Why we had to expel Tyrone

Is the school to blame when a pupil is excluded and then dies of a drug overdose? Ian Roe, a deputy head at a comprehensive, says only so much can be done when a child is bent on self-destruction
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The Independent Online

The news came first thing in the morning. The basic details were clear enough, even though the process of embellishment had already begun. Tyrone had been found dead in a neighbour's garden, lying on a grubby damp mattress. He had choked on his own vomit after overdosing on an exotic cocktail of drugs. He was not quite 17. And last year we had expelled him from school.

The news came first thing in the morning. The basic details were clear enough, even though the process of embellishment had already begun. Tyrone had been found dead in a neighbour's garden, lying on a grubby damp mattress. He had choked on his own vomit after overdosing on an exotic cocktail of drugs. He was not quite 17. And last year we had expelled him from school.

The school was animated for a while, with the thrill of morbid curiosity. Suddenly everyone was his best friend. They had seen him only yesterday, had spoken to him. It was terrible, it was shocking. Tyrone was all right really, I mean he was a good mate sometimes. He was a laugh but the school had kicked him out and it wasn't fair. They had been picking on him hadn't they? Making something out of nothing. And look what happened to him.

This was certainly the reaction of his family. They had always regarded Tyrone as the one hope of a deeply dysfunctional generation. He would not end up in prison like the rest. He was different. We believed that their desperate hope blinded them to the reality of his behaviour. And certainly in the cold light of day even his most fervent advocates knew Tyrone to be a dangerous and unpredictable character, who lived to a moral code that not everyone else could share. But the family needed something to believe in. They needed someone to blame. The school had to bear the responsibility for setting these sad events in motion. If Tyrone had stayed in school then he wouldn't have lost his way. He would have retained some structure in his life and a sense of purpose. But we had cast him aside. We had abandoned him to the streets. It was our fault.

Certainly we had had a choice. But our responsibilities had been quite clear to us. Our priority had to be the whole school community – and Tyrone had sinned. There had been an extended period of vandalism and theft. He had obtained a set of keys and wreaked untraceable havoc. Then he had got a handbag containing a credit card. And the cleaner to whom it had belonged had written her PIN number on the back.

Eventually Tyrone stopped because he was caught. That's the only reason it all ended. In his mini crime wave he destroyed completely any trust that we might once have had. Of course we carry some guilt – we should have been more careful with our keys. But the fact remains, he knew he was doing wrong. He stole things. He destroyed things. He held the educational opportunities of the rest of the school in contempt. The years of support, the special measures, the concessions, had clearly counted for nothing. The time given by staff – the huge amounts of time in drawing up contracts and programmes, in meetings, on the phone – had counted for nothing. We had to act. We had to send out a painful message of finality. Our community didn't need Tyrone any more.

He was permanently excluded along with his two accomplices. And so Tyrone became a lost boy. We do it rarely and would always be hesitant to act in such a way with a student in their final year. We always seek alternatives. But there had been a history of his reluctance to conform and to allow the needs of others to be met. We'd done the counselling, we'd done the support and still he wouldn't play on our side. Enough was indeed enough.

Tyrone's family were desperate to believe he was something that he was not. They wanted him to have a second chance and took the decision to an independent appeals panel. It was going well for Tyrone. It wasn't his fault. It had been the other two boys really. He'd been led astray. He should have been stronger. It was a mistake he will never make again. As we knew too well, Tyrone could be an attractive and appealing character. He was plausible and the appeals panel was obviously swayed. But then, flushed with success and with a clear victory within his grasp, he made a remarkable error of judgement.

Tyrone was asked what he had done with the money he'd taken from the cash machine. One of his friends told me later that he knew instantly it had been a mistake to be so honest. You see, he'd used it to buy a gun. The game was up.

I am not entirely sure what happened to Tyrone after that. He came to the school a few times on a motorbike to churn up the playing fields. It wasn't his bike. But I am afraid to say that he started to represent someone else's problem. His was a life that was hurtling downhill, out of control. Eventually he would hit the wall. And he did.

And then he was dead. A news item. A funeral. When children leave school they are not the finished article. No one believes that they are. But Tyrone was. He did not give himself the opportunity to grow into anything else. What he was as an unfinished 16-year-old, was how he died. He can never be remembered as anything else.

Had we really contributed to this tragedy? Perhaps we had. But in the end our responsibility went beyond Tyrone. We had to look at it all and consider the rights and expectations of the majority. For them, we seem to have sacrificed Tyrone. You cannot excuse forever when there is no guarantee of change. You cannot ignore the needs of the rest of the school. It could be your child whose education is being trashed. The meek have rights too.

The writer is a deputy head of a comprehensive school in the north of England. All names have been changed

education@independent.co.uk

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