Blocked exits on Violation Street

14th April 2006 at 01:00
When college lecturers are attacked in their workplace, life is rarely the same again, writes our roving reporter Stephen Jones

Lecturing might be a high-stress job, but most of the time it's not a dangerous one. In a teaching career stretching over a quarter of a century, I have not once been slapped, poked, punched, kicked, kneed, stabbed or shot. On the odd occasion when I have come up against potential aggro, the situation has always been defused without blows.

For some, though, things do not always work out so happily. It's more than a year now since Alex - not his real name - ended up in the back of an ambulance after trying to break up a fight, but the incident remains with him every day of his working life.

Some outsiders had come into his college to attack a student after a dispute about a girl. Hearing a rumpus outside, he left his classroom and ran into the staff room, where the victim had tried in vain to hide.

"They were really kicking the shit out of him," says Alex, "and my reaction, without thinking, was to go over and try to help him. But when I got between them, they started to hit me. I was hit on the head and fell to the ground. I don't remember much after that. It was only a matter of seconds before they ran off, but it seemed like forever."

Alex was treated in hospital and then released. When he returned to the college, the students gave him a hero's welcome, coming up to shake his hand and thanking him for his actions.

"At that stage though," he says, "I just felt angry - angry that it had happened in my office, in my personal space, angry that someone could get into college without anything stopping them."

A year on, he says he simply doesn't feel as assured or confident in his work as he once did. Or as safe. When three students he didn't know came into his classroom recently, he found the intrusion disturbing.

The college stepped up its security measures after the attack, although Alex thinks it could have done more.

"The thing that's remained is a lack of respect for my college," he says.

"Because of that, I don't put as much effort into my job as I once did. And that's a problem for both the college and for me."

Unknown assailants attacked Amanda Felton, 33, in the corridors of Solihull college. The experience ended her career.

It was November 2003. Amanda had only been in the job for a couple of months, teaching early-years education to nursery nurses and classroom assistants. She was changing rooms between classes when she heard someone call out to her.

"As I went to look up, I just saw a fist come at me," she says. "I was punched to the ground and then kicked and spat at by two youths - a third stood a little back.

"The attack seemed like ages, but it could only have been a matter of seconds before they disappeared down the stairs laughing. It was a spontaneous attack - totally out of the blue. At first, I thought it was my bag they were after, but nothing was taken. I wonder if I was just one of the first happy-slapping victims."

Amanda had a cut head and later discovered bruising to her ribs from where she had been kicked.

"I was taken to security," she says. "They said there was no point in calling the police as the youths would have gone. Then a colleague took me to the doctor's. I later went to the police myself and they classified it as an assault occasioning actual bodily harm."

Amanda was on a part-time contract, teaching about 16 hours a week. As such, her entitlement to sick pay was limited, particularly as she was new in the job. The college arranged for some counselling sessions, but it was soon apparent that her recovery would take a long time.

"I started to suffer from panic and anxiety," she says. "I can't go out in crowds any more, and I can't go out on my own. Even now I have nightmares about it. The piercing laugh of one of them as they ran away still haunts me."

Although she tried to go back to work at neighbouring East Birmingham college, she found that her confidence had gone, and even little things like a ladder falling or a student shouting would trigger anxiety and flashbacks. She is deemed medically unfit for work and thinks it unlikely that she can ever go back to teaching in college.

"I loved my job," she says. "I really got a lot of satisfaction from it. It took me six years to train and it was all I wanted to do."

What is noticeable about both Alex and Amanda - and indeed other lecturers I have spoken to who have been threatened or assaulted at work - is how strongly they feel about the way their colleges have handled their cases.

For Alex, what rankled was the management's refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the attack. With some difficulty he managed to secure an interview with senior managers.

"But they were defensive from the beginning," he says. "Their response was to play down the incident. I wasn't asking for support or compensation. I just wanted an acknowledgement that there was a problem. But in the end I felt that they just didn't care."

In Amanda's case, the feeling of bitterness is, if anything, even stronger.

She had the support of Natfhe, the lecturers' union, which provided her with a solicitor and backed her in her dealings with the college. Soon, though, she felt she was being shunned.

"I didn't feel welcome at the college any more," she says. "They made me feel as if I had brought it on myself. It's really upsetting to think that, two-and-a-half years down the line, I've had no real help."

In a statement, the college said it was difficult for it to act in the immediate aftermath of the attack because there were no witnesses and no one nearby heard anything.

The statement continues: "We worked with Natfhe to ensure that all reasonable measures could be taken. Our records show that Amanda was given an extension to her contractual sick pay.

"At Solihull college, the welfare and security of all students and staff has the highest priority."

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