Strong enough to resist a fortress

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Should one evil act force Dunblane primary, a lovely welcoming school, to close itself off from its community?

Jeremy Sutcliffe and Shirley English walked the sad half-mile of flowers to report on the aftermath of the killings They came from all over the world. From Singapore and South Africa, from Norway and from Texas. From mothers, grandmothers, parents and children, from voluntary groups, factories and shops. From ordinary people, everywhere, touched by the unspeakable evil which visited Dunblane primary on the morning of March 13, 1996.

But what was perhaps most striking about the countless floral tributes that stretched for half a mile along the pavements outside the school gates, and those whose heady perfume filled the nave of Dunblane's beautiful 13th-century cathedral, was the large number from schools.

Heartfelt sympathy from pupils, parents and staff at St John's in Alloa, from the staff of David Livingstone Memorial primary in Blantyre and from the pupils at Govan high school in Glasgow. From teachers, children and parents at Woodlands county primary in Gillingham, Kent. From Holroyd special school in Sydney, Australia. From the pupils of Ryde sixth-form college on the Isle of Wight, from a Primary 1 class at Ravenswood school, Cumbernauld, and from an unnamed teacher and pupil in County Armagh to name but a few.

As one poignant tribute said: "A part of us all has died this week."

Staff, parents and school board members at Dunblane have been deeply touched by the huge international response. Messages of support and comfort have arrived by the sackload - and by fax - from across the world. Many of these, will find a permanent display in a memorial shop due to open in the town's high street.

But as the school prepared to reopen its doors today the emphasis was on a return to routine life. As the last funerals of the 16 children from Primary 1, together with that of their teacher Gwen Mayor, were taking place yesterday a huge clearing operation was due to begin to remove the flowers, and restore a measure of normality.

Many teachers have been trying this week to focus on preparing activities for the children when they return today. In may cases staff and pupils will be meeting for the first time since the tragedy and no one knows how they will react. It is hoped, however, that the school will quickly return to a structured timetable and a normal school day.

Parents of children upset or traumatised by Thomas Hamilton's murderous assault on the infant gym class will be able to accompany them into their classrooms to help them re-accustom themselves to their surroundings. Counselling by a team of educational psychologists already working with some of the children and staff will be available on demand for as long as it is needed.

But the school community has decided it does not want to be swamped by professionals, social workers and advisers. Mike Robbins, chair of the school board, says they want to get back to normal as quickly as possible - a lesson learned from, among others, families of those killed in the Lockerbie bomb crash. "The children want to go back to a familiar environment," said Mr Robbins.

Part of that familiarity is the school gymnasium which - partly as a result of advice from grief counsellors, partly in respect of parents' wishes - will temporarily be restored. Work has already begun to clean, reglaze and repaint it so the children will be able to see it as a normal part of the school.

Soon, however, the gym is likely to be pulled down. "The idea," said Mr Robbins, "is to turn the site into a quiet area, which will be a living memorial rather than a marble slab. One possibility, which the teachers are quite keen on, is to create a wildlife garden, which can then be used to teach the children about their environment."

A further project will be to build a sports centre and, perhaps, a swimming pool for use by the whole community, something which Dunblane currently lacks. The cost will be met - at least in part - by the Government, following a pledge by the Prime Minister, during his visit to the school last week.

It will also draw from the memorial fund set up for the children of Dunblane. Parents and board members have repeatedly stressed that the school is part of a close-knit and happy community. Dunblane takes pride in strong community links - drawing pupils from Church of Scotland, Episcopalian, Catholic and Muslim families.

Anita Dufton, treasurer of the parent-teacher's association and mother of two Dunblane pupils, Elizabeth, in Primary 3, and Helen in Primary 6, is among those who insist there is little a school can do to prevent a deranged and determined killer from gaining access. "With a community school you can't put locks on. Most of the people think the school has got to be an open place where everyone can get in. We don't want our school turned into a fortress. It's a lovely school, it's always been a welcoming school, a genuine community school."

The school board is to review security, and will consider reducing the number of entrances and other non-intrusive measures. "But the last thing we want, " said Mr Robbins, "is to turn the school into an American-style fortress school. It's not good for children. Why should we change our environment because of one awful evil act? If we do that it's evil that has triumphed."

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