THEY were boys aged eight to 16 with learning difficulties, and what they needed from Knowl View special school in Rochdale was care. What they got, according to Phil Shepherd, a council HIV-prevention officer, was the risk of Aids.
Mr Shepherd was horrified by the situation he discovered when he made a sex-education day visit to the residential school in March 1991. In a report he made within a week to the town's director of education, Mrs Diana Cavanagh, he set out a picture grimmer than anything Dickens imagined for Dotheboys Hall.
He wrote: "One boy who is homosexual has contact with an adult outside the school. Several of the senior boys indulge in oral sex with one another.
"Reputedly five of the junior boys have been or are involved in 'cottaging' in and around public toilets. Men as far away as Sheffield are believed to be aware of this activity and travel to Rochdale to take part.
"One eight-year-old is thought to have been involved. The police are aware of the problem. What action has been taken is not known.
"One rent boy has been removed from the school. The suggestion that he may return soon has angered the staff.
"Some boys have been 'forced' to have sex with others."
Mr Shepherd was a member of the Rochdale Health Authority Aids unit. "We are committed to preventing the spread of HIV," he wrote. "The boys in this school look to us to be increasingly at risk."
He added: "Most people, not least parents of children at the school, would be horrified were these facts to be made known."
They were not. Mrs Cavanagh assured him the problem was being addressed "through concerted professional action". She asked him to circulate his report no further, and "not to undertake any independent action".
The Aids team was not asked back in. Mr Shepherd's report has remained unpublicised, and it is only now that parents of the boys in Knowl View are becoming aware of the risk their children ran and what they may have gone through.
The full story of Knowl View, which opened in 1969 and closed nine months ago, has never been made public, but is clearly visible in confidential council documents seen by the Independent on Sunday.
In essence, boys as young as eight were put at risk of Aids through prostitution and liaisons with known sex offenders, after a disintegration of control over several years.
Concerns about the sexual behaviour of the boys were first passed to the council as far back as 1988 by Dr Alison Frazer, a child psychiatrist at Rochdale's Birch Hill Hospital, yet it was three years later that Mr Shepherd issued his dire warning about the Aids dangers facing them, and another year before the council received recommendations on restoring management control after its own inquiry.
That report, by Valerie Mellor, a consultant clinical psychologist, came in February 1992. In it, Mrs Mellor said there was no doubt up to a quarter of the pupils at the 48-place school had been involved in serious sexual incidents and the activity had continued "over a very long period of time .... It is very difficult to believe that this behaviour had not come to the attention of at least some members of staff."
Although her report suggested that sexual activity was at an end, five months later a pupil and a former pupil, both 14, were cautioned by police for soliciting in the town's Smith Street lavatories.
At the height of the affair, a known sex offender gained overnight access to the school and allegedly plied pupils with cider and cannabis cigarettes before sexually assaulting them. Official details are scant.
In her 1992 report Valerie Mellor said only: "In September 1990, an incident occurred involving an adult male intruder at the school. That intruder had sexual contact with one or more of the boys on school premises."
But one boy (see case on right) says he was raped and that at least one other boy in his house was forced to have oral sex with the intruder. He claims their cries for help went unanswered because the member of staff on "sleeping-in" duty was not there. The offender returned the next night, but that time was beaten off.
The alleged rape victim says he was never interviewed by the police. The teenager was awarded a legal-aid certificate last week to sue for damages, and on Friday Mark Walker, of solicitors Molesworths, who are representing him, applied to the council for the release of files. Mr Walker said there were serious questions about the way Rochdale handled the incident. "We are concerned that not enough was done afterwards to help our client."
John Pierce, Rochdale council's chief executive, said police had reviewed the case again recently and found nothing requiring further action.
He added: "The police have also stated quite clearly that they do not believe there is any substance in allegations of a 'cover-up' relating to incidents at the school and that all the issues involved were discussed and investigated at the time by a number of agencies and the necessary action taken then."
The authority was already taking action before Mr Shepherd's report, Mr Pierce said.
"Both social services and the police had become involved in dealing with issues related to inappropriate sexual activities involving Knowl View pupils and adults unconnected with the school," he said. "Arrangements appropriate to each boy's circumstances were made in relation to counselling and health advice."
Mr Pierce said that staff had received sex-education training and advice on how to warn pupils of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.
But one care worker at the school said: "I would never work for this authority again. It is appalling that those people who were in charge still have jurisdiction over so many children's lives."
Martin Digan, 36, another former care worker, said: "I believe there has been a cover-up. Only a public inquiry can place responsibility where it should be placed."
Parents are also dissatisfied. One 41-year-old mother believes the deterioration in her son's behaviour was a direct result of the sexual activity he became involved in at the lavatories in Rochdale's Smith Street - and of a vicious school environment in which, she says, on one occasion he was hit with a cricket bat.
Another mother, whose son is now in jail for causing grievous bodily harm, was informed of what happened at the school only six weeks ago by one of the other parents.
"I should have been told," she said. "They're pretty disgusting, aren't they? All of the reviews I've sat at and none of this ever came out."
Neither were staff and parents alone in their surprise. Bill Hopkins, who became a lay member of the governing body in late 1990, looked shocked when told last week about the prostitution. "I don't know anything about that. I don't know if any of the other governors did. As far as I understood it, the problem was [the known sex offender]," he said.
"It seems to me that everybody at the time was contemplating their navel," one adviser said.
"All the reports were on how the system failed and there was only a one- line reference in all the documents to the fact that the children might need some help. Rochdale let those kids down."
CHRIS (not his real name) can only now bring himself to admit what happened to him at Knowl View School. The memory leaves him furious.
He claims that when he was 14 he was raped by a known sex offender who gained access to the school one night and plied him with alcohol and cannabis.
He says: "I was hysterical. I couldn't do anything. It was physical force. He threw me against the wall, threw me around the room.
"I was shocked and scared. He threatened to kill me if I told anybody." Afterwards, he says, he lay in his bed terrified, hearing other pupils screaming.
Nobody came to help. He says the duty member of staff was not in his room.
Though Chris was later questioned by the school, he says he was never interviewed by the police.
Eventually he decided that nothing was being done - and began lashing out. He threw another pupil through a window. Once he was locked up in his bedroom for a week.
"I got to the stage where I was going to run off and find help elsewhere," he said.
Then he decided that he had to learn to live with the experience. But that is difficult.
"If I saw [the intruder] now I'd kill him. I've been close to suicide and I'm extremely lucky I haven't gone to prison.
"There were six in my dorm and two are in prison. One is serving ten- and-a half years for rape. The other shot a boy in the eye and blinded him."
Chris was sent to Knowl View at the age of 12 because he had been disruptive at his previous school, but he believes he was too bright for the special school. He describes the lessons there as "a joke".
He has no job and feels Knowl View deprived him of a chance in life.
"Before I went there I had a life. I don't have one now. Sometimes I want to go to the Black Box [council offices] and just blow the whole lot of them," he says.
"I was in care. That place was supposed to be full of qualified people to look after me and I don't think they did. So they deserve to pay, don't they?"
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