Innocent young victims of the feud over the fence

1st January 2010 at 00:00

It all started with a complaint about one of our prefects. Not for anything she had done but rather for the fact she was a prefect at all.

If you knew Rachel James you would wonder how such an innocent and pleasant girl could inspire such dislike. But she has been hit by the fall-out from a long-running parental dispute, between the James and Price families.

It is what happens in schools. We are the arena for all kinds of battle. The origins of this particular community feud are lost in the mist of time but it is real enough for all those involved.

The James and Price families live side by side and their conflict can move instantly from banging on the flimsy wall that separates them to fighting in the street. And of course their children skirmish by proxy, expanding the theatre of war to encompass the school. Any problem with their child is related instantly to the dispute. Under-achievement and poor examination results are a result of the terrible distraction the conflict is causing; important revision was deliberately disrupted by loud music or constant drilling.

This has come to define their lives. Without it they would probably have nothing at all to talk about. But it also more than that. It is seriously undermining the children's futures. Their kids themselves are fine, no problem at all, but to the rival family they are the spawn of the devil.

And so when we made Rachel a prefect, the demons of hell were released. Angry Mr Price confronted us in a state of rage. His family's argument, as far as I could understand, was that we were condoning bullying. Rachel had looked at Ashley in an abusive and threatening way and yet here we were making her a prefect.

It was the first we'd heard of the incident, which was probably not real at all. But the Price family believed it with a fervour.

They were outraged by her appointment and the father launched himself into an astonishing verbal assault on the headteacher. If anything was bullying then this was - there was finger wagging, swearing and eventually an unprovoked prod in the chest.

It was such an unexpected moment. There was a pause, as if no-one could quite believe it and then suddenly we swarmed around and hustled the shouting Mr Price out of the building. Parents were aghast, young teachers shocked and unsettled.

However, evidence from security cameras was inconclusive and while we had witnesses, it didn't seem to be good public relations to involve them. We wanted to show that we were calm and measured in the face of confrontation.

But teachers have to put up with a lot. We are expected to smile sweetly in the face of all manner of public unreason. It is not that any of us felt in fear of our lives, but such ranting gets on your nerves. So we contacted the legal department of county hall and asked them to send a letter, banning Angry Price from the school premises.

A standard enough procedure, although one we do not use too often. But it makes a point. You are not welcome here. You have overstepped the mark. We thought it was all over.

But someone gave county hall the wrong address. Just one digit wrong. So the letter was delivered to, and opened, in the James house. Oh dear. A simple error but one which could not actually have been much worse.

We were suddenly on the back foot, looking stupid, and had to apologise without reservation. The glee in the James house at gaining such ammunition was palpable. A moment of sweet and unexpected revenge. The Price family wanted a public flogging, too, for this innocent mistake.

We tried to keep the focus on the intimidation and threatening behaviour but to little effect. Now we were to blame.

A bit of digging by the James family finally uncovered why the incident in school took place - Mr Price's objection to Rachel's appointment as a prefect. More scenes, more arguments. It also created a very upset young girl. What has she ever done that would lead to an adult objecting to her? She had actually done nothing at all.

The James family wanted us to take action against Angry Price for upsetting their daughter. The Price family wanted to go to the press about the letter and about our refusal to accept the "true extent" to which their children were being bullied.

A reporter does phone, though with little real interest. Apparently we are trying to sweep a serious bullying issue under the carpet in order to preserve our reputation. We sigh all over again.

And so it goes on. Smoke from barbecues, loud music, cars, cats fouling gardens ... the dispute shows no sign of diminishing. The school is caught in the middle and so are the children. They may be young but they are charged with the responsibility of perpetuating this feud. And they may do so with relish. All I can hope for is a Romeo and Juliet moment, but with a happier ending.

Geoff Brookes, Deputy headteacher, Cefn Hengoed School, Swansea.

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