Harvey case sets a bad example

21st May 2010 at 01:00

The outcome of the Peter Harvey trial is a problem for the teaching profession, indeed for the very meaning of justice and also the meaning of adulthood today.

Harvey, having smashed a pupil's head in with a dumb-bell which left the boy with a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain, has escaped a prison sentence, only being found guilty of grievous bodily harm without intent.

I am all in favour of teachers using reasonable force in school. Indeed, I find the defensive attitudes of education authorities and unions cowardly and something that undermines teachers' autonomy. The lack of support for teachers attempting to keep order in schools as they see fit is helping to undermine further the ideal of in loco parentis.

Having said that, the almost entirely one-sided sympathy that Harvey has received during and after his trial is remarkable. This was, in case the point needs to be hammered home (which it appears to), a situation where a teacher almost killed one of the children he was meant to be in charge of.

When you read about Harvey's stressed-out life, you have to feel some level of sympathy for him. Certainly, there is a good argument to suggest that the headteachers involved were idiots. But you can feel sorry for all sorts of people who assault, rob and even kill people: in the end, however, society has (until now, it seems) recognised that serious acts of violence do need to be punished - and punished through prison sentences.

The reason Harvey avoided jail time was that it is understood, no doubt correctly, that he "snapped", "lost the plot", "went postal". I'm sure we could argue the same for Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane or any number of people who have committed serious crimes. However, historically, while this may have lead to sympathy, it was only if someone was understood to be literally insane that they were treated not as a criminal but as a helpless, subjectless being.

Harvey was not insane: he was "stressed-out" (for want of a better term), but that does not and should not absolve him of any notion of "intent". If a stressed-out 16-year-old stabs a teacher, should we, or would we, act in the same way; or what about a "stressed-out" husband who batters his wife?

A great irony in all this is that, whereas the crime committed by Harvey should be seen as all the more grievous because he is a teacher, it is seen in the opposite manner - as almost understandable and, for many on the blogosphere, forgivable. It appears, reading the comments about the case, that we are fast losing our capacity to separate adults from children. Children are immature and should be expected to act like idiots at times. Adults, on the other hand, should have the maturity (however difficult this is) to stand above the sometimes brutish antics of young people.

Instead of the teaching profession and certain of its unions wallowing in self-pity and representing teachers as vulnerable victims, they need to develop a more mature approach. Stand up for teachers' use of reasonable force and come down hard on those who cross the line. At the same time, it is the responsibility of individuals and the profession as a whole to recognise when someone is not up to the job: If you can't discipline a class, you can't teach and it's time to move on.

Ultimately, the outcome of this case is a serious problem, because it illustrates the extent to which society has come to treat teachers as victims of bullying children. The tables have been turned, and teachers are now being encouraged to think of themselves as helpless children.

Unless I am going insane, the outcome of this outlook can only be a complete disaster for education, discipline and the teaching profession itself.

Stuart Waiton is a sociology lecturer at the University of Abertay, Dundee, and chairperson of Generation Youth Issues.

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