who excels in art. Headteacher Nicky McAllister recalls Marlon as a "very kind, and thoughtful" pupil who "always did the right thing". He is to share some of the Pounds 1,000 the school has received as its prize.

The mixed 438-pupil school is close-knit in every sense: a gaunt single campus red Victorian building hemmed in by residential terraces, drawing on a densely-populated neighbourhood. "A lot of the staff have been here a long time and can easily walk to work," said Mr McAllister.

"At the time we had to make sure it was a secure place, I think as a community we have grown stronger though I can't say about the individuals who were involved - I don't know if you can get over something like that."

A year ago, St Paul's attracted more notoriety after a series of violent deaths in the district. Once more, the school and community felt besieged. But Fairfield's practised restraint has stood pupils in good stead. When recently a group of pupils doing games were racially abused by contractors working at the county ground, they calmly report the facts and within 12 hours the school received an apology.

Until now Fairfield's claim to fame was educating Hollywood legend Cary Grant, then called Archibald Leach, who was eventually expelled for trespassing in the female toilets. Yet it may be that Fairfield's place in history is assured not only through the high jinks of an embryo movie star but as a model in how to behave in the face of extreme provocation.

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