Will more security ensure our children are safe?

Should schools be protected like fortresses? In the wake of Dunblane's tragedy, Anna Moore discusses safety with parents and teachers
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The Independent Online
The Dunblane tragedy has raised the issue of school security in a way that no one could have even dared imagine. But schools' vulnerability to intruders has been a growing concern since March 1994, when Stephen Wilkinson burst into a classroom in Hall Garth school, Middlesbrough, and stabbed 13-year-old Nikki Conroy to death. Three months later, Graham Bell launched a flame-thrower attack on A-level students in Sullivan Upper School, Holywood, County Down. Then last December came the murder of the headteacher Philip Lawrence as he attempted to defend his pupils from a knife-wielding gang outside his school in west London.

Following this, a working party of teaching union leaders and local authority representatives was established to recommend new national safety provisions, and though it had agreed a first draft a week before Dunblane, it is now expected to reconvene and strengthen the proposals.

In addition, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers had already scheduled a debate on the issue of school security in the first of the major teacher union conferences at the beginning of April. The impetus for this came from the ATL's Manchester branch, whose members have suffered a growing number of violent incidents, including one last November when a headteacher was assaulted in class by two teenagers who walked in wearing balaclavas.

"There's a strong feeling that these issues urgently need addressing," says ATL's Manchester branch secretary, Brian Waters. "For 20 years, since `open access' became the vogue, schools have not been built with security in mind. They're supposed to be part of the community; parents are allowed to wander in and out. It sounds great. But against that, you have to balance the fact that teachers are feeling vulnerable, working on campus after hours, or teaching on remote parts of the premises. Schools are laying themselves open to intruders - vandals, burglars, perverts and people like Hamilton. Every parent is looking at Dunblane and thinking, `My child. My school. Could it happen to us?' "

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, agrees. "We must face the fact that we can't afford open access schools anymore," he says. "It's the sick way society is going. Britain is following the pattern set by America where events like these happen on a regular basis. Every school has to consider itself a soft target and reduce the risks as much as possible. We need to create some boundaries. We should think about security guards, perimeter fences and closed-circuit televisions. It will be expensive and needs to be government- fuelled, carefully implemented as and when resources allow."

George Varnava, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, is more cautious. "A school is part of a community and it would be a mistake to isolate it. They should be accessible, and there's no way a school could protect itself from Dunblane, which was almost an act of terrorism." But Mr Varnava agrees that all schools should review security after Dunblane. "And as of now, all new buildings should be designed with security in mind," he adds. "We have to prepare children for living in a dangerous world - there's no value in keeping them blind to the risks."

Lesley Howarth is the mother of Sam, who is six, and Emma, who is four. The family lives in Cheshire.

Nothing like Dunblane has ever happened in my lifetime and, hopefully, it never will again. Why should every school be made to suffer? We can't turn them into fortresses. Dunblane was devastating. My little girl is that age, and Hamilton could have done that anywhere. I'm sure that's what most parents thought.

But though it probably sounds naive, I really don't feel that security is the problem. If it's at all possible to prevent something like that, we need to look at society. What went wrong there? Should anyone be allowed to have handguns at home? He could have done that in a bus queue, a cinema, a hospital, or he could have waited outside the school gates at going- home time. I don't think there's any way a school could have protected itself.

If my son's school suddenly started erecting fences and installing CCTV, he'd certainly want to know why. What should I tell him? I think he's too young to have to ask those sort of questions.

Kathy Peters is headteacher of the Jewish Prep School, London, which has 125 pupils, aged three to 11.

Thomas Hamilton would not have got into our school. We have one entrance with a brand new, specially designed pounds 10,000 gate that weighs a tonne and is manned by a security guard. We have CCTV and an entry phone, and there's a compulsory `security duty' for all the parents, who take it in turns to patrol the grounds during mornings and collecting times. They're happy to do it. They just want to know that their children are safe.

Every Jewish establishment has to have this kind of security and our children take it for granted. They just see it as part of everyday life; I really don't think it affects them. I've worked in secular state schools and they're generally very open places - anyone can walk in unchallenged. Judging by today's society, I think we have to question whether or not this is still safe. Government buildings and offices all have proper security. Our children are our future. We have to make sure that they're secure, too.

Heather Woodings is mother of nine-year-old Patrick and four-year-old Shaun. The family lives in Kent.

My first reaction when I heard about Dunblane was `thank God it wasn't our school' - something like that could have happened anywhere. My nine- year-old son was off sick when it came on the TV and I tried to explain it to him, though I'm not sure he took it in. I was very aware when I walked him to school the next day that I was extra lucky to have him.

We don't want our schools to become fortresses, but I think staff should be more aware of who is coming in and out. Maybe they should have a system where all visitors have to book in. The other day, I walked into our school, picked up my son and walked out again without really seeing anyone. No one seemed to even notice. Schools could try to cut down to one entrance as well. Dunblane may have been a freak event, but look at America. Things like this happen much more there. We don't want to head that way.

Andrew Raven is headteacher of St Thomas Primary School, in Groombridge, East Sussex, a village school with 150 pupils.

We all feel tremendous grief for Dunblane but it's important to be sensible and weigh up the issues. Fire is a far higher risk than someone coming in with a gun. Children need to be able to get out of the building quickly. Obviously, we need to be aware of who's coming in and out, but there are risks we live with. Thomas Hamilton seems to have made a planned, strategic attack on that school, and to have gone in like a commando. You can't protect yourself from that anywhere - not in a school, a hospital, an old people's home or your own home. We'd all be living with tanks on our driveways.

I've been to schools in America where you have to pass metal detectors just to get in, and it's a horrible feeling. We want our children to feel happy and safe and loved. They should know that the chances of anything like Dunblane happening to them are 999 million to one. Schools should nurture compassion and humanity in children, not fear and inhumanity. We should be looking at how services and communities fail to support, help and contain people like Hamilton, instead of concentrating on how to cut ourselves off even further.

Emma Newman is mother of William, aged six, and Giles, who is 11. The family lives in Surbiton, Surrey.

I was practically in tears when I heard the news. There was the feeling that it could have been mine. I know they've had intruders wandering in and out of my children's school and it is worrying that people can get access so easily. There's a hospital for disturbed people just down the road from us and the local paper is occasionally running stories about patients who have `gone missing', failed to come back for curfew. Then you hear about something like Dunblane, and it makes you think ...

But what can we really do without locking our children in? I don't want schools to be turned into prisons. They only have one childhood, and despite all this, we have to try and let them enjoy it as much as they can. We don't want to bring in the big, bad world so soon unless we really have to.

John Young is headteacher of Sullivan Upper School, Co Down, the target of a flame-thrower attack in June 1994 which left three students horrifically scarred.

We are sadly learning that we can't trust everyone who walks through the doors of a school. Society has to recognise that some of our previous assumptions - for example, the belief that our children are somehow exempt from violent attack - may no longer be valid.

After the attack by Graham Bell, we had to increase our security. We're now covered by an alarm system and all our visitors have to sign in and wear passes. We also strengthened our perimeter fence and our staff monitor all our vulnerable areas.

We had to pay for this out of our own budget and we still review it from time to time. But we're aware that there's no such thing as 100 per cent security. We have 1,200 students changing classes about eight times a day. They have to be able to move freely. And what if there's a fire? We need more than one entrance and one exit. We also need to be as accessible as we can to parents.

It's about finding the right balance while recognising the fact that, though events like these are still relatively rare, they are happening more than they used to.