Where prejudice still flares into violence

6th January 1995 at 00:00
Reva Klein reports on the growing number of racial attacks on children in or near school premises.

It is eight years since a 13-year-old Bangladeshi pupil, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, was stabbed to death in the playground at Burnage High School, Manchester. His killer was Darren Coulburn, a white boy who regularly bullied Asian children.

The murder sent shock waves through British schools. Equally violent tremors followed in the wake of the Macdonald Inquiry's analysis of the killing, which was highly critical of the school's mismanagement of racist behaviour as well as of its ill-conceived anti-racist programme.

The starkest truth about Burnage is that, as the report said, it "could have happened in any number of schools in Manchester or the United Kingdom" because of the way schools fail to deal with racial harassment. But despite the attention the report attracted and the discussion it has generated, "there has been remarkably little improvement in schools since Burnage", according to Elinor Kelly, one of the report's researchers, who is now senior lecturer in adult and continuing education at the University of Glasgow.

There are several reasons for this, she believes. First, the focus on bullying as a singular phenomenon has meant that harassment is mistakenly seen as unrelated. "While bullying is personalised, harassment is terrifyingly impersonal. When you are harassed, you are dehumanised. You are targeted for what you are, not who you are." But along with the theoretical problems are the practical ones. Local management has created introverted schools which are no longer able to get outside expertise and support to deal with problems.

Compounding this is a national curriculum that reflects "narrow forms of interpretations of history and culture", says Elinor Kelly. In such a climate, schools are able to develop their own sub-cultures that, as in the case of Burnage, nurture "a level of tolerance of everyday prejudice, name-calling and picking on pupils by teachers as well as other pupils". Those forms of prejudice and discrimination must be in place for physical attacks to happen.

While we have thankfully been spared another playground murder, there has been a plethora of white-on-black and black-on-white assaults carried out on school premises and murders of schoolboys and sixth-formers outside school since Burnage (see above). Every day, primary and secondary children throughout Britain are being taunted, called names and physically assaulted on their way to and from school, and in school itself, because of their race.

The overall reported figures for racial incidents in England and Wales rose by 13 per cent between 1992 and 1993 and have doubled in the past five years. In 1993, nearly 9,000 cases were reported to the police. Many more were not. And a significant number will have involved children and teenagers.

While figures indicate a significant problem, jumping to conclusions about the motivation behind incidents can fan dangerous flames within a community. When a Kurdish boy stabbed an African-Caribbean boy in a corridor at Stoke Newington School in Hackney last month, headteacher Stephen Belk was clear that it was "an incident between two pupils rather than a racial incident", and the community seems to have agreed. But when a white schoolboy was assaulted by nine Bengali youths outside Langdon Park School in Tower Hamlets last May, few could doubt that this was a racially motivated attack. The fever pitch of violence and revenge in the area, set against the backdrop of a previous white-on-Asian assault, had cast the die.

Evidence from local racial equality councils suggests that racial harassment involves schoolchildren all over the country. In Southampton, where 4.9 per cent of the general population is black or Asian, there was a 100 per cent increase in reported racial attacks in 1993; 550 schools in Hampshire reported a total of 1,200 racial incidents, from verbal abuse to assault.

The dramatic rise could be due to improved monitoring and more openness about reporting incidents. It could also be because the problem has escalated.

Ian Massey, Hampshire's inspector for intercultural education, says that "while some schools are anxious about recording incidents because they're worried about inferring that the school has a problem, schools are generally acknowledging the importance of intervening at an early stage by developing policies and practice with students like student councils and codes of conduct".

In West Glamorgan, people were shaken by the murder of Mohan Kullar, a Punjabi shopkeeper beaten to death in Neath. Three white men have been remanded in custody charged with murder. Police in south Wales received nearly 500 reports of racial incidents last year, representing a 15 per cent increase on 1993 figures.

Eileen Richards, the victim support co-ordinator in nearby Powys, deals with the realities of ethnic-minority families in rural communities. "Children are being physically assaulted on their way to and from school. I worked with one Indian girl who had suffered years of verbal abuse in school, to the point where her health was suffering. She had terribly low self-esteem. When she would complain to teachers about the name-calling, they would say, 'Don't be silly, everyone's called names'."

Tower Hamlets is one local authority trying to take the matter in hand in collaboration with CAPA, the civil rights advice and support group, and Tower Hamlets Law Centre. Along with a new draft policy on racial incidents in educational and community services establishments, it has set up an inter-departmental racial harassment working party looking at the problem across the borough. Another initiative is a pilot anti-racist mentoring project, involving several schools.

In north London, a secondary headteacher who wishes to remain unnamed is getting the local community involved in what she sees as an increasing problem. Last month, one of her refugee pupils was violently attacked by a white gang on his housing estate near the school. "This is a traditional gang-running area and while children say they feel safe when they're in school, they're nervous coming to and from school." In response to the attack, the governors have called a meeting of the neighbourhood social services office, the head of the local primary school, the education social worker and the race equality council. "I need to know what's happening out on the streets and who to contact," the teacher says. "One of the main criticisms in the Burnage report was that everyone was working independently of each other."

While she derides the buck-passing that goes on whenever racial violence rears its head, she is also clear that such events do not occur in isolation. "There is a huge correlation between racist activity in local communities and the rise and fall of fascist parties. It tends to come in waves," she says.

And when it comes, the fear is that teachers are simply not equipped to deal with it. Carolyn Shield, who is the NUT equal opportunities officer for Nottinghamshire as well as chair of Nottingham Racial Equality Council's education sub-committee, points to the downward spiral of in-service training for teachers in the county over the past five years as a dangerous one.

"If things continue the way they're going, with the main focus of training on narrow curricular needs, things could well lead to more and more schools with an amoral ethos and unchecked racism. A lot of it has to do with a reduction in funding for schools under LMS."

Nottingham REC has discovered that children as young as five are suffering racial harassment. Some have been psychologically damaged by the experience. Carolyn Shield is worried that "while LEAs in the past issued guidelines on racist behaviour and enforced them, governors now have the power to decide whether to follow those guidelines".

To ignore set guidelines, to avoid problems that exist in schools, to turn a blind eye to "low-level" harassment, is not something that any school can afford to do if its prime concern is the welfare of children. A secondary schoolgirl in West Glamorgan wrote of her experiences of racial harassment in a school that turned its back on her. "In my English class, when the teacher used to go out all the boys would start fighting with me. I had no friends to stick up for me. When I used to cry and tell the teacher, the teacher would say that I probably did something to start it off."

Timetable of terror

A brief chronology of racial violence against children and young people: February 1991: Rolan Adams, a 15-year-old black grammar school pupil from south London, is stabbed to death by a young neo-Nazi on the Thamesmead estate.

October 1992: Gangs of white and Asian youths involved in violent clashes outside Shawlands Academy, Glasgow.

July 1992: Rohit Duggal, a 16-year-old Asian pupil, is stabbed to death during a confrontation with a group of white youths in Greenwich, south London.

April 1993: Black sixth-former Stephen Lawrence, 18, is stabbed to death by half a dozen white youths.

April 1993: 14-year-old black Sheffield boy bayonets Grant Jackson, a 17-year-old white boy, to death during inter-school gang warfare.

May 1993: Two Bengali youths, aged 17, are attacked with a machete by a skinhead as they sit on a wall outside one of their homes in Camden, north London.

September 1993: Quaddus Ali, a 17-year-old Bangladeshi student at Tower Hamlets College, east London, is savagely beaten by a group of white men, including skinheads.

September 1993: At least nine pupils transfer from George Green's School on the Isle of Dogs, Tower Hamlets, because of racial harassment.

February 1994: Muktar Ahmed, 19, savagely beaten by a gang of 20 white youths in Bethnal Green, east London. A few days later, a group of white youths armed with iron bars and accompanied by dogs attack Asian students sitting in a park during their lunch break from Tower Hamlets College. The following day a 14-year-old Bengali boy is stabbed in the face by four white men as he walks down Bethnal Green Road.

March 1994: Violent clashes take place between black and Asian youths, some of them armed, in and around Quintin Kynaston School in St John's Wood, north London.

June 1994: Student Shah Mohammed Ruhul Alam, 17, is critically wounded after being stabbed by 10 white youths.

August 1994: Richard Everitt, a 15-year-old white pupil, is stabbed to death by a group of 11 Asian youths near King's Cross Station, north London.

December 1994: The National Union of Students launches a 24-hour hotline to tackle growing harassment and intimidation of students by far-Right groups.

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