Courting Disaster in the Classroom?
Teachers are considering pressing for the right to take pupils who make malicious accusations to court. Michael Murphy, head of the Corpus Christi school in Wolverhampton, stood up at a union conference in Harrogate to garner support for the motion. He spoke of perpetrators getting away with making up any old bullshit about their teachers and maintaining their anonymity, and the devastating consequences it can have on the careers, health and life of those at the shitty end. And given that at least one teacher has committed suicide over such a case, he’s got a powerful point. “This cannot be fair”, he said, “this cannot be right.”
‘Children lie. They have always lied, and will continue to do so. They’re children, for fuck’s sake.’
It’s not easy to be fair and right about accusations of serious crime. As rape statistics show, the harder you make it for victims to come forward, the less likely it is that they will, and life is easier for the predators. Conversely, the more protections you give to accusers, the more likely that they will abuse those safeguards. One thinks of Matthew Kelly, John Leslie, and the Hamiltons; none of whom might be top of your Christmas card list, but all of which had their reputations ruined by unfounded allegations of sexual assault. In almost the same synaptic leap, one thinks of the 77% or so of rapes that go unreported (although a small devil’s advocate lurks at the back of the mind wondering how that statistic is collected). Mr Murphy is right, it’s not fair. It’s not just that a pupil’s lies can destroy someone. But hang on.
Children lie. They have always lied, and will continue to do so. They’re children, for fuck’s sake. Their lies range from ‘it wasn’t me’ to ‘the dog ate it’ to ‘Willum is a big fat poo’ to ‘Mr Harrison grabbed me and forced me back against the wall and…I don’t want to talk about it.’ Society may draw a distinction between the first three and the last – and bloody right too – but is it entirely fair to expect kids rigidly to do so?
And what of the age of criminal responsibility? Where is the cut-off point that dictates that the pupil must take responsibility for their actions and accusations? Because – and this is a real problem – the younger the child, the more damaging the accusation.
It is impossible not to sympathise with the teachers, not merely those who have been subject to the outcome of vexatious allegations but also with those who do their jobs in fear of being ostracised and pilloried on the whim of an angry child. There is also an argument that says that children already have so many safeguards – and some ludicrous – in their favour that redressing the balance the other way is no bad thing. But five gets you ten that such an admittedly reasonable argument will disappear like smoke on a breeze the first time a paedophile teacher slips past the net.
‘It isn’t fair that the urge to sell a newspaper has created a climate of fear whereby children are locked up in their bedrooms for fear of the stalking predators outside.’
If this shows anything it is how twisted our attitude to children has become. The moral panics that surround paedophilia need not be documented here; everyone has their own ‘paediatrician gets brick through window’ story as well as an anecdote – and most of them no doubt true – about how their grandfathers saw a small child fall over/playing in the middle of a busy road/ crying alone in a supermarket and were too scared to help for fear of being branded a kiddie-fiddler. Deep down, most of us know that certain newspapers are happy to be factually creative and ethically flexible when it comes to selling more copies, and PAEDO is the biggest draw there is.
It’s not fair, and it isn’t right. It isn’t right that children are so clued up to spin that they know they can get revenge on any adult who arouses their hatred by branding them with the most pernicious of slurs and walk away free of the consequences. And it’s not fair that children are abused by people who are responsible for their development and well-being. It isn’t fair that the urge to sell a newspaper has created a climate of fear whereby children are locked up in their bedrooms for fear of the stalking predators outside, and it isn’t right that statistically they’re shut on the wrong side of the door because four fifths of all child abuse occurs in the home.
If teachers get this protection – and it is surely one they deserve – then there will have to be a framework of legislation that makes it workable. There will have to be a clear line drawn between when a child has to take responsibility for their actions and when they don’t. There will have to be guidelines on when – if ever – parents must take responsibility for the criminal actions of their children. And there will be mistakes. But what the hell else are we going to do?