3 June 2017

Leopard

About twenty five years ago, in the middle of my sparkling career as a secondary school teacher, I returned to my classroom after morning break. I had been down to the staffroom to  see if there was any mail or messages in my pigeonhole. 

On that particular day, I knew that a new boy would be joining my Year 10 English group. The Head of Year had  informed me of that the day before. The boy was being transferred from another big secondary school in the city but I had no idea why. As he was in Year 10 he would have been fourteen or fifteen.

It was customary for classes to line up outside classrooms before entering but that morning with the end of break still five minutes away. I was surprised to see that someone had arrived already and he was in the classroom sitting near the back wall. It was the new boy.

I went across to him and was rather taken aback to see that he had a knife in his hand - not a vicious hunting knife or a sheath knife but a dining knife - identical to the ones that were provided to pupils in the school canteen. The pasty-faced boy didn't even look up at me. He was too busy. He was using the knife to chisel away mortar from between the breeze blocks that had been used in the classroom's construction.

Inside me, I heard a voice yelling "What the hell are you doing?" as I confronted the lad but in reality I was  calm, like a psychiatric nurse dealing with a challenging patient. I asked him his name - "Dean! Who are you?" and I continued to speak calmly to him. He put the knife in his jacket pocket as that voice in my head said "Give me that knife you bloody thief!"

The other pupils had arrived and were  lined up outside the door. I let them in and the lesson commenced.

Over the next few weeks I discovered two things about Dean. He was naturally a good writer and he also had the ability to be very disruptive - deliberately winding other pupils up and frequently challenging my authority just for the hell of it. He was intelligent but he chose to use his intelligence destructively.

I was so curious about him that one day after school I went to the filing cabinets down in the school office. Here pupil files were kept containing paper records about ability, achievement, home circumstances and behaviour. But in Dean's file there was nothing apart from a school transfer sheet.

The next day I asked the Head of Year about Dean. Why had he been transferred to our school? I described his challenging behaviour and said I would find it helpful if I knew something of his past history but the Head of Year stayed shtum. There was something she wasn't telling me. By this time other subject teachers were also having problems with Dean.

A month or so after this, on a Saturday night,  I ran into a former teaching colleague called Maggie. She now taught at the school that Dean had previously attended. I asked her if she knew anything about him and immediately she explained the circumstances surrounding his expulsion. In front of a classroom of pupils, he had threatened a Science teacher with a knife brought from home.

I was astounded and when I got back to school the following week I spread the word amongst my teaching colleagues and asked the Head of Year why she hadn't provided this information. She said she was under strict instructions from the school's headteacher to keep Dean's chequered history quiet.

After two or three suspensions for bad behaviour near the start of Year 11, Dean became an habitual truant. This was a tremendous relief for me and others charged with teaching him.

Perhaps ten years after his schooldays finished I saw a report in our local evening paper "The Star" that Dean - now aged twenty five or six had been imprisoned for causing grievous bodily harm after attacking another young man. With what? A knife of course.

It still makes me angry when I look back. The headteacher who decided to sit on the information and keep staff in the dark did not have to teach the boy. They say that knowledge is power but by being denied information about Dean we were powerless to understand him and find ways of possibly dealing more effectively with him. The idea of a fresh start or a clean slate is all well and good but more often than not leopards don't change their spots.

If you got to the end of this post, thanks for reading it.

26 comments:

  1. What a story, and a disturbing one at that. I guess the head teacher had her reasons for not disclosing the information, but at what cost really.

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    1. Schools get extra money when they take in pupils expelled from other schools. I suspect that that is all she was really thinking about.

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  2. There was a boy in the same year group as my daughters. He was known for being creepy and sexually inappropriate but was mostly regarded as a nuisance until he attacked a much younger student and pushed the young boys face into his crotch. He was expelled and is now on the sex offenders register. I wonder if things might have taken a different course if he had been taken seriously earlier on

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    1. Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade.

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  3. I went through the same experience with a student.
    the only thing I found out is that he had served the maximum closed detention which could only mean that he had killed somebody. He appeared nice but on occasion lost it. One day he lost all control and luckily left the room and school bawling. I felt sorry for him.

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    1. A child never chooses to be a baddy. A lot of it is down to upbringing. I met Dean's father at a parents evening just a few weeks after he had arrived. He was adamant that Dean was "a good lad" and that any problems he had had were to do with the staff who taught him. Utter denial.

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    2. I've seen the utter denial a few times. Sad.

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  4. These days, in the USA, kids like that end up bringing guns to school and sometimes terrible things happen. Thank goodness Dean didn't have access to guns!

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    1. Yes. It is very, very hard to access guns in Great Britain.

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  5. How wrong and short-sighted it was of those responsible to have thought it wise to keep the knowledge they had about Dean to themselves.

    Brushing a problem under the carpet never is the solution; and in so many ways they are as responsible for the young fellow's continued issues, as the lad himself. Their ignorance in many way aided and abetted the hidden, personal factors, probably from the kid's home front, that caused him to be who he was, and do what he did, then and later in his life.

    So blind some sighted people are....

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    1. You have got to the very nub of the issue Lee. It wasn't just about staff safety and well-being, it was about giving the boy an informed second chance. Brushing problems under carpets is never a healthy thing to do.

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  6. An interesting story Mr Pudding. The boy was clearly a 'special case' and shared information would have helped everyone.

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  7. Of course we don't know how and if things would have turned out differently if you and the other teachers had been informed properly. But it seems to be wrong not to share such information with those concerned. The boy obviously was not interested in getting a fresh start on a clean slate, stealing and using a knife on his very first day.

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    1. That's right Meike - his very first day. It made me wonder if anybody had sat him down and defined behaviour expectations.

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  8. Very interesting story this. Although I think some things are in our genes I do think that events in life bring certain things to the fore. I wonder what his home life was like? Often it is a call for help as these disruptive people are not as bold as they make out but very insecure.
    But that's just softy me, lol. I would hate to be on a jury, they would be weeks with me trying to get a decision as I always look beneath the top layer. ha ha
    Briony
    x

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    1. You would have probably let off The Yorkshire Ripper and The Moors Murderers Briony!

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  9. That was a problem that all staff should have been aware of and the boy needed professional help. Or at the least, needed to be relieved of the knife and held to the rules. Lord.

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    1. His clean slate was sullied within two hours of his fresh start. I think a boy like that belonged in a special unit for the maladjusted - not in mainstream classrooms.

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  10. Perhaps the Head thought that by not telling anyone, Dean would start with a clean slate and reform? Such a senseless way to go about it - putting the other pupils and staff at risk.

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    1. You got it in a nutshell CG.

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  11. Interesting YP. I was a Head of a very large Department
    in a very large inner city Comprehensive for seventeen years of my teaching career before becoming Senior Mistress in the same school. I can relate fully to what you say and certainly think it very unwise that the information was kept from the staff, who should have had a meeting before the boy was admitted in my opinion and also have had some advice on how to deal with him and procedures for what to do if the behaviour became impossible. As to whether leopards can change their spots - I'm not so sure on that one as I can think of one or two fiends who eventually turned out into nice chaps - one in particular springs to mind.

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    1. I guess you are right Mrs Weaver. Some human leopards do change their spots but this was not true of Dean. He ended up in clink. It seems to me that it was very unprofessional of the headteacher not to share information about Dean with chalkface teachers.

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  12. If Dean had been allowed to have hugs and loving words from his teachers and if those teachers had visited his home and talked to the adults there ..... who knows?

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    1. Perhaps but I wouldn't have liked to hug him myself. In secondary school classrooms it became an unwritten rule that you should never touch your pupils - either in anger or with human warmth. Nevertheless, like you, I do believe there are ways of reprogramming people so that the badness is driven back into its cave.

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  13. I'm surprised not only that the head teacher wanted to keep Dean's past quiet, but that she wasn't REQUIRED to tell you all about it. That seems much more reasonable to me. If a student has behavior problems -- particularly involving weapons -- those should be part of his permanent record!

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