Talks to comfort pupils after killing: Counselling starts for children still in shock after classroom stabbing. Malcolm Pithers reports

THE CHILDREN held in a classroom while Nikki Conroy, 12, was stabbed to death and two other pupils were attacked and injured are due to go back to school today.

To help them come to terms with their ordeal, Cleveland education and social services departments have set up a counselling service with staff at the Hall Garth comprehensive school in Acklam, Middlesbrough.

Teams of educational psychologists, social workers, school staff and police will be in the school this morning when the 1,200 pupils return for one day before breaking up for Easter. They will talk to all the children together, and then individually.

Frank Brown, Cleveland's head of services for children, said it was vitally important for the pupils to be able to talk through the experience and deal with their grief.

Many of those who were in the mathematics block, where the attack on Nikki, Emma Winter, 13, and Michelle Reeve, also 13, took place, may need therapy for some time to come.

Yesterday, there were no classes at Hall Garth, although some parents and pupils, still deeply shocked, visited the school to lay flowers and talk briefly to staff, then left in tears.

The two injured girls, Emma and Michelle, have been discharged from Middlesbrough General Hospital. Michelle suffered fifteen wounds in the attack and Emma, eight.

The headteacher, Peter Smith, has asked all his staff to attend the counselling sessions and has asked parents to return their children to school this morning. Any children who do not attend will be visited at home.

He said: 'We have seen a lot of tears and I guess there will be a lot more. I have never been through anything like it and would guess we would have a lot of children who will not know what it is about.

'Clearly, we have some children who will be very, very badly scarred for a variety of reasons. The people who will find it particularly difficult will be the 20 or so children who were in the room. They have been through a hell of an experience and we just do not know where to start.'

There is concern that unless counselling begins immediately many may not be able to face returning to school after Easter. 'We have to talk,' Mr Smith said. 'It is an important part of grieving. If grief is bottled up, it never really works through.'

Yesterday, Pauline Maddeson, Cleveland's deputy chief education officer, said it was important for the children to return to school straight away. 'We cannot go through two and a half weeks before the children are exposed to normality and reality again.'

Hall Garth School borders a golf course and is close to a college. It lies at the end of a long, leafy road, adjacent to new housing estates. Its location makes total security near impossible.

There is a reception system where pupils meet people entering the building and ask them to sign a visitors' book. This system was operating on Monday, but it is thought the attacker used a side door instead of the main entrance.

There will be a full security review of all Cleveland schools, Ms Maddeson said.

'We are morally bound to review security after any incident and guidelines will be laid down for headteachers next term. But we do have an obvious dilemma . . . are schools user-friendly establishments that should be accessible to the community or are they to be hidden away and operated as closed environments?'

Stephen Wilkinson, 29, appeared before Teesside magistrates yesterday accused of the murder of Nikki Conroy, 12, and of attempting to kill Emma Winter, 13, and Michelle Reeve, also 13, at Hall Garth School, Acklam, on Monday.

Mr Wilkinson, of Easterside, Middlesbrough, was remanded in custody for one week.

Leading article, page 17

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