AS the floral tributes pile up after an apparently senseless tragedy, it’s only a matter of time until someone places a card bearing three large capital letters: “WHY?” Once the initial shock and confusion has subsided, the question will generally be addressed by some kind of inquiry, commission or review. The aim of these exercises is two-fold: to provide answers to those directly affected, and to learn lessons that might prevent another such incident.
It seems the report into the death of Aberdeen schoolboy Bailey Gwynne, at the hands of a fellow pupil who was carrying a knife, will provide few easy answers. The full report cannot yet be published, but its author Andrew Lowe has made clear the 16-year-old’s killing could not have been predicted or prevented on the day.
No teachers knew that Child A, the boy who fatally stabbed Bailey Gwynne, had been carrying a knife
No teachers knew that Child A, the boy who fatally stabbed Bailey, had been carrying a knife. There’s little to suggest any staff even suspected him of having a weapon; a lack of search powers would not have stopped them sitting him down to discuss such a suspicion. However, some pupils did know about the knife, and at least one had seen it, yet didn’t tell. “I don’t know whether they didn’t feel able or whether they didn’t feel it necessary,” said Lowe, on a day that was supposed to be about answers, not yet more difficult questions.
The inquiry has made 21 recommendations, 12 of which relate specifically to weapons. One urges the development of “safe processes to enable pupils to share their knowledge of weapons with teachers”. Some have suggested anonymous post-boxes or online reporting systems could be introduced, and such options should certainly be explored, but we shouldn’t be too quick to point the finger of blame at young people and insist that we – or our own children – would have acted differently.
We shouldn’t be too quick to point the finger of blame at young people and insist that we – or our own children – would have acted differently
Imagine you’re at the pub and bump into a work colleague, Adult A. You exchange greetings at the bar before the pair of you return to your respective tables with your pints. Later, as you leave the pub to get into a taxi, you spot Adult A opening the driver’s door of his car. What do you do? One option would be to approach him and initiate a conversation about whether driving home is a good idea. Perhaps if your taxi is headed his way he’ll be grateful for the intervention. But if he declines your offer and starts the engine, you face another dilemma. Should you call the police? The question of anonymity isn’t really key here – realistically Adult A will know it was you.
No-one likes a clype. We teach our children from any early age that “telling tales” on their peers will make them unpopular
No-one likes a clype. We teach our children from any early age that “telling tales” on their peers will make them unpopular, while simultaneously fretting about their vulnerability to child bullies and adult predators who can only operate with impunity as long as their victims stay silent. We have plenty of words for clyping (tattling, grassing, dobbing in, ratting out) but few positives for those who raise the alarm or blow the whistle. At a basic level, children – and indeed many adults – simply cannot understand all the nuances of social interactions. They can grasp straightforward rules (“don’t talk to strangers”, “share your toys”, “cover your mouth when you cough”) but can easily become baffled when instructions start to contradict each other, or where they have to weigh up the potential personal cost of doing the right thing.
Context is key, as is motive. Andrew Lowe says the pupils who learned of Child A’s knife may not have believed he had “malign intent”, and indeed it’s not clear whether the child himself ever planned to use it (he declined to be interviewed for the inquiry, so we’ll likely never know). Similarly a drink-driver does not set out to cause death or serious injury, just as an employee who flouts health and safety rules does not intend to cause an industrial accident. This is bound to affect the decision-making of anyone in a position to raise the alarm or blow the whistle, particularly when reporting may lead to someone losing a job or acquiring a criminal record.
Some might think it absurd to suggest that anyone who carries a knife does not intend to use it, but it’s important not to let individual tragedies obscure clear evidence. A report into knife crime interventions by Rebecca Foster, commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2013, identifies two “chief motivators” for knife-carrying: acquisition of status, and fear of crime. Accordingly, Foster recommends that any educational interventions take young people’s fears seriously and provide reassurance they will be protected from harm.
Might the issuing of letters about weapons to parents serve to stoke fears among pupils who otherwise hadn’t considered that their peers might be armed?
It’s difficult to see where that work to reassure pupils fits in to the 21 recommendations of the review into Bailey Gwynne’s death. Indeed, might the issuing of letters about weapons to parents serve to stoke fears among pupils who otherwise hadn’t considered that their peers might be armed? Conspicuously absent is any mention of “campus cops”, the No Knives Better Lives campaign or the Mentors for Violence Prevention scheme, imported from the US by the Violence Reduction Unit, which has received such enthusiastic government backing. Key to the last of these is teaching pupils to be “empowered bystanders” with the confidence to call out, challenge or report bullying and harassment before it escalates.
Young people will always be able to access knives. Unless we are truly committed to understanding why a tiny minority feel the need to carry them, and tackling the problem at the root, Scotland will continue to be scarred.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.