The shifting world of victims and villains

27th February 2004 at 00:00
It's Monday and I ring home to say I'm on my way. My wife tells me our daughter's been assaulted at her primary school. The ongoing saga of name-calling, that we have urged her to ignore, has stepped up. She's been body-charged and winded by a girl for looking at her funnily, and hit on the head twice. How far should we take this? We both teach. We know how difficult it is to deal with bullying. I've met my daughter's head at LEA events. Reluctantly, we write a letter. It's long and detailed. It doesn't mention the police action that my wife has been toying with.

The next day I snatch a few telephone conversations with my wife. She has an appointment at our daughter's school at 2pm. I ring the school to clarify some details of a conversation we had last year about the name-calling. I have called the head out of a pupil interview on this very subject - she has spent all day investigating it. I thank her for her time.

She assures me it's just her job.

At 3.30pm there are two sets of parents waiting in our reception to see someone high up. One mother has a Year 8 daughter who has just texted to say she will not go back into school as a result of bullying. The parents of a Year 7 student are telling us they will be contacting the police about an assault their daughter has suffered. They want us to do the same. I get this eerie sense of standing on both sides of the same divide.

My wife has a frank discussion with our daughter's head, which has left us with a sense of discomfort more than resolution.

On Wednesday, the head of Year 7 presents me with the statements and a summary about yesterday's assault. Three-day exclusions for each of the students involved. One of them cries. The other springs to her defence:

"she never touched her". As they walk out, the tearless child is more indignant on her friend's behalf than alarmed at her own predicament.

The next morning her father is in reception demanding to know what is going on. He can't make an appointment to discuss his daughter's exclusion as he and his wife work. He is only here now because he was called from work to be present when the police came to caution his daughter for assault. While the visit seems to have put the fear of God into his daughter, he talks of filing a counterclaim on the victim for assault - "she pushed back" - and tells me of the problems that would give the school, legally obliged to keep two girls in the same set 15 metres apart. I assure him that the actions we have taken are consistent with the evidence we have gathered.

The police, it seems, have muddied the waters by suggesting the assault was less severe than the parents of the victim claim.

On Friday, when interviewing Wednesday's alleged assailants I am struck by the speedy mudslinging they indulge in as a form of post-hoc justification.

Each assailant sets out some form of insults that the victim used which triggered the attack. Each one is good at sticking to her own account, but unfortunately each account does not agree with the others.

Another pair of exclusions. Another set of concerned parents in the foyer.

"So are you saying my child is lying?" In my mind I toy with phrases:

"inconsistent with other accounts", "doesn't fit other known facts". In the end I drop my head and say "yes". The mother wilts.

Three more parents await before I can go home, where we're still waiting for a written response about what happened to our daughter. I can understand that our letter needs a measured response, but no action has yet been taken against the girls who hit her. Where should we stand in the shifting world of victims and villains, harried schools and heavyweight police intervention?

The writer, who wants to remain anonymous, is a deputy head in a secondary school in the south-east

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