Paradise lost?

12th July 1996 at 01:00
In the week that Lord Cullen winds up his Dunblane inquiry, a similar tragedy chops at the innocence of a Wolverhampton infant school playground. Was it a copy-cat attack? Is our society sliding inexorably into violent disintegration? Can we ever pretend again that our primary schools can be made into safe havens from the menace that may stalk the streets outside?

Inevitably, as anger jostles shock and pain and grief, the first instinct is to enquire again whether we could do more to fortify our schools, and whether the Government is prepared to spend enough, soon enough, to allay the entirely justified fears of parents and teachers.

As the Wolverhampton story unfolds, however, there are good reasons to consider whether we are looking at such horror stories from the wrong end, and answering at least some of the wrong questions. Stronger school security, tighter control of gun or knife possession, a better balance between civil liberties and public safety, are all urgent and necessary measures and their importance has been clearly reinforced by the Dunblane evidence. But it is now surely time to start looking harder at the sort of person who commits such crimes, and then concentrate attention on the circumstances which may have led to such fatal alienation from society, rather than throw all our resources into defences against the outcome.

Horrett Campbell, the Wolverhampton suspect, like Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane, the Hungerford gunman and the Hall Garth killer had been a loner since schooldays, with a home background that was at best inadequate. Though the first question may have to be about the easy access of such misfits to weapons, the second should address that vulnerable childhood when help and support might have made all the difference.

Writing in The Times Educational Supplement in the Dunblane aftermath, Peter Davies, head of a Wiltshire pupil referral unit, described how therapeutic counselling could help pupils locate repressed anger about neglect, abuse, and social and family deprivation in their earlier childhood, and then work through to resolution and acceptance. But his John Ivie Centre is one of the few units in the country where such counselling is available, they are sometimes short of qualified staff, and he was conscious that pupils who denied their angry feelings might slip through the net to a subsequent tragedy.

Not only is the country now perilously short of such centres to work with emotionally and behaviourally disturbed adolescents, but there are grounds for believing that their numbers are increasing in inverse proportion. Add to that a competitive schools climate in which the well-adjusted and well-parented are nurtured and the disappointed, disaffected and disappeared excluded, and a frightening scenario emerges.

It is facile to blame all evil on society's failure, and of course schools deserve all possible protection - and at once - from murderers, perverts and misfits of whatever kind. But Government policies should also turn with equal urgency into a more inclusive mode, so that actual and potential trouble-makers are not simply rejected, isolated and forgotten - until they come back to exact their revenge on the society that turned them into outsiders.

Maybe a teddy bears' picnic in the playground is the sort of happy-families scene that can finally tip the balance.

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