Two sides to every story

15th December 2006 at 00:00
Grant Bruce is Depute Head At Dyce Academy, Aberdeen

On September 30, 2001 we were informed through a national Sunday newspaper that Dyce Academy was to be sued by Natalie King, a former pupil, because we had failed to protect her from school bullies.

Five years of hell later, we were told that her case against Aberdeen City Council was being dropped. The imminent closure to the mess brought relief, yet there was frustration that we were going to be denied our day in court.

I'll never forget the impact the original ridiculous article had on our staff, who did not recognise the picture being painted of our school in the paper. A small 500-pupil secondary school, we prided ourselves on our excellent staffpupil relationship and the support it gave to all its pupils - a fact substantiated five months later when the HM Inspectorate of Education carried out an inspection of the school.

Once the shock passed, our disbelief was followed by a desire to set the record straight. This was not possible because the council's legal department banned us from speaking to the media. It is easy to be wise after the event, but I believe this was a major tactical mistake. For the next 18 months, the tabloids would take it in turn to print one-sided copy fed to them by Miss King's solicitors.

Initially, these accounts had a sentence tagged on at the end, stating ACC would not comment pending the legal action. Latterly, even this was dropped, and some began to drop the word "alleged" altogether. The school had been tried and found guilty by the tabloid press.

In May 2003, a London broadsheet launched an attack on Dyce Academy, followed 10 days later by a similar story in an Edinburgh broadsheet. This was the final straw. We could half-tolerate the tabloids attacking u, but when two national broadsheets started printing tabloid-standard rubbish about us, enough was enough.

Fortunately, John Stodter, Aberdeen's then director of education, got clearance for us to put our version in print, to the delight of our pupils, parents and staff.

In January 2004, Miss King was awarded legal aid. Then in April 2005, she appeared on the BBC Panorama programme to reveal that she had secretly taped her guidance teacher, who had been trying her utmost to support her, without the consent or knowledge of the teacher - and this was an infringement of the teacher's rights.

The decision by Miss King to drop her action, in the week after both sides exchanged witness lists (93 in our case), came as no shock to me. I knew that there was no case. In the short time she was at Dyce, I, as her year head, fully investigated and successfully dealt with every problem she brought to my attention.

The law, as it stands, does not protect local authorities and their employees from attack by the press. It is scandalous that one-sided allegations can appear in print, prior to a court case. If the Scottish Executive thinks that trial by the media is acceptable, then both sides need to be ready to try the case in the media.

At the outset, Miss King's solicitors had stated that this case would improve the situation for the many Scottish pupils who suffer bullying.

Well, it has not. This case, with its headlong rush to litigation, the scandalous media attention and an ignominious withdrawal, has only served to set back the anti-bullying message here.

My message to parents who are suffering the heartache and worry of their children having relationship difficulties is to inform staff at school, sit down calmly and quietly with them and then follow through any agreed strategies.

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