Leader comment: Law not robust enough to prevent another tragedy

Sixteen-year-old Bailey Gwynne died after he was stabbed by a fellow pupil during an argument at Cults Academy.
Sixteen-year-old Bailey Gwynne died after he was stabbed by a fellow pupil during an argument at Cults Academy.
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The killing of a school pupil could be repeated if teachers are not given the power to search pupils suspected to be carrying a weapon

It is a bold claim to suggest in hindsight that a stabbing incident could have been avoided. Attacks with knives are often impulsive, coming as the result of an unexpected flashpoint, and in many cases there is no prior knowledge that the attacker was carrying a weapon.

However in the case of Bailey Gwynne, the Aberdeen schoolboy who was stabbed to death by a fellow pupil during a fight last year, there is enough evidence to suggest that the potential for tragedy could have been identified and acted upon, which might have prevented the needless loss of a young life.

A report into the death of the 16-year-old has found that “several children” were aware that the killer carried weapons, and either felt they could not report him, or that they felt it was not necessary to report him, presumably in the ultimately mistaken belief that he would not use a weapon that he carried.

One of the report’s conclusions states that pupils should be encouraged to report knowledge of weapons, and that is an obvious starting point, provided this can be done confidentially and without fear of reprisal from a reported party.

For this to be effective, however, it is suggested that senior teachers should have the power to search a suspected carrier, and confiscate any weapon found, a measure which would require a change in the current law.

The Educational Institute of Scotland has said it could not support the “routine screening and searching of pupils”, and it is understandable why this would be seen as undesirable. If the authority of teachers is extended, it changes their relationship with pupils, which could have a negative effect on the learning process.

But in dangerous situations, schools need a swift mechanism to deal with serious threats to safety. In the time it takes to establish that an allegation of possessing a weapon carries substance, and then contacting the police with a request to attend the premises, it may be too late. During that time, the suspect may have got wind of what was going on, and disposed of the weapon at a place where it could be later retrieved.

If pupils are to be encouraged to report that someone is carrying a knife, an inability to search that person leaves the school in an unsatisfactory position. It is far from ideal to give senior teachers that authority, but on balance, it is necessary.

The 12 recommendations on weapons made by the Bailey Gwynne death inquiry present a logical approach to how to deal with such a situation in future, but they are undermined by the current law which only allows searches to be made with a pupil’s consent, and where no consent is given, the police should be notified if there are grounds to suggest a young person is carrying a weapon.

Without a change to the law to give senior teachers the power to search a suspected pupil and confiscate a weapon, that person’s civil liberties are being put ahead of the duty of care to every other pupil in the school, and the prospects of another tragedy are barely diminished.