School bullying goes on trial: Becky Walker is the first victim of alleged bullying to seek legal redress for the misery of her schooldays, reports Suzanne Glass

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'STICKS and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. That,' says Becky Walker, enunciating carefully, 'is just a load of old rubbish.'

Becky is 20. She has to make an extra effort with her speech when she meets a stranger. 'I was born with cerebral palsy,' she explains. 'The damage to my brain means that my nervous system doesn't send all the right messages to my muscles. So I have limited control. My speech is slurred, my gait is awkward and clumsy and little things like doing up buttons take an enormous effort. That's right, isn't it Dad?' she asks, turning to her father for reassurance.

Becky is an academically brilliant young woman, with nine As at O-level and three As and a B at A-level. She is now a successful law student at Nottingham University, but she has become anxious about what people think of her. She and her parents, Adrian and Maggie, claim that the gradual erosion of her self-esteem began when Becky was allegedly bullied at Bolsover School in Chesterfield.

'We brought Becky up to think she could have a go at anything. Whatever her elder sister Sacha did, she did too. Ice skating, cycling without a stabiliser, playing the piano. She fell down, she fell off, but she was always willing to try - until the bullying started.'

In 1987, when she was 13, Becky was asked to play the steel pans in the school band. The band, the Panharmonics, had a nationwide reputation. 'It was the greatest achievement of her life,' says her father. But the family says that from that moment on a gang of three malicious girls made Becky's life a nightmare.

'I was used to bullying in primary school. Kids were always calling me spastic and stuff, but at least that was open,' says Becky.

She claims that at Bolsover School for a period of 14 months there was relentless nastiness which caused her extreme distress.

Becky says the girls taunted her and wore her down with whispers, jokes and snide remarks. Then she says the subtle malice became overt, when she was physically prevented from playing.

Becky couldn't set up her own steel pans. They were far too heavy. Sometimes, she alleges, when the the girls were setting up the instruments, hers would deliberately be left in the cupboard. She claims that once, on a European tour just before a concert, her steel pans were actually loaded back onto the bus - someone said 'These ones won't be needed.'

'I couldn't believe people would single me out just because I was disabled. They just didn't want me there because I looked different. One of the girls in the band said there was no point her smiling at the audience when I was around, because they would all be looking at me,' claims Becky.

When Becky is really upset she gets an involuntary twitch in her shoulder and comes out in red blotches all over her body. Adrian and Maggie Walker say that is what happened to their daughter on another occasion when she was excluded from playing in a school concert.

'It was just dreadful,' says Maggie Walker. 'They had asked me to help Becky dress for the concert. She was so excited about it. Then at the very last minute they told her she couldn't play, because she missed the rehearsal. Nobody had told Becky there was a rehearsal. She was in the most awful state of distress. It was dreadful to see her like that.'

Becky's parents say they approached David Gibbons, a parent helper and head of the band, and alerted him to the bullying. They also spoke to the headmaster, Bruce Canning, but the problems continued.

'I remember it as if it were yesterday,' says Becky. 'Mr Gibbons sat here on this couch and I was just crying and crying.' Becky says that she asked him to make the girls apologise but she believes he found it impossible to do without spoiling the atmosphere in the band.

'I asked him, 'Mr Gibbons, do you believe I have been bullied?' ' And she claims he replied, 'I believe you believe you have been bullied.' Becky left the band. Her sister Sacha followed suit in protest. A short while later, ironically, the headmaster announced the band would be playing at the World Games for Cerebral Palsy.

Becky stayed on at the school to take her O-levels, then left. She took her A-levels at a local sixth form college and started her law course at Nottingham University in 1992. Today she is on anti-depressants and is struggling to overcome her fear of socialising.

At first she was reluctant to have such private details of her life in print. Then she changed her mind - because the psychological damage she says she has suffered as a direct result of the alleged bullying is the crux of a claim for damages she is bringing against Derbyshire County Council.

'They had a duty of care to protect me,' says Becky. 'If someone falls over in the corridor and hurts their leg you don't just leave them lying there.'

Becky's case will be heard on 6 June. It is the first ever case of alleged bullying in the country to be brought to court.

Her first hurdle will be to satisfy the judge that she actually was bullied. That leads to the question of what exactly bullying consists of.

If Becky can get that far she will then have to show that David Gibbons was fully aware of the bullying, or should have been aware of it, and that no proper steps were taken to rectify the situation. Then she will have to prove the extent of the trauma she has suffered as a result of it. Her lawyer, Clifford Bellamy says Becky has medical reports to confirm she is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Becky sees the legal battle as part and parcel of the battle to regain her confidence. 'I just want the judge to say, 'Yes, it happened. Yes, it was dealt with badly.' Perhaps then I can start to rebuild my life,' says Becky. 'I really don't care about the money.'

Whether or not Becky wins in court she will be a pioneer. There are already three or four families in the sidelines, waiting to initiate proceedings following the outcome of Becky's case.

'Whatever happens,' says Becky, 'this will open the floodgates. It will make teachers realise that bullying's not a storm in a tea cup. It's just not good enough to say 'Children will be children.' '

Bolsover School has declined to comment on Becky Walker's case.

(Photograph omitted)

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