"People must not forget"

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Eileen Harrild has prepared "a little list" in readiness for her interview with The TES. "Gun control, school security, vigilance about gratuitous violence on TV and videos, and why I did the book - to further our campaign and to make sure people don't forget how horrendous it was. It's very important to explain that."

The list, then, is not so little. More a manifesto to the world from a survivor of the worst civilian mass murder in recent British history. A year ago next week, her friend and fellow teacher, Gwen Mayor, was shot dead alongside 16 five and six-year-olds in the massacre at Dunblane primary school. Somehow, 12 other children survived the attack, as did another friend and colleague of Eileen's, Mary Blake, a classroom assistant.

Eileen Harrild describes herself as "a typical Scot". A modest, articulate 43-year old, she grew up in Glasgow loving sport and wanting to be a PE teacher. Until a year ago, she enjoyed a private family life with her husband Tony and their four children. That all changed on March 13, 1996.

She was a full-time peripatetic gym teacher ("quite common in Scotland"), based at Dunblane and working in eight other primary schools in the central region. She had taught at Dunblane before in the 1970s, and children would often come up to her and say, "You taught my mummy."

On the morning of Wednesday, March 13 she was due to take Primary One - a class of 28 five and six-year-olds - for a gym lesson after assembly. Her two younger children, Jack, 9, and Jennifer, 11, were also pupils at Dunblane, and they had just said goodbye in the playground.

Minutes later, Thomas Hamilton pushed open the doors of the gym armed with four guns and 743 rounds of ammunition. Eileen Harrild was his first target; he pointed a Browning pistol at her chest and fired. "It was literally step, step, shoot. He only took two steps into the gym before he started," she recalls in her chapter of the book, Dunblane: Our Year of Tears, published this week to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy.

He shot her four times: once in the chest, once in both arms, and once in her right hand, through the knuckle of her ring finger, devastating the flesh of her palm."I didn't realise until way after it happened that until he fired at me he had done nothing wrong," Eileen says. "Until that very moment they were all legally held guns. That made me very angry."

Her anger will not subside until handguns are banned in Britain. "We see it as an essential part of the recovery process. It will be much easier when there is a ban."

The Cullen inquiry into the Dunblane massacre was "very disappointing". Eileen was the first witness on the first day, and wanted to "melt into the background". Five months later Lord Cullen recommended a safety strategy for all schools and a vetting procedure for adults working with children. But no ban on guns. "The risk of it happening again was always our bottom line, and Cullen didn't change that at all," she says.

What Eileen does acknowledge is the usefulness of an inquiry that established all the terrible facts and thus, to some extent, explained how the horror happened. In Cullen's inquiry the story emerged of a meticulous man who was not mad but who had murder in mind and the means to kill.

Far from slipping into the background, she has been to Westminster twice to put the case for a ban: in July to help deliver the 700,000-signature petition from the Snowdrop Campaign to Downing Street, and in November to lobby MPs before they voted on the firearms amendment which preserved the legality of .22 pistols. "You always hear the argument from people like Jerry Wiggin, that it's the man not the gun. But it is the man with the gun, and the man cannot be trusted.

"Dunblane, Hungerford, Tasmania: all these killings were carried out with legally held guns, and .22s are just as lethal as any other. In the US they are the most common guns used in homicides."

She is in regular contact with Michael Forsyth, her local MP and the Secretary of State for Scotland, but gets "very unsatisfactory answers" from him. However, Labour leader Tony Blair has given her hope. "I'm a bit of a cynic, and I think you have to be, but in my conversations with him I have believed that he is totally in favour of a ban on all handguns."

The shadow Scottish secretary, George Robertson, lives in Dunblane and his children attended the primary school. "He is a friend to many of the people who have been affected by this and we are hopeful that a law will be enacted, " Eileen says. "Sometimes we get accused of being over-emotional but we do try to put the seriously logical case."

In the first week after the shooting she had three operations, including bone and skin grafts, and she is due to receive more surgery on her right arm. Every week she has physiotherapy on her right hand, and although she has learned to write with her left, she hopes to switch back one day.

She is being helped by two support groups - one for the parents of injured survivors and one for the bereaved - which meet separately every week in a house beside Dunblane cathedral. Eileen attends both "but not every week". Inevitably, she says, the victims and their families have a unique bond. "We are very protective of each other, so within that circle you can talk about anything you like. We understand each other."

But there is work to be done as well: handling the media, deciding what statements to make, who should go to London to represent the groups, even dealing with a request to name roses after the children.

Dunblane: Our Year of Tears includes 12 chapters by individuals directly involved in the massacre, and it was a joint decision to go ahead with the project. At first, Eileen was reticent about contributing, but she was persuaded by several factors. First, all the royalties and proceeds will go to Save the Children, so no individual stands to gain financially from the publication; second, the authors are Scottish journalists who are trusted by her and the parents; and third, it was clear that if they didn't do it, someone else would. "I thought if it had to be anyone it should be me. I was there and I could tell the truest story," Eileen says.

She was also driven on by her passionate belief in gun control and better school security. The need for the latter has been addressed quite differently in the Stirling district around Dunblane than anywhere else in Britain. But the new practices should not be difficult for other schools to follow. Eileen lists them:

* A single point of entry.

* Clear signs to reception.

* A signing in, signing out system.

* I dentification badges worn by all adults, including photo for staff.

Pupils also have a role to play. "Encourage them to be alert and vigilant without instilling fear," Eileen says.

She cites Newton school, the primary that opened last August on the north side of town and where her son Jack is now a pupil alongside 250 others. Gwen Mayor was due to transfer to Newton, as were other Dunblane teachers.(Eileen herself was expecting to add it to the list of schools she taught in.) A state-of-the art building, the school easily satisfies all the rules on security. In fact no adult can progress beyond the reception area without a door being opened by a member of staff. "It sounds cumbersome but it's amazing how simple and easy it is," Eileen says. "It means that, whoever is visiting, the school can carry on undisturbed and no one is left wandering about."

She believes all schools should take a common-sense approach to risk assessment and be guided by the concept of prevention. "A CCTV camera in the Dunblane gym would not have stopped the gunman, but if you're trying to combat vandalism it might just do the job." Schools should anticipate the worst: "After all, we never thought it would happen to us but it did."

Sitting in her busy household - the kitchen is full of children, the doorbell rings and Jack must go for his haircut; "It has got a bit hectic lately" - Eileen Harrild keeps a calm, easy way about her and reads the last item on her list: as a teacher, she wants to urge all adults to be more vigilant about the images of violence that children play with and see."In Dunblane you won't find a single toy gun, and we find it repulsive now to see a child playing with a gun. We have been educated through experience about the toys we allow our children to play with. But we do know that lots of children watch television and videos on their own and they see things that are harmful. "

She says she's learned a lot from her own children who, in their desire to protect her, switch the television to another channel if there is any gratuitous violence involving guns. "If people really knew, if they'd ever seen what happens when you're shot, they would not make fiction out of it. It is just so unreal. Some of those children in the gym, their tiny bodies,were shot seven times, at point-blank range, with bullets that mushroomed on impact to cause maximum damage."

Vigilance by adults, she says, "is all part of being responsible for the next generation". Healthy children are very resilient, and hers are no different. "Of course they had a terrible shock. My elder boys were at the high school when they heard that two adults had been shot in the primary gym, so naturally they thought of me. Jack and Jennifer were too frightened to ask. Yes, they've been through a lot, but they're very honest and they keep my feet on the ground. "

She is still on sick leave, but has visited all nine schools where she worked. "They're so supportive. One day a bold little boy rushed up and said, 'Show me where you were shot. Were you shot in the head?' I was a bit taken aback but I loved him to bits for his honesty. Adults tend to beat about the bush a bit more."

As her health returns Eileen can get on with jobs at home. She goes swimming three times a week - "I've missed exercise so much" - and has joined a local gym again. "Let's say I exercise the lower half of my body," she says with a laugh. And yes, she does intend to return to teaching one day. "Of course I'll go back; this was just a little blip. Well, a big blip, actually."

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