We have previously discussed the supervision of pupils indoors and outdoors on school premises (issues 97 – Feb 2010, 102 – July/Aug 2010). It is also important for schools to consider how racial tensions and bullying may affect the nature and quantity of supervision required.

This article will look at the recent claim against the school in Webster v Ridgeway Foundation School (2010), where a white pupil was assaulted on school premises by a gang of Asian pupils and older men. We will then explain implications of the case for school safety and for the duty to aid integration in multi-cultural schools.

The case of ‘Webster’

The claimant, Henry Webster, 15, was in Year 11 at Ridgeway School. On the day in question, he argued in a school corridor with an Asian pupil, MM, from the year below. MM jostled Henry in a corridor, and name-calling culminated in Henry giving a light contact punch to MM.

Over the course of the morning, egged on by pupils on both sides, the boys agreed to sort out their differences through a fight after school on the unobserved tennis courts at the back of the school. There is nothing particularly novel about these facts – it is probably a situation that occurs in schools up and down the country – but what happened next was somewhat extreme.

At lunch, MM called his 17-year-old brother, RM, on a friend’s mobile, and RM organised a gang of 11 other Asian friends and relatives to drive to the school for ‘moral support’.

When Henry arrived at the tennis courts after school, he was attacked by the gang, one of whom, WK, beat his head with a claw hammer he had brought with him. While Henry lay on the floor, four school pupils (MM, SS, SR, SU) kicked him repeatedly. As a result of the hammer blows, Henry suffered a compound depressed skull fracture and underlying brain damage.

Grievous bodily harm
After a police investigation, Henry’s attackers were all tried in the criminal courts and the four pupils MM, SS, SR and SU plus three other adults were convicted of causing grievous bodily harm with intent.

Six other older boys were convicted, in a separate trial, of conspiracy to commit actual bodily harm. Three other adults were acquitted as they had stayed in their cars or had not known what was going to happen.

Negligence action
One year later, Henry brought a negligence action before the High Court. He also made a claim under Article 3 (Protection from Torture) of the Human Rights Act 1998, but this was roundly criticised by the court. The negligence claim focused on whether the school:

  • owed a duty to keep the school site secure either through the provision of fencing around the site, or through stationing members of staff to supervise every entrance to the property
  • had failed in its duty to establish better discipline, and to reduce racial tensions (the 13 assailants that attacked Henry were all Asian pupils or adults)
  • had failed to keep Henry reasonably safe while he was on school premises.

Henry’s younger brother, mother and stepfather also brought claims for the emotional trauma they suffered after witnessing the immediate aftermath of the assault.

After an extensive trial, the judge dismissed all negligence claims against the school. The rest of this article will examine the reasons why, and the judgment’s implication for schools.

Implications of ‘Webster’ for schools

  • Anti-bullying campaigns
    While pupils will naturally group together, the problem in this case was that this grouping was both vertical across a number of year groups, and horizontally within the year group. This led to segregation from the other pupils and inflamed tensions. Consider ensuring that anti-bullying campaigns stress respect for other cultures, and that a multicultural attitude is promoted across year groups.
  • Race equality policies
    The race equality policies at Ridgeway School were highly criticised by both the court and the local authority. Schools should ensure that their policies are updated regularly and that they contain both action plans and assessment measures. School staff, in particular senior staff, should also have received training on race matters.
  • Policy on use of mobile devices
    The initial assault to the claimant was inflicted by visitors who had been called to the school by the pupils. Schools should have a clear policy on how and when mobiles can be used. A blanket ban on using mobile phones could have helped to prevent both the coordinated descent of gangs of outsiders onto school premises, and the anti-social disruption caused by pupils playing music loudly in the corridors. Any school prohibition on mobiles must however be balanced against their legitimate uses by pupils for personal security or to arrange transport outside the school.
  • Monitoring visitors to site
    On a similar note, schools should ensure that there is a robust system in place for monitoring visitor behaviour whilst on school property. For example, does your school have a clearly identified system that pupils and staff can use to report their concerns about visitors?
  • Communication with parents
    The school was also criticised by the court for failings in its communication with parents and pupils, particularly over what parents saw as ‘flashpoints’ or minor altercations. While a school may feel that it has dealt with these issues appropriately, it is sometimes not enough to have done the right thing – what is perceived to have happened is equally important.
  • Use of expert witnesses
    The court was critical of both expert witnesses used in the case, as neither had experience giving evidence in court. Schools should ensure that the role of experts is ‘to provide assistance to the court on matters which may be outside court’s general knowledge and within the area of the witness’ own expertise. It is not the role of the witness simply to become an extra advocate for the party that calls him or her.’

Newspapers also alleged that Lady Marie Stubbs (who acted for the school) charged £200,000 for her expert report. Schools should be careful that any witnesses they employ represent value for money, and that their testimony is necessary and appropriate for the case.

The school’s duty of care

The court made three important statements about the duty of care of schools:

  • A school’s duty towards a pupil is that stated by Lord Justice Auld in Gower v London Borough of Bromley (1999): ‘A head teacher and teachers have a duty to take such care of pupils in their charges as a careful parent would have in like circumstances, including a duty to take positive steps to protect their well-being.’
  • Even though the attack on Henry took place after the end of the school day, this was not a barrier to a claim, particularly since Henry was on school premises at the time – Bradford-Smart v West Sussex County Council (2002).
  • Non-implementation of a policy (for example Health and Safety, Bullying or Racism) is not by itself negligence – the claimant needs to show that this non-implementation amounts to a breach of the school’s duty of care and is causative of the claimant’s injuries.

A duty to fence?

The court confirmed that, although schools have a duty to keep pupils safe, there is no absolute duty for a school to secure its perimeter. Official government guidance stresses the need for a comprehensive risk assessment to evaluate the dangers of intruders coming onto the school site (see Find out more, below).

Assessing the risk

Ultimately, then, the choice as to whether a fence should be erected is up to individual schools. Fencing projects may have cost implications as well as leading to negative reactions from pupils (comparison to prisons) and the community (blot on landscape).

But this must be balanced against the risk associated with intruders gaining access to the site. As with any other area of school practice, this security risk assessment must be kept continually under review to reflect local pressures.

Supervision of perimeter

While all parties agreed that the end of the school day was often a ‘flashpoint’ for misbehaviour, the court held that it would be impractical to have staff constantly supervising every possible entrance to the school site.

If a school makes a rational judgment supported by a logical reason why it has chosen to allocate the limited resources it has, the courts will be slow to criticise this. In Henry’s case, staff resources were allocated to the areas of greatest danger (traffic hazards) and where the greatest number of children congregated (about 800 children left by bus every afternoon).

The court also stated that even if this aspect of the judgment were overruled, the purpose of the choice of fighting at the tennis courts was to evade the attention of the teachers. If a teacher had therefore been stationed there, the fight would simply have taken place elsewhere on school property – and Henry would have failed to show any causal link.

Reducing racial tensions

Racial tension is perhaps one of the key areas that led to the fight at the school on the day in question.

The underlying problem the school faced was that the ethnic composition of its pupils was overwhelmingly white (95 per cent). This led to the Asian students at the school segregating themselves into a gang and adopting a group identity ‘the Asian Invasion’ to refer to themselves.

While the Asian students appeared to be polite to staff, the other students complained that behind the teachers’ backs, the Asian boys in the group:

  • behaved in an intimidating manner, deliberately jostling or barging those who tried to go past them in the corridors
  • played Asian music loudly on their mobile phones
  • used insulting racial terms towards white pupils
  • wore T-shirts under their uniforms boasting of their Muslim (or in some cases, Pakistani) heritage

Some white pupils also felt that the group’s use of Urdu was exclusionary and a way of sneering at them.

No permanent exclusion
Given these tensions, it is unsurprising that pupils regularly misbehaved and fights occurred between white and Asian pupils. The problem for Henry was that, while this behaviour was definitely anti-social, any fights or unpleasantness had not been so serious as to justify permanent exclusion of the pupils in question.

Stricter policies?

The case of Webster also raised issues as to the appropriateness of the school policies on the use of mobile phones, uniform and the general behaviour of pupils.

The fact that these policies were regularly broken, and that any sanctions did not seem to have a deterrent effect, suggests that it was unlikely that any stricter policies would have been obeyed, again failing any causal tests.

Duty to keep Henry safe

While there is no dispute with this proposition that the school should keep its pupils safe, in this instance, it is difficult to find any specific action that constitutes a breach of that duty.

Ultimately the school responded reasonably to reports of a scuffle between two pupils earlier in the day, and there was no reason to believe that Henry would be attacked not by pupils but by outsiders trespassing onto school property, who would inflict the severity of the wounds that they did.

Given this, the claimant’s action (and those of his family that were contingent upon a successful verdict) must fail.

A critical role

As Britain becomes increasingly multicultural, tensions in schools are likely to rise. Schools should ensure that their policies are robust enough to meet this challenge, and that they tackle any discriminatory behaviour head-on (see Implications of ‘Webster” for schools, above, for suggestions).

Schools mirror their communities and underlying racial tensions. Schools should remember that they play a critical role in breaking down barriers between groups and in reshaping the learning environment.

Kris Lines is head of sports law at Staffordshire University, and a British Gymnastics assessor. He runs the blog sportslawnews.wordpress.com

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