Stopping a Thomas Hamilton

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Helene Witcher says society must treat disaffected loners to prevent another Dunblane.

It is difficult to include Thomas Hamilton, the Dunblane killer, in the same breath as anyone else. There is a sense of treachery in paying any attention whatsoever to his personal story. But however much he is described as a loner or a madman, there remains the inescapable knowledge that he was born, lived and died as a product of our community. He was one of us. The Cullen inquiry has contributed something to an analysis of his childhood and upbringing and a more detailed catalogue may emerged later of his tortuous attempt to establish some sense of self, of personal power and of worth as a young adult. However much it might fill us with distaste, it is important that close attention is paid to the history of the boy and the young man who developed into a killer.

The focus, rightly, for much of the funds raised after the massacre will be the continuing specific needs of individuals and the community which were attacked. However, there is a powerful argument for directing a significant proportion of them toward trying to prevent the kind of processes that contributed to Hamilton's increasingly deviant behaviour. This argument has strong psychological and practical foundations. For the millions who have felt so powerless after the event, the knowledge that they are contributing to positive initiatives, to investing in the future well-being of young people beyond, as well as within, the community of Dunblane is important. The need to get into the nuts and bolts of preventative work, not simply in terms of physical security, but in examining the values, attitudes and behaviour that can contribute to the isolation of individuals, is vital.

Hamilton was not entirely a "loner", at least not in a self-appointed sense. He was not reclusive, nor did he hide from society. He tried to join in. He strove continually to be recognised as having something to offer. If we stand back from the brutal conclusion to his life it is possible to see a person who grew up as a social misfit and who increasingly repelled others with his behaviour. It is important that something is learnt from considering his awkward and intimidating attempts to communicate and his experience of rejection and failure. We must apply ourselves energetically to detecting at an early stage those whose experience may be following a similar route.

Could things have been different? Can individuals who grow up with such a sense of isolation and increasingly desperate disaffection be embraced by communities in ways that protect them and, most important, protect others?

Each violent criminal, successful suicide or undetected abuser of others has a starting point. Each was once a child in primary 1. They got to school, they experienced adolescence and young adulthood. What happens during those years that could contribute to, or fail to inhibit, the developments of disaffection which might lead to abusive or violent behaviour?

Education professionals were rendered frightened and powerless by what happened in Dunblane. It is important for them to regain their strength in recognising that, next to parents and guardians, they hold a unique role in affecting the lives of young people simply through regular contact with them. Every day they are nurturing and guiding children's personal and social development just as much as their academic learning. Information about Hamilton describes a lonely, unattractive and confused child. Within any school you can find teachers who will talk of "loners". Not that being a social isolate results necessarily in psychopathic or even anti-social behaviour: there are plenty of amiable individuals who prefer to lead a relatively private existence. In schools, it is a term often used loosely to describe children who have difficulty forming relationships and who seem unhappy.

Characteristic "loner" behaviour can stem from many sources and take several forms. It can be short or long term. It may reflect the impact of any one or a combination of a whole range of family circumstances. It may reflect serious abuse or more insidious forms of neglect. It may be the product of bullying by children or by adults, or from a failure to accurately assess learning difficulties. Sometimes it may seem entirely inexplicable. The results, most apparent when expressed in notably assertive or aggressive behaviour, are particularly challenging but nevertheless there are those who will root out the causes and who develop the skills to pursue a process of active caring.

Sometimes, that it all that it takes to support a child in becoming more comfortable with themself and with others. Concern for children's personal and social development is high on current educational agendas. There is a commitment to ensuring schools are safe places in which each individual feels valued and supported. Climate for Learning, the pack published recently by the Scottish Consultative Committee on the Curriculum, maintains that not only does "establishing a positive and supportive whole-school climate bring benefits for all", but that as a direct consequence, "learning and teaching in such schools is much more effective". Despite such recognition of the fundamental link between children's social ease and their ability to learn, the staffing and development of personal and social education provision remains in direct competition with curricular obligations and other pressures placed upon teachers.

The difficulty lies in being able to devote time to individuals and to small groups of children and young people who are struggling with the process. The route out of the increasing impasse created by such competing pressures seems quite simply that vulnerable children require time. They require reassurance and affirmation. They need adults who will listen to them, work with them and support them in feeling they are valued.

Education and social work staff, alongside workers from projects funded by non-government organisations, are acutely aware of children across Scotland who are isolated and in desperate need of support. There are already initiatives, often on shoe-string or short-term funding, which offer such support and which represent a ready pool of experience and expertise for others to draw on. The urgency of increasing the cohort of skilled individuals who can spend time intervening directly to support such children is all the greater since the Dunblane tragedy.

Just as it is difficult to talk about Hamilton, so it hard to open the debate about the money which has been accruing. Those not charged with responsibility for the management of the various funds are reluctant to peer into the purse for fear of being labelled intrusive or greedy, of having personal agendas or dubious motives. The appropriate use of the funds represents yet another of the uniquely challenging tasks for those dealing with the aftermath and it is important for the community itself, and for the millions who expressed their compassion in the only way they felt possible, that the debate is opened up.

Sharing the generosity of the funds in ways which recognise the distress and loneliness of many other children in Scotland would be one way to ease Dunblane's return from being a site of unique devastation to that of active participation in extending a shared vision for children and communities in the future. Ensuring the future well-being of the Dunblane community need not preclude investment in practical initiatives for children tangled up in less visible tragedies. The guardians of the various funds should have our support for a courageous consideration of how they might contribute to actively helping today's frightened and confused young loners.

Helene Witcher is an adviser with Clackmannan Council. She writes in a personal capacity.

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