by James Stephenson
At 2:30pm on the last Friday afternoon of the month, the School Council meets. It was seen as one of the headmaster's more progressive ideas, providing a contrast to most of the measures he'd seen fit to introduce to restore the former high reputation of St Joseph's Academy. On the surface, it appeared to provide a forum for staff and pupils to share issues. To the three pupil representatives it was a matter of some considerable pride to have been selected for their role. Admittedly the youngest current appointee, Joe Smythe, was a bit disillusioned with how dull it was and how little power it actually had, but he would never have admitted that to anyone else. The others - and most especially 18-year-old Emily Cutter - cared little for what it actually achieved. The interest was in what they had achieved by being chosen.
Emily had been ecstatic to be appointed a prefect. She was a high achiever academically and popular with the teachers for her exemplary behaviour, but had little interest in sports, and prefects seemed often to be drawn from those who had come to the notice of the school through sporting achievement. At one time, she had dared to wonder, if only to herself, whether she could make Head Girl. It was highly unlikely, but being the senior pupil representative on School Council ran it a pretty close second. She took the drudgery of the council in her stride - always diligently read all the papers beforehand and usually made sure that she had prepared at least one point to make at each council meeting. Teachers had commented on what a positive contribution she made, and she had inwardly glowed at the compliments.
This looked likely to be a fairly short meeting. It started on time and there was some discussion about minor changes to the annual school prize-giving ceremony first of all. Then they moved on to a report about refurbishment work to be carried out during the next vacation period. Next came one of the standing items - school discipline issues.
"We only have two cases to review this time. As usual at the outset I'll invite anyone who feels personally involved with any of the cases for consideration to withdraw for this item."
Mr McCloud waved a hand vaguely in the air to attract attention.
"I reported one of the cases so I think I should withdraw." He began to stand. Emily Cutter put her hand up.
"I'm very well acquainted with one of those making an appeal and should prefer to withdraw."
The headmaster waved affably at both of them and there was some shuffling of papers while the two left to sit outside.
"Right let's move on then." Mr Robson's style as headmaster was very much brisk, no time for trivia. "As usual, can I ask those commenting to retain the anonymity of the pupils concerned. So, in the first case it is Pupil A. I think Miss Stewart has conducted the reinvestigation here. Miss Stewart."
"Thank you, Headmaster. Pupil A is in the second year. He has a somewhat poor discipline record and last year towards the end of the academic year was given a 3-day suspension for repeated disruption and following a few after-school detentions. Things appear to have begun little better this year and he has already had two detentions. Following an incident in a class last week in which he threw a book across a classroom during a lesson, he was sent to his form teacher who proposed a five-day suspension. However, the pupil's parents have asked us to consider alternatives - they are both at work and feel it would be counter-productive to have him excluded from school when they wouldn't be able to provide supervision. I've spoken to the parents and the pupil concerned. My conclusion was that I can only see things continuing to get worse whatever we do at the moment. However, I think the parents have a valid point and in order to help them to try to improve things I am suggesting that we make use of the new in-school suspension facilities to have him taught in isolation for a period of at least ten days."
Mr Robson surveyed the room. "Your thoughts please?"
Mr Wilkinson was first to comment. "I have to admit to not feeling comfortable with an out of school suspension in this case but equally I'm concerned by the suggestion that the lad's a lost cause. I think we should deal firmly with the situation in a way where he gets the message that it would be in his own interests to come into line."
"I agree." Mrs Conner joined in "Can I propose that he should get a one week in-school suspension but also a short dose of the belt. That way he gets to see that either punishment could be made a lot worse if he persists. If we give him the belt on day one he doesn't get the chance to boast to his classmates about how well he's taken it, and if we keep the in-school suspension to one week, it's creating less work for the staff to look after him."
Mr Robson looked around the room and picked up a number of nodding heads.
"Okay that seems to have wide approval. Would any, I mean, either, of the pupil representatives care to comment?"
David Jenner felt obliged to respond, as Joe didn't look likely to say anything.
"It seems to be about right. As you say it would be very clear that if the behaviour doesn't improve you could give more severe corporal punishment or longer in-school suspension or both and the message might get through."
"Okay. Miss Stewart?"
"Yes, I think the parents would agree to that. It sounds reasonable to me."
"Right, so let's formally propose a five day in-school suspension commencing Monday and say four strokes of the belt on his hands?"
There was a lot of nodding in the room so the head felt able to move on.
"Okay, the second case involves one of our more senior girls. Mrs Conner, I believe you've looked at this."
"Thank you, Headmaster. Yes, the facts are largely agreed. Pupil B had been playing hockey and she got into an argument with another pupil in the changing rooms. The argument escalated and although nobody seems sure who was the first to resort to violence, there is no dispute that Pupil B swung her hockey stick at the other girl intending to hurt her. However, at that moment Mrs Jenkins walked in and took the full force of the hockey stick across her leg. She received treatment by the school nurse but was rather badly bruised. The essential dilemma is how we treat this. If it's an act of violence against a member of staff then obviously we are talking of one of the most severe category of offences. If it's a case of one pupil attacking another then it is also potentially very serious. If it's a bit of a six and two threes squabble that got out of hand and both pupils were equally at fault and Mrs Jenkins was just unlucky, then we may feel more leniency is justified.
"The initial report seems to come to the conclusion that the third scenario is probably the most correct. The decision of pupil B's form teacher was to accept that scenario but to propose that pupil B should be given six strokes of the cane across her backside given the severity of the blow she struck and the recklessness involved. The pupil has appealed. She admits the basic offence and the scenario described but suggests that the penalty is excessive. She argues that the injury to Mrs Jenkins was just an unfortunate accident, which nobody suggests she intended, and also argues that effectively she and the other girl were equally culpable but that no action was taken against her. That essentially is the case."
Mr Robson sighed. "Okay, anyone wish to comment?" He noted Mr Wilkinson was anxious to speak.
"Absolutely, Headmaster. Obviously, I was aware that Mrs Jenkins had been injured but I didn't know the details. I'm afraid I think this is straightforward. We took a policy decision that any pupil who assaulted a member of staff would be permanently excluded. I can't see why we are making an exception."
"Well," the headmaster sighed again, "it's partly because Mrs Jenkins has specifically said she doesn't want that course of action or feel it is necessary. It's also very out of character for the young lady concerned and it's felt by most of those who've been involved that it would be a loss to the school. Does anyone feel the proposed penalty is unduly severe?" He looked around the room and saw a few shaking heads and nobody offering to speak. Mr Wilkinson looked a bit peeved at the lack of support for his position but said nothing. "Right, unless anyone wants to force a vote I suggest we confirm the penalty."
Nobody spoke so he asked someone to invite Mr McCloud and Miss Cutter to return. When they were seated he went on.
"The final item is to receive a report about the sixth form trip to Brussels. Seems to have been a very positive trip and we actually ended up slightly in profit. The recommendation is that the profit is quite small and so we transfer it to contingency - in other words it'll be handy when the next trip makes a slight loss." There was some muted laughter. "Any other business?"
There wasn't, and most people quite quickly gathered their papers and made for the door, anxious to get a good start on the weekend. The last two remaining were Mr Robson and Emily Cutter.
"Can I ask how it went?" she said.
"Of course. I'm sorry to tell you that the appeal was dismissed." Emily may have momentarily flinched but recovered quickly.
"Fair enough, I'd have decided the same if it was anyone else, but I had to try. I always hoped I'd leave school with people saying I had an exemplary unblemished record."
"I'm sorry but I think everyone still has a good opinion of you overall. You're best getting it over with. I suggest you take the punishment slip to Mrs Conner on Monday morning and get it done with. It won't be pleasant but it's better to not have it hanging over you for a long time."
"I agree, only I'd rather not have to think about it all weekend."
"Well I rather think Mrs Conner was trying to get away as soon as possible after the council finished, otherwise I'm sure she would have."
"But you could do it now couldn't you?" He was startled and not expecting this request.
"Well technically yes, but I have to advise against that course of action. It is normally Mrs Conner who deals with the girls, and you have the right under school rules to take your punishment from a female member of staff."
"But Mrs Conner has left, and I really don't want to be thinking about it all weekend. I know I have the right to be caned by a female member of staff but I'm happy to waive that right. I'll sign anything I have to."
Mr Robson appeared to be considering the suggestion.
"I don't think you've thought it through, Emily. As well as being entitled to be caned by a female, you have the right to an independent female witness."
"I'd rather waive that as well. I don't want anybody seeing this that doesn't need to." Emily pleaded.
"There are lots of practicalities as well, Emily. It's not just a gender thing... by all accounts I hit a good deal harder than Mrs Conner, my senior cane is longer and heavier than hers so it would hurt a good deal more. And you're not really very appropriately dressed; I would strongly suggest that you come in on Monday and instead of a short - very short - skirt, you put on a pair of trousers."
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