'No regrets' on paedophile alert

17th January 1997 at 00:00
Stirling's director of education says he has no regrets about his action last week in warning 12 schools that a convicted paedophile had moved into their area.

Gordon Jeyes insists he would do the same again "with no hesitation". But one local authority leader has denounced the move as a "witch-hunt" and primary headteachers are to press the Scottish Office to issue national guidelines.

A warning letter to headteachers dated December 10 did not name the man or detail his crimes. But the media was alerted to his identity and an angry crowd gathered outside his lodgings in the Raploch area of the town last Friday, forcing the police to remove him to safety.

The Stirling authorities have been inevitably sensitive to pupils' safety since the Dunblane massacre. But the council has also made a particular issue of pupil welfare and is the only one in Scotland to have set up a children's committee that combines education and child care.

Mr Jeyes said he regretted "the general sharing of the information and the breaches of confidentiality". He would now review with headteachers their approach to such matters. What he described as his "bland memo" was issued following advice from the council's child protection unit.

The director added: "If this individual was rehoused elsewhere within the Stirling Council area, I would expect to be informed and pass the information to the relevant schools on a confidential basis. That is entirely appropriate information for headteachers to have as professionals concerned with child protection. I would not expect them to inform parents."

The consequences of Mr Jeyes's letter, however, confirmed the worst fears of civil liberties campaigners about mob rule and vigilante attacks. Alan Miller, chairman of the Scottish Council for Civil Liberties, said he was worried that local families could be "alarmed unnecessarily". The correct balance between protecting the community and defending individual rights had not been struck, Professor Miller said.

Stirling's move was also condemned as a "witch-hunt" by Elizabeth Maginnis, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Mrs Maginnis expressed concern that individuals might have felt encouraged to take the law into their own hands because the council had in some way authorised it.

Jim Smith, secretary of the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland, which represents primary heads, criticised the way schools were left with no clear instructions on the steps they were expected to take. "Does a confidential letter to the headteacher mean you don't tell the parents? It seems pointless to put out such a warning if parents and indeed teachers and auxiliary staff are not informed. Then the whole thing is bound to get into the public domain. My own view is that, if an individual cannot be named for legal or other reasons, schools should simply be asked to exercise their normal vigilance which most are now doing anyway."

But Mr Jeyes was backed by Pam Viney, secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland in Stirling, who teaches at Wallace High, one of the schools which received the memo.

"The problem lay, not in the warning which we see as entirely appropriate, but in the fact that it was leaked," she said.

Despite the fallout from the Stirling affair, however, there appears to be a growing consensus that schools should be made aware about potential threats to children. John McFall, Labour's Scottish home affairs spokesman, supported that view last week. The dilemma is clearly whether to unmask the individual in such cases, although Stirling officials say they were legally barred from doing so in the letter to the schools.

Alistair Johnston, president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland and rector of Kelso High, says it is useful for schools to be alerted but feels that an informal police tip-off to heads is sufficient.

Stirling is adamant that it did not seek any publicity when Mr Jeyes wrote in confidence to schools serving the Raploch and Cornton areas - Wallace High, Raploch nursery, Riverside day unit, the Charles M Brown Special School, Kildean Special School and seven primaries, Raploch, Bridge of Allan, Cornton, Fallin, Holy Trinity, Riverside and Whins of Milton.

A spokesman said the council had been advised by Central Scotland Police that it would be "prudent" to issue a warning. But the police stated: "We did not specifically request the council to write to headteachers."

Stirling says it will look again at the issues and whether the matter could have been handled better.

The 50-year-old man at the centre of the row was released in October. He had been sentenced to a year's imprisonment in April after he pleaded guilty to using lewd and libidinous conduct towards a four-year-old girl. He had spent 11 years in a psychiatric hospital after a similar attack in 1965 and a forensic clinical psychiatrist warned the court last year there was a "significant risk" he would reoffend.

The Scottish Secretary, who is Stirling's MP, would not comment on events last week. But Michael Forsyth is believed to be considering an amendment to the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill that will give the courts power to put serious sex offenders under supervision for up to 10 years after their release.

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