Mind how you go

28th March 1997 at 00:00
In the years after their daughter Suzy's disappearance, the Lamplugh family have been tireless campaigners for greater awareness about personal safety. Now they are taking the message to schools, says Nicki Household.

Asked to identify potentially threatening situations in which they might find themselves during the course of a school day, the staff of Rooks Heath High School, South Harrow, began with the school gate and bus stop.

They then progressed through isolated classrooms, crowded stairs and corridors, as well as having to deal with aggressive parents, working late, strangers on the premises and confrontational pupils.

The occasion was an Inset day on personal safety for schools, led by trainers from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. Its aim was to identify and assess risks to personal safety, pool ideas on effective ways to anticipate, plan for and cope with possible incidents, and propose specific strategies that would make the school a safer place.

Headteacher John Stanley decided the day would be a good idea after attending a one-day conference given by the trust to raise awareness of safety issues and the ways in which the trust can help. These include training days for staff and children, a recently launched staff-training pack, Personal Safety for Schools, and two video-resource packs, Home Safe and Well Safe.

Following the conference, John Stanley not only booked the Inset day but also persuaded his governing body to set up a working party to look into school security. "Basically, this is a pretty calm school and security is not a big issue", he says. "But it's a big site, with 14 or 15 external doors, and it's also a public right of way, so we do have occasional problems with intruders.

"We also have some children from pretty traumatic backgrounds - political refugees who, in some cases, have seen members of their family killed. So we have to think about more than just teaching them the national curriculum. "

To get 100 teachers and support staff in security-conscious mood, they were shown a short video about a mythical school in which everything went wrong - from a caretaker who unwisely tookon a gang of small thugs, to the headmaster who found himself trapped inhis office with some very nasty parents. All the situations could have been avoided.

After a short discussion of the points raised by the video, the staff separated into small groups to identify and assess the risks in their own school, and report their findings back to the assembly.

Out of many suggestions for dealing with aggressive parents, a bright, friendly greeting and an offer of refreshments came out on top, while winning ideas for improving teachers' personal safety included doing gate duty in twos and a coded message that would mean "help".

The purpose of the day, according to trainers Gordon Mortiboy and Ann Coombes, is as much to raise awareness as to find instant solutions. "Our aim is to commit them to an on-going process, although they should also come away with some ideas that they can implement at once."

One example they cite of a cheap safety measure is the use of a book to bring another member of staff to your aid. When in any kind of trouble, you ask a child to take the book to a named teacher, saying he or she needs it for the next lesson. The teacher on the receiving end will know this is the code for "come quickly".

However, it is not the intention of the trust to paralyse teachers with fear, and they stress that learning how to diffuse, deal with and avoid aggression is an enabling, not a disabling, process.

"Personal safety is a team issue, so it's very important that members of staff should share their experiences," says Ann Coombes. Teachers are sometimes reluctant to report incidents because they think it reflects on their professional competency. But today's verbal abuse could be tomorrow's physical attack, so it's sensible to keep a register of near misses.

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust is the only organisation in the country that specialises in personal safety. It was set up by Diana Lamplugh after the disappearance of her 25-year-old estate-agent daughter, Suzy, whose body has never been found.

Since then Diana Lamplugh has worked tirelessly for the right of everyone to go about their daily life without fear of violence or aggression.

Even before the tragedies of Dunblane and Philip Lawrence, Diana Lamplugh had become concerned about the changing ethos in schools, and work on Personal Safety for Schools began before both of those terrible events.

"I was particularly worried about self-defence techniques being promoted as the top option for dealing with aggression, when, in truth, they only provoke further aggression and are hardly ever effective in moments of real danger, " she explains. "Teachers have very good instincts and I think that deep down, they already know many of the essential messages in Personal Safety for Schools.

"But there's a layer of false information that the book and videos will dispel. I believe they will give teachers leave to acknowledge that there is a problem and show that there's no need for a stoical, 'I'm professional, so I'll march on' attitude."

The trust's two other resources for schools, Well Safe and Home Safe, were made to reinforce safety messages to children and young people without unduly alarming them.

Well Safe, consisting of a video narrated by Nick Ross and a 98-page manual, helps young people who are about to start work develop strategies for dealing with aggression and potential violence going to and from work, at work and socialising after work.

Home Safe uses music, humour and two likable characters called Darshan and Emma (played by child actors) to give younger children good ideas on how to stay safe on the way home from school and when they're home alone.

"It was a very good idea to get children to do everything in the film, " says ten-year-old Natasha, a pupil at the Unicorn School in Kew. "I think children are more likely to remember it because there were no adults standing there and giving lectures on safety."

Fiona Timmins, the Unicorn's headteacher, praises the video for preparing children for the real world in a way that is not frightening.

"I think it's exceptionally good for children who are about to go to secondary schools and may soon be using public transport for the first time. It doesn't terrify them by suggesting there's a stranger lurking round every corner, but it's not too tame either."

Personal Safety for Schools book Pounds 16.96; training pack Pounds 199. 95 plus postage VAT; Well Safe life skill resource pack Pounds 45 + pp (shorter version available for younger teenagers at Pounds 9.95); Home Safe for primary and middle schools Pounds 14.95 + pp. Details and information about training days, all from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, 14 East Sheen Avenue, London SW14 8AS. Tel: 0181 392 1839.

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