Bad blood

1st July 2011 at 01:00
Attacks carried out in schools by outsiders are mercifully rare, but when they occur the wounds can be slow to heal. Meabh Ritchie reports on dealing with the aftermath

When he was told that a pupil had just been stabbed, Trevor Averre- Beeson initially took the news with a pinch of salt. "My PA came into my office to tell me," he says. "But to be honest, I didn't think that was what I would find there. Sometimes in schools you get mis-relayed stories."

Unfortunately, the headmaster's PA was correct. Two men in their late teens had managed to jump over the wall surrounding the east London school and were stealing phones and wallets from children. "They were going round the playground putting pressure on pupils to hand over their stuff, and had some kind of small, retractable knife at their disposal," says Mr Averre-Beeson.

One of the Year 11 pupils had refused to hand over his things and was slashed across the stomach as a result. "When I arrived at the scene, I thought this was going to be one of those awful moments that nobody wants to face," he says. "But I think at these times, your `adult' kicks in: you just think about dealing with the practicalities. It's a human reaction to make sure something terrible doesn't become something worse."

Some senior managers had already arrived at the scene - the code word for a serious incident was sent out on the school's tannoy system - and when he got to the playground, Mr Averre-Beeson saw the two men running away and jumping back over the fence, leaving an injured pupil and his horrified classmates in their wake.

"There wasn't chaos and screaming and shouting though," says Mr Averre- Beeson. "When a crisis occurs, I think people start to do the right thing. I can honestly say that the students acted very sensitively, out of concern for their colleague."

The pupil was brought to hospital immediately and Mr Averre-Beeson, now director of the Lilac Sky Schools consultancy, was able to tell pupils at an assembly straight after lunch that he would make a full recovery. "I talked about what happened, reassuring them all and saying that it's been dealt with and that we all responded really well," he says.

Incidents where anti-social and violent behaviour infiltrates into school life are relatively rare. However, the recent stabbing of 14-year-old Chloe West outside Ridgewood High School in Stourbridge, West Midlands, highlighted how the drama of such an incident ripples through a school community.

"You can't suddenly shut the school," Mr Averre-Beeson says. "But I think you need to say something. I'm a great believer that assemblies can help you deliver a message, whether that's moral, spiritual or communal. This was one of those moments."

The incident also demonstrated the need for the school to have a more effective way of dealing with a crisis, even when the perpetrator is not a pupil and is beyond the usual realms of a teacher's control. They devised a "lock-down" policy for the school, so that everyone was aware of their role and whose responsibility it is to alert senior management if strangers are seen on the site.

The headteacher wanted to make sure they learned from the situation. "The incident reinforced people's sense that we're a family, and that we all need to play our part when things like this arise," says Mr Averre- Beeson.

The same could be said of Ridgewood High School, where - after Chloe's recovery was assured, despite wounds to her face and neck - tales of pupils and teachers rallying round the victim emerged in the days following the attack. Police praised the actions of Chloe's classmates, who jumped on her assailant, pulling him away from their friend, and the teacher who apparently sat on the attacker until the police arrived.

A photo of a smiling Chloe was also widely circulated in the press, and with her pigtails and glasses, her sweatshirt and pony, it became clear that this crime of unrequited love was a far cry from the usual urban stories of gangs, or where disputes from estates are brought in to the arena of the school.

This is an all too common complaint at some inner city schools, including the sixth-form college where Geoff Platt worked for over a year. The college was in a crime hot spot, near a road known locally as "murder mile".

In 2005, staff at the college were bracing themselves for an Ofsted inspection. It began in the usual manner, with the inspector arriving just after 9.30am - around the same time as the students. "It was a Monday morning and we had the photo session with the principal on the doorstep and all the rest of it," says Geoff Platt, who was the college sports lecturer at the time.

"Suddenly we heard this `drrrr' sound and we turned around, looking for what it was. I saw that someone had a row of holes across his chest. He had been shot at from a car," says Mr Platt.

Students near the teenager were sprayed in his blood and the teachers rushed to try and help. "The inspector and the other teachers were trying to administer first aid and got covered in blood. I was trying to help as well but there was no time to do anything really," says Mr Platt. "The students were very upset and it was chaos for a while."

The inspectors left the scene soon after, having decided - to the relief of staff - to rearrange their visit. After the shooting, pupils went to their lessons and school carried on as normal, but the teenager passed away soon after, says Mr Platt. "It wasn't unusual for the area. Most of the children knew stories about people who had been killed, so the important thing was to keep going and get things back to normal," he says.

There are no recent figures for the number of incidents where police are called to a school to deal with an outside attack. However, a 2008 freedom of information request carried out by the Conservative party found that police were called to 7,311 schools, either to deal with pupils or with violence caused by outsiders. Unsurprisingly, the number of incidents varied between counties, with 318 incidents recorded in the West Midlands, 73 in Warwickshire and 2,698 involving the Metropolitan Police.

Schools in Lewisham in south London have a tough job to counter the high crime rate in their area, which has one of the highest rates of stabbings in the country. At Paul Riley's secondary school in the borough, pupils' involvement in violent crime outside school is a common occurrence.

Although nothing has happened on the school grounds in the six years he has been there - thanks in part to the strong relationships that the school has fostered and to its links with the police and wider community - one pupil recently witnessed a murder.

Far from classmates rallying around their friend, the incident created divisions within the school community, with other pupils wanting to distance themselves from the witness. "Many of the kids felt that he was the person who should've got stabbed," says Mr Riley. "What usually happens is that the gang goes after someone, but if they can't find who they're looking for, somebody else will get done. The other pupils felt he was getting in with a bad crowd, playing one gang off another, and that's where problems occur."

Other pupils were upset for this teenager, says Mr Riley, but the school's efforts to create a safe haven within the community meant that pupils wanted to protect it.

"We had worked quite extensively with him, and he had made his choices - there's only so much you can do," says Mr Riley. "This big event should have been the thing that stopped everything for him. You can only put choices in front of them, and show them the consequences."

Many teachers admitted to The TES that pupils had been attacked on the school premises. But even if pupils were not the perpetrators, they were unwilling to speak on the record. "When it comes down to it, reputation is one thing, but if it damages recruitment that is when it gets really bad," says one college principal, who wanted to remain anonymous. "It's hard enough anyway to hold on to staff, particularly with the budget cuts these days."

It is unsurprising that teachers would think twice about working in a school that finds itself in the midst of violent crimes. As a result, some senior managers try to distance themselves from any associations with crime, even if there is little they can do about it, says Kim Lesley*, an experienced secondary teacher in Leeds.

In her second week at a large secondary, Ms Lesley happened upon an impromptu meeting in the staffroom. "I sat down and heard them say that a boy had been stabbed by someone near the school grounds the previous afternoon when the school had closed," she says. "But their main concern was how they could hush it up and not get the school involved."

A break in the fence surrounding the school meant that the boundary wasn't clear, but Ms Lesley remembers that senior management were intent on making sure any reports didn't mention the school. "The point of the meeting was all about the fence boundary," she says. "I didn't know him myself, but staff seemed shocked about the boy and had a lot of sympathy for the kid. But the management attitude was that it had to be covered up and they were just concerned with keeping it out of the papers."

At the time, Ms Lesley says she was "shocked", but as an experienced teacher who has worked in some tough schools, "not surprised". In her current school, which she calls a "hell hole", one of the most horrific attacks against a pupil - just outside the school gates - was at the hands of a small group of his classmates.

"He was 15 and a fairly big lad - tall, well built - with quite severe learning difficulties, but he was very pleasant," she says. "He'd had some kind of falling out with one of the other boys in the canteen." The following day, his classmate decided to take revenge. "The lad was walking down the drive, just 20 yards from the school gate when the boy who had been annoyed and two of his mates jumped out on him with baseball bats," says Ms Lesley.

She didn't see the event itself but arrived at the scene to see the damage. "They beat this lad so badly, his face was a mess, bones broken and teeth missing," she says.

Teachers at the school were shocked by the incident and worried about their safety and that of the other pupils. "The teachers said if (the pupils) ever come back into this school, we will walk out of here," says Ms Lesley. The boys who carried out the attack were expelled.

But the senior management again tried to contain the details. "A lot of the other kids all stood around filming it on their phones," says Ms Lesley. "The deputy took the phones off all the kids, not to try and identify the perpetrators, but, I think, for damage limitation. Somebody rang the police up anyway and told them there was video evidence. But they're all just desperate to protect their reputation."

This attitude is one that Mr Platt has also come up against. He started working in schools after 25 years as a police officer, leaving the force after being hit in the face by a hammer. Initially he worked as a sports coach, but he then took on more permanent roles in individual schools as a sports lecturer and specialist teacher for teenagers who had a history of bad behaviour.

His years of experience as a police officer made Mr Platt feel a sense of responsibility to take action in violent situations. While he says he gained respect from the pupils under his charge, his tough discipline stance often meant getting the police involved and using unconventional methods. "I took it upon myself to invite the firearms team on to the premises a couple of times when there was specific information that my students had guns," he says. "That wasn't appreciated (by senior management) - I was told that it gives the college a bad reputation."

As a former headteacher and now consultant who often works with struggling schools, Mr Averre-Beeson says he understands colleagues' concern about making problems public, even if it involves someone from outside the school community. "But I always think in these circumstances, it's about showing that you've done the right thing," he says. "You can't guard against everything."

After his pupil was stabbed in the playground, he wrote a letter to parents explaining what happened. As a result, "there was surprisingly little fall-out," he says. "It's all about reassurance."

Mr Averre-Beeson remains stoical about what happened, and has dealt with his fair share of violent attacks in schools. Similarly, Ms Lesley's enjoyment of teaching has failed to wane even after witnessing violent attacks on her pupils. "It's like having your bag nicked in the street: the whole world's not like that," she says.

However, the effect of a violent attack lingers in the mind of the victim. The boy who was stabbed in the east London playground was left traumatised by what happened when he stood up to the thieves. "He was quite a sensitive young man, but he just knew his own mind," says Mr Averre- Beeson. "He was quite artistic, good at drama and art, and he was quite assertive."

Following the attack in January, the pupil didn't return to lessons, and only came to school to sit his GCSEs. "We bent over backwards to support him, and sent out teachers and TAs to his home so he could be tutored," says Mr Averre-Beeson. "He did pass his GCSEs, but it really did knock his confidence."

No matter how well a school handles an incident, or how thick-skinned teachers and pupils become, a violent attack will always remain with the victim.

* Name has been changed.

Original headline: Enemy at the gates

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