This story first appeared in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald in April 2014.
In December 2006, parents Paul and Caroline Vodden experienced a devastating and life-changing event – their 11-year-old son Ben committed suicide.
What could have caused a bright young boy, in his first year of secondary school with his future ahead of him, to hang himself?
It became very clear that his death was the result of one thing – persistent and cruel bullying on the school bus.
I’ve just met Ben’s father Paul Vodden. He was in Wiltshire at the first Busk Road Transport Safety Conference held at the headquarters of fleet management specialist Arval in Swindon.
Paul and Caroline were launching The Vodden Report – an online survey to assess bullying on dedicated school buses.
They secured funding to carry out the survey of children last year from The Diana Award and their efforts have been supported by organisations including 4Children, BullyingUK and Kidscape.
Ben tried to deal with the bullying
Hearing this family’s story literally stunned the audience into silence. Paul described the kind of bullying his son was experiencing.
“Had it just been Ben’s peers he may well have coped with the bullying but the bus driver decided to join in and, in our view, this took the situation to another level.
“Most of what he said I cannot repeat but it included comments such as ‘you’re a d***head’ and ‘ask your parents to get you a friend for Christmas as you’re a billy-no-mates’.
“Here was an adult taking part in his denigration. This adult should have been someone to look up to, not someone who helped persecute him.”
At Ben’s inquest in West Sussex an open verdict was recorded. The bus driver denied disliking Ben but admitted making such statements to him, saying they were ‘banter’.
It was also claimed the school had treated each complaint as ‘isolated’ and did not treat the incidents as linked so the picture of a campaign of bullying didn’t emerge. The bus company concerned said its driver couldn’t possibly have behaved in that way.
“Our family was let down by everybody at every turn,” Paul said. “The council, the school and the bus company.”
Management at the school has now changed and, Paul said, matters had apparently improved.
Since that time Ben and Caroline have been vocal about issues relating to bullying and want to raise awareness of the hidden ‘hot spot’ of bullying – the school bus journey.
It’s interesting to consider in the majority of cases – if a school trip is arranged there has to be a ratio of adults to children on board. However on the school bus, no such rules apply. Often the only adult is the bus driver whose main job is to drive safely from A to B.
“The situation on the dedicated school bus is, by its nature, potentially problematic as far as bullying is concerned. There is no formal supervision and virtually no opportunity of avoiding conflict situations,” Paul said.
When the Vodden survey was completed, 541 responses from children were received and 268 talked of bullying on the school bus.
Paul said: “This survey should be seen as a realistic snapshot of what is happening on dedicated school buses and a general indication of the effects and consequences of bullying in general.”
Those children who took part were asked what they felt like doing when they were being bullied:
*38 per cent said hide away.
*17 per cent said fight back.
*16 per cent said tell someone.
*9 per cent considered suicide
*8 per cent campaigned against bullying.
When asked how long bullying had been going on, 77 children said it had been more than a year.
When they were asked ‘was the driver aware that the bullying was taking place?’ the results were:
*43 children said yes.
*44 children said no.
*155 children gave no response to the question.
*ten children said they would prefer not to say.
In conclusion the Vodden Report says that bullying on the school bus is a significant problem and that children in Year 7 are particularly at risk. Forty per cent of children who took part in the survey, said bullying had started in that school year.
Paul said: “Therefore the time when children are moving from Year 6 in primary school to Year 7 in secondary school should be recognized as a time of particular vulnerability.”
It also concludes that the role of the school bus driver is key.
“It is clear that the role of the driver is significant,” the report says. “Only four were recorded as taking action to alleviate the bullying, 42 were reported as taking no action even when many of them were reported as knowing what was going on and a very worrying 17 were reported as joining in.”
“It is pertinent to ask whether the driver of a bus can reasonably and safely be expected to monitor children’s behavior whilst giving full attention to the serious undertaking of driving. But if not the driver, then where is the ‘responsible adult’ who can intervene to safeguard children from bullying during their daily journey to and from school?”
Paul and Caroline’s MP, Annette Brooke recently brought up these issues in Parliament.
She said bullying on school buses includes both verbal and physical abuse such as spitting, punching, slapping and pushing.
“In what other situation are as many as 50 or more children forcibly restricted in a confined space for up to an hour, with a single, untrained adult present, who is undertaking a separate task that requires their full attention?”
Education minister Lis Truss praised the report saying it was up to local authorities, schools, bus companies and parents to take action together. She said:
“When contracting to provide school transport, local authorities can instruct companies to include anti-bullying procedures as part of their tenders. I strongly urge them to do so.
“We acknowledge that tackling bullying outside school is challenging, but we have been clear that teachers have the power to discipline pupils for poor behaviour, including bullying outside the school gates. Where bullying outside school is reported to school staff, it should be investigated and acted upon.
“If the misbehaviour could be criminal or poses a serious threat to a child or another member of the public, the police should be informed.”
The Vodden Report makes a number of recommendations. These include:
- School bus drivers being given specialist training in safeguarding children.
- A trained adult or chaperone should be present on every school bus.
- Policies should be introduced making it clear who is responsible for dealing with bullying on the school bus.
Today I’m reproducing an article I wrote for my family column in the weekly newspaper, The Gazette & Herald, which covers much of the county of Wiltshire. It was published on Thursday August 29 2013 and I’m reproducing it here at the request of one of my Twitter followers, an organisation which I much admire, Wiltshire Mind. To follow me on Twitter, you’d be most welcome at @mum3fi, and you can find the Gazette & Herald @wiltsgazette.
Some time ago, I wrote about an Ofsted report into the safeguarding of vulnerable children in Wiltshire and the fact that the county’s local authority had been found wanting.
I also reported on the fact that the 2012 report had prompted action to be taken and went through some of the measures to improve the situation for vulnerable and looked-after children in the county. I should point out that the report didn’t suggest any children had come to harm as a result of failings.
However, buried within that 2012 report was a comment which really stood out for me – and which I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of ever since.
It said ‘the established practice by police of using section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 to hold some children or young person in custody where they have committed an offence is inappropriate’.
It goes on to say ‘this practice is under review given that there is now a dedicated CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) out-of-hours service that can provide more timely and potentially more appropriate assessments’.
This prompted me to find out about Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. It’s headed ‘mentally disordered persons found in public places’. It allows that a constable can remove and detain someone for up to 72 hours until he, or she, is examined by a registered practitioner or mental health professional.
What does this mean? Have the police in Wiltshire – or anywhere else for that matter – been holding young people and children, in custody for up to 72 hours when it’s suspected they might have mental health issues?
Since raising questions around two months ago, I’ve been on a journey of epic proportions around the ‘system’. But the answer to my key question is – yes.
A number of children each year have been arrested and held, usually when they’ve committed an offence, and the police believe mental health issues have contributed in some way.
Several times the term ‘Freedom of Information’ was used by various voices but last week I finally got some figures from Wiltshire Constabulary. They are:
2009 – four children (under-18s) were held under Section 136.
2010 – six.
2011 – four.
2012 – three.
But to confuse matters even further these are not the definitive figures. The police have recorded ‘pure’ cases – those where a child clearly has, at first point of contact, mental health issues. However, there have also been a number of cases where an arrest has been made and police officers have subsequently sought help as they’ve suspected mental health issues.
Taking these cases into account as well, the total number of children between the end of 2010 and the end of 2012 who were held under Section 136 was 23.
So what has been done about it? The Wiltshire Safeguarding Children Board (WSCB – partnership between Wiltshire Council, Wiltshire Police and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust) insists much has been done.
In December 2012, mental health services for under-18s was taken over by Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, known as Oxford Health. It immediately introduced the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) Protocol.
To cut through the jargon this means when police officers respond to a young person in ‘significant mental health distress or crisis’, the officer contacts CAMHS from the scene by phone. They can do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Emergency mental health assessments can then be offered or an appointment within 24 hours.
The officer provides information including:
* Presentation – how is the young person behaving?
* Need for medical attention – is the young person hurt?
* Circumstances of the incident
* Concerns regarding safeguarding or welfare
The CAMHS worker checks the electronic health record system to see if that young person is known. If so, the worker may speak directly with the young person and propose a safety plan or speak to parents or carers.
If distress can be reduced through a phone conversation, the young person is normally offered an urgent assessment on the morning of the next working day. If concerns remain, an emergency assessment can be offered in a safe location such as a CAMHS clinic or police station within two hours.
If the young person is not known, there may be unknown risks and an urgent mental health assessment can be offered.
The options are discussed with the officer at the scene who always reserves the right to use a 136 detention or other police powers.
In a statement WSCB said:
“It’s a system which enables officers to gain a mental health perspective to inform their decision-making and consider alternative options. It also ensures CAMHS are alerted to mental health concerns at an early stage stage and can offer an urgent assessment whether the young person is detained or not.
“The benefits of this collaboration between mental health services and the police, is that distressed young people who require urgent mental health support can receive this quickly, in the least restrictive manner which ensures their immediate needs and risks are reduced.”
The Board says that so far, the new system is working.
“We are pleased to report as result of this protocol there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of 136 detentions under the Mental Health Act of young people under 18 years.
“In the last two years, prior to the introduction of the protocol, there were 23 ‘136’ detentions – this has reduced to three since December 2012.”
Mental health issues in the under-18s – how do the police deal with this?
We’re not talking about many children, of course, but we are talking about children. Children suspected of having some kind of mental health issue. Children who could, quite legally, be held for up to three days. Let’s hope this new support system keeps on working.
I went on a course last week about ‘safe recruitment’ in my role as chair of a local pre-school.
Even as volunteers, we’re expected to develop a knowledge of safeguarding children – a sentiment I applaud.
The course on the whole was good and highlighted to me the importance of working hard to keep paedophiles away from children. It’s all about reducing risk – not eliminating it, as that’s impossible.
All of this in the light of the Panorama about the mis-treatment of vulnerable adults in a setting in South Gloucestershire.
During the course though, one of the speakers put up images of two newspaper articles about court cases involving paedophiles. The headlines used words like ‘predator’ etc with pictures of two men staring madly.
The speaker said that the media had got it wrong when it came to dealing with paedophiles, their language was wrong and articles such as these don’t give the real truth.
The real truth being that paedophiles don’t look like monsters, are rarely strangers and often look like the nice guy who lives next door, the helpful guy round the corner or the lovely lady who always helps you out.
Unfortunately for the speaker, this was not something I could just leave without comment. It’s such a yawn to hear that well worn phrase ‘the media has got it wrong’ as if that excuse covers all ills.
Over coffee, I tackled her. She said that I must agree with her and I said I completely disagreed.
This is why.
The law around reporting sexual offences is very strict, so the only cases the media can report in any detail are those few (often the most terrible, and the most lurid) which reach the courts.
Most journalists know that there are far more sexual offenders out there than the public realize and often they are very close to home.
Also one of the biggest barriers to reporting these disturbing facts are social services departments.
These departments often run scared of the press and, even when given lots of assurances, won’t trust a journalist to protect the identity of vulnerable victims or witnesses (even though the law says we must).
But when these professionals allow quality journalism to take place – things can be changed, sometimes very quickly.
I’ve overcome this media fear a couple of times in my career and produced films which I’m deeply proud of – where police officers, professionals have all cooperated in order to tell a story which would not have seen the light of day otherwise.
Last year, I tried to get permissions in place to tell the story of the lives of a small number of dysfunctional families in Swindon and the massive investment that was being made to help them. The police were all for it – given that the then head of Swindon police knew I would honour my promise to protect those who needed protecting. But social services said no – and that was the end.
paedophiles are closer than you think....
So when told last week by someone from social services (who does a wonderful job each day I’m sure) that it’s the media getting it wrong, sending out the wrong message – I did feel a little smug in pointing out that actually her profession was part of the very problem she was complaining about.