Killers on your doorstep;Scottish feature

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
How do you react when a local boy is killed near your school - by members of last year's fifth year? Seonag MacKinnon finds out how one headteacher handled the aftermath

ON AN unremarkable Sunday morning last November, Rory Mackenzie, headteacher of Balerno High School in one of Edinburgh's cherry tree suburbs, was reading to his five-year-old daughter when the phone rang.

A member of staff was calling to tell him that a student from a neighbouring school has been murdered yards from the Balerno school gate, and that three fifth years who left Balerno only a few months before have been charged with the murder. If a Dunblane-type massacre is a teacher's worst nightmare, the scenario related over the phone that November morning must be close behind.

Newspaper posters in Edinburgh and around Scotland then and during the trial this month screamed "Youth killed for going to wrong school", "Dark side of perfect suburban lifestyle", "Racist youth killing", "Shame of 3 middle-class thugs" and "Killers with no excuses".

Mackenzie has more experience in dealing with the press than many headteachers, mainly because his school's exam results are so good that they affect the Edinburgh property market. Almost 90 per cent of children achieve five or more Standard grades at grades 1 to 4 and 45 per cent go on to higher education.

But this annual ritual, coupled with participation in the City of Edinburgh's media course for heads, was scarcely up to the billboard barrage. He says: "No crisis management course can fully prepare you for something like this. At one point I half expected the headline 'A top school in Scotland - but it produces murderers'."

On the day after the Saturday night killing, media, police officers and cars flooded the improbable crime scene where the body of 19-year-old Mark Ayton was found. The apprentice mechanic had been punched and kicked to death in a suburban garden. The path near the school where the youths confronted each other was just a minute or two from the police station, the only other public building on the leafy residential road.

On the Monday, Mackenzie came face to face with the reality of the situation. Wreaths lay in the street, one in the white and blue of the dead boy's Ibrox team, one spelling out the letters of his name. Pale faces, clusters of people in conversation, sixth-year pupils breaking down over their former classmates now behind bars on murder charges. At assembly he expressed sympathy for the dead boy's family. The atmosphere was strained, not least because Mark Ayton's mother was, and still is, employed as a cleaner at Balerno High and because siblings of the killers are pupils of the school.

The second statement at assembly was a warning to pupils to be wary of the media. Journalists were already phoning his office seeking background information on the accused and attempting to persuade him to influence the families to speak to the press. Later they would stop pupils in the street and ask for their thoughts.

Some papers described as "a veil of silence" the absence of comment from school staff and local councillors on the killing of a tax inspector's son by the sons of a police chief inspector, a managing director and a senior civil servant.

Mackenzie says he is aware of the inadequacy of a policy of "if in doubt say nowt": "You are judged by what you don't say as much as by what you do say; judged by what you don't do as much as by what you do do."

He has no complaint about his treatment by the media. Later, at the time of the trial, he gave several interviews to newspapers, STV and Channel 4. "I took the view that if we were going to be in the firing line, I wanted to get something in." He took soundings on what actions to take from the council's press office, his management team, teaching colleagues and the school's administrative staff. He found the advice of this last group of particular value. "Unlike teachers, they mainly live in the area. I trusted their intelligence and perceptions of what people in the community feel."

Immediately after the killing, the head boy and girl told Mackenzie and the school board that the sixth years were unhappy about a perceived lack of action. They could not understand why he did not refute tabloid headlines claiming that Mark Ayton was the victim of racial aggression because of his English upbringing. Sixth years - some of whom were visiting the accused in a young offenders' institution - were also upset, they said, because their headteacher seemed to be distancing himself from their former classmates now in custody.

Mackenzie says that at first he did not want to speak to journalists in case he became drawn into broader discussions. As for the accused, he says: "It was true I didn't want the school to send out a message that it supported the violence. I didn't want it to be associated with three who had killed someone outside school. I was conscious of the need to protect the reputation of the school and of the city."

The air turns blue as this heidie protests, like so many other teachers, that when something negative happens it is often the school rather than the parents that comes under scrutiny. "It is not our job to tell kids what they can and cannot do at the weekend."

He declines to elaborate on this issue, partly because on the school roll are brothers and sisters of the youths who confessed to the charge when it was reduced to culpable homicide. The question that hangs in the air in the headteacher's office is why the media did not question the boys' conduct that weekend. Should three 16-year-olds have been drinking strong lager in the street at that time of night? Did their parents know where they were?

Mackenzie rejects as "absolute tripe" suggestions in court that the killing happened because of rivalry between Balerno and Currie High, the former school of Mark and his elder brother involved in the fatal fight, or the Ayton family's years in England, or allegiance to different football teams. "There is often some jockeying between people for whatever reason, but it doesn't usually escalate into violence," he says. "Behaviour is the issue here. I am concerned about young people hanging about late at night, especially if they have been drinking."

By-laws against drinking in the street that already exist in cities such as Glasgow and Torquay would be a welcome innovation in the Edinburgh area, Mackenzie suggests. The "curfew" in Hamilton, which gives police the right to escort home young people perceived to be at risk of getting into trouble, also has his support.

He feels that significant numbers of children from whatever background are given too much independence by their parents before they have the maturity to handle it. He hopes for the day when teachers can rely on every parent backing up a school's code of behaviour, encouraging children to defuse conflict or be big enough simply to walk away.

Balerno staff were concerned that brothers and sisters of the accused would face playground taunts along the lines of "your brother is a killer". Guidance staff moved in very quickly to try to ensure that did not happen.

Their other major job was to support the many pupils who were witnesses to the events of the fatal night and consequently subject to a grilling by the prosecution and defence teams. They had to offer them support without contaminating testimony one way or the other.

The school also arranged for an outside agency of youth workers from the Lanark Road Youth Project, church workers and psychologists to offer independent counselling. "The sixth years felt that teachers would be judgmental," Mackenzie says. "I have a problem with that. It is difficult for us to take an amoral stance on this."

Within education circles the school's reputation is unlikely to be tarnished. One close observer commented: "Mackenzie is well thought of by the directorate. Sometimes that just means a head does what he is told. In his case it means that he is considered a very effective head."

It is the school's hope that its image in the wider community has not been affected. Mackenzie has this observation: "Some kind of training for this kind of situation ought to be part of a headteacher's induction. If it can happen in our school, it can happen anywhere."

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