VIOLENT deaths in schools are a rarity in the UK, thank God, but not so rare that we aren’t familiar with the responses they invoke in those not directly involved.
There’s the heart-juddering terror all parents feel at the thought of a child, much like their own, heading off to their classroom, never to return. There’s the poignancy of watching young people coming to terms with their first experience of loss. And there is the very human – but often misguided – impulse to extract some kind of meaning from what is, in most cases, an utterly random event. So eagerly do we hunt for warning signs, a trigger or someone to blame, it is as if establishing a pattern is the only way we can reimpose order on chaos.
The killing of 16-year-old Bailey Gwynne in Cults Academy in Aberdeen last week brought all those emotions to the fore. When the news first broke, who among us didn’t think first of his family, waving him off in the belief he was headed to a place of safety, only to have their trust betrayed in the worst way imaginable?
With a court case pending (another 16-year-old has been charged with his murder) we cannot speculate about the events leading up to his death, but his parents’ tribute which read: “Bailey is our beloved boy and our heart. Our hearts have gone with him,” is a powerful testament to the gaping hole he has left in their lives. The death of the teenager – who worked out and wanted to join the Royal Marines – has had a profound impact on his fellow pupils too. They have discovered too young that their universe can topple in the time it takes for a ball to be kicked or a bell to ring. And that even the sturdiest human being can be here one minute and gone the next.
One classmate said she had lent Bailey her pencil, smiled at him, and never seen him again, thus capturing in a few clipped sentences her new-found grasp of the ephemerality of human existence. As a result of Bailey’s death, these teenagers have learned the conflicting and all-consuming nature of grief. “It still doesn’t seem real. It feels wrong to eat. It feels wrong to do anything,” another girl said. But, as they gathered outside the school and in the local church, they also experienced the comfort that can be derived from rituals such as flower-laying and communal mourning.
Outside the immediate community, there has been a more general search for an answer to the eternal why and a way to prevent such a thing happening again in the future. While Scotland has had its problems with knife crime in the past – particularly in Glasgow – it has been steadily decreasing in recent years (though more than half of murders in Scotland still involve a sharp implement). There is nothing to suggest this particular act could or should have been predicted nor that it is part of a wider trend, yet that hasn’t stopped calls for “action”.
At FMQs last week, Labour leader Kezia Dugdale asked Nicola Sturgeon if “everything that can be done is being done to keep our children safe”, and the First Minister agreed “she was taking all steps”, though such assurances are surely empty in the face of something so arbitrary. It’s not as if Cults Academy had a history of violence. Far from it. As has been pointed out repeatedly it is a “top- performing secondary” in an affluent suburb. It was one of the least likely places in the country for something like this to occur.
Of course, it is always worth interrogating the roots of violence, but the idea that Bailey’s death should be the catalyst for, say, the introduction of metal-detecting machines – which have a reputation for breeding fear and suspicion – seems counter-productive, particularly given the general culture of respect that seems to be the hallmark of the school.
If we want to treat this as a learning experience, then perhaps it would be preferable to focus on the constructive way in which both Cults Academy and the wider community have responded to the tragedy in their midst.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Cara Henderson, founder of the charity Nil by Mouth, who was traumatised by the murder of her friend Mark Scott after an Old Firm match 20 years ago. She told me how her school – Glasgow Academy – had been at a loss as to how to handle his death, with no counselling and students spoken to only in terms of what they shouldn’t do.
At Cults Academy, time has been set aside for fellow pupils to share their memories of Bailey and talk about what happened to him and their responses to it. Ditto at Cults Parish Church, where the minister, Rev Ewen Gilchrist, last week organised a vigil at which people were encouraged to write messages on boards around the church. “We don’t want to tell people what to feel or what to think. But we do want to provide a safe and healing place where people can bring their hurt, their bewilderment, their questions, their sadness and even their anger,” he said.
Episcopalian minister Paul Watson urged Bailey’s contemporaries not to be defined by their grief, but to help each other and become known as “the closest year group ever”. If something positive is to be wrought from Bailey’s death – if he is to leave some kind of legacy – far better that it should involve this kind of pulling together of a shell-shocked community than the introduction of tough new screening procedures that are much more likely to drive it apart. «