Scarred by the 'racist' backlash

8th December 2000 at 00:00
Fran Abrams reports on how the death of Damilola Taylor affected pupils and teachers caught in the media spotlight at a neighbouring comprehensive

AFTER a shock often comes anger. And in Peckham this week, that anger was not all reserved for the killers who left 10-year-old Damilola Taylor to bleed to death in a stairwell.

The head of a local comprehensive caught in the slipstream of last week's events has hit out at what she sees as racist attempts to demonise her pupils and smear her Southwark school.

"I doubt whether the coverage would have been the same if it had happened in Bromley. But this is a mainly black area and the folk devils here are young black men," says Miriam Kerr, head of the Warwick Park school just 100 yards from Oliver Goldsmith, the primary Damilola attended.

The lasting damage from the murder could scar not just Damilola's family but also the schools in the area and their wider community, she fears.

Before the world's media descended on Peckham 10 days ago, Warwick Park was celebrating an inspection report which had given it a clean bill of health after two years as a failing school.

That report apparently meant little to a press anxious to apportion blame.

Newspapers repeatedly made allegations that pupils from the comprehensive had bullied younger children from Damilola's school. There were even claims the killers could have come from Warwick Park.

The truth about who killed Damilola is not yet out, of course. But step through the front door of Warwick Park and a different picture is evident.

The scrupulously polite teenage boy who greets visitors, accompanies them to their correct destination and offers coffee is clearly no demon.

Nor are the class of Year 9 pupils who are busy acting out scenes of crime, grief and loss in small, tightly-focused groups as part of a drama lesson designed to deal with recent events.

Nor, for that matter, are the multifarious mass of teenagers who pour into the corridors at break times, checked as they go by Mrs Kerr for loose shirt tails or unruly language.

The school's head says she has had to deal with asingle, isolated incident of knife-carrying this term, and the police were called as they always are when a crime is committed.

"I'm not saying Southwark isn't violent. But what I see here is poverty, and I don't think that equates with violence. I see people who are amazingly proud - often too proud even to claim the free school meals they are entitled to," she says.

The inspectors who visited in October this year backed her view, saying pupils behaved "very well".

Exclusions at the school were high but were falling, they said. Levels of attendance were very good, and their only serious gripe on behaviour was about pupils' punctuality.

Russell Profitt, head of equality and community services for the borough of Southwark, produces statistics which show that violent crime in the school area is actually much less common than in the rest of the borough.

Parents are sceptical about this, though they are supportive of the school.

Wendy O'Driscoll, who has a son at Warwick Park and another at Damilola's school, the Oliver Goldsmith primary, says her older son had his bike stolen at knife point a couple of years ago.

"This area has been known as a rough area for years," she says. "But there have been a lot of improvements at this school. I think the allegations made about it have been really unfair."

The chair of governors at Oliver Goldsmith school echoed Ms Kerr's concerns.

Bola Ogun said: "Damilola died wearing his school uniform and it was inevitable that some of the attention would be focused on us.

"But we have been shocked at some of the accusations that have been made and some of the tactics that have been used to try and demonise the school.

"All this makes it very difficult to restore any sense of normality to the school community."

Mr Ogun said that although the school was in special measures, it did not deserve to be portrayed in such a negative light.

"The sad thing is that we could not protect Damilola from an estate a mile away where acts of violence are all too common. That is something a school simply cannot do," he said.

Leader, 18

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