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.
This is one of my articles which appeared (in an edited version) in the Gazette & Herald newspaper in Wiltshire in September. I’m re-producing it at the request of several people who wanted to access an online link.
- Wishing my godmother well on her final journey….
Remembering Will Filer….
One of the hardest jobs a journalist has to do is to interview people who have lost a child – particularly if that death is sudden and unexpected.
Meeting Rachel Filer-Higginson, Ashley Higginson and their children Joshua and Hallie-Jane was no exception.
Many people may feel as they read this article that I, as a journalist, am invading the privacy of a family in grief. However, that’s not true. This interview was a mutual decision discussed over several months to share the journey these parents have taken.
Today they still struggle to come to terms with the death of their son William, known as Will. For them, many questions are still unanswered. His death was reported in a national newspaper as a suicide after Will had been taking a drug known as meow meow. Indeed his parents believed for weeks that drugs may have been involved. However, no drugs were found in his system.
That was the spring of 2010. Will had been found dead, or dying, by a local walking his dog in a field in Chippenham. Attempts to revive him failed.
“It was Monday 1st March,” Rachel tells me as she sits in the kitchen of her home in Oaklands.
“The kids had gone to school and Ashley said he’d just bumped into Will who’d said he would be up later. We were upstairs stripping the beds as we usually did on a Monday, when the front door bell rang. We thought it was Will and he’d lost his keys again.
“I saw this high-vis coat through the door and it was a young woman police officer or PCSO and she looked at me and said they’d found Will and he had hung himself and he was dead. She just kept on talking and she just wouldn’t shut up…he’d been airlifted to Swindon but I couldn’t see him for ages. You just keep hoping that it isn’t true because your kid wouldn’t have done that to you, he wouldn’t have hurt you so much.”
Quietly Ashley, stepdad to Will since he was four, also relives those moments.
“I was walking back from taking the children to school, I didn’t get home until 8.50am that morning and I saw Will who said ‘tell Mum I’ll be up later.’
“When Rachel went downstairs to answer the door, I just heard screaming, terrible screaming. There was a WPC, she didn’t know what to do with Rachel and we had to call our GP. Life as we knew it ended that day, I don’t think we slept for weeks after that.”
These terrible memories will resonate with any parent. However, there’s another side to Will’s story which has, and still is, torturing his mum and dad.
Will was a special child who had learning difficulties. From a very early age, it was clear he was different to other children. He couldn’t concentrate on anything for very long and he couldn’t keep still. He was statemented with a diagnosis of ADHD and went to various schools in Wiltshire where he was generally encouraged.
Although he couldn’t read or write by the age of eight, he went on to learn and exceed all expectations. His parents felt he was in a safe environment.
Rachel said: “My son never ceased to make me proud. I remember one sports’ day at school, there was a boy in the three-legged race who didn’t have a partner and no one seemed to want to be with him. My Will went up to him and tied their legs together and off they went. They came last – but they were the winners that day as the parents cheered and cheered them across the line.”
However when he turned 16 – things began to change for the family and for Will.
“There’s very little support for teenagers like Will, who have hidden disabilities, once they leave the school system,” Ashley said.
“And that’s got to change. Will may have been 16, 17 and 18 but he was not mature enough to cope on his own. I don’t think he matured beyond age ten or 11.
“He wasn’t so severely affected that his need was very obvious but he just couldn’t integrate or understand other people in the same way as most of us. Anyone who knew him, and talked to him would soon spot he was special.
“He so wanted to cope on his own but it didn’t work – and the problem was that we didn’t know how badly it wasn’t working until it was too late.”
Will wanted to leave home and live independently and he went to extraordinary lengths to make it happen.
“Once he went to the police station to say that we’d kicked him out,” Rachel said. “I told them to send him home as his tea was ready.”
“We understood he wanted some independence and when he was offered some accommodation he was thrilled but he was still here a lot of the time for his meals and for his washing to be done.”
However, Will’s unique response to life led to a number of difficult situations for him. Rachel gives an example of an incident, not in Wiltshire, which didn’t become known to the family until some time later.
“Will was an attractive boy and once went for a night out with some friends in another town. He met a girl and went back to her place. In the morning, she told him he had raped her. Will believed her, went straight to the police station, told them and was arrested, his clothes were taken, he was put into a white paper suit and the police went to interview the girl. She told them it was all fine, she was only joking. Will was released. We just didn’t know about it until after the event.”
Will was given a placement in accommodation which supports disadvantaged young people, some are homeless, some have drug or alcohol issues. His parents thought he was happy there but now they are not so sure.
“One of the rules of the home was that no alcohol was allowed. Will saw another young man drinking alcohol and told on him. This was not well received. But Will had a thing about boundaries, he always did,” Ashley said.
At the inquest into his death, Rachael and Ashley found out several things which they didn’t know. Statements from friends also suggested that he’d been taunted racially.
The most shocking revelation was that Will had apparently made three previous attempts to take his own life. This had included stealing someone’s medication and taking the tablets and trying to jump off a bridge, but he was found by police.
“We didn’t find this out until the inquest. When we questioned it we were told that he was 18 years old and he was entitled to his confidentiality but we were totally kept out the loop. In my view, this was wrong,” Ashley said.
“Will was vulnerable and because of that his vulnerability, we believe, was interpreted by some as weakness.”
“If we had had any idea that he felt so fed up we could have done something. He never showed that side of himself to us. He just walked with a smile, ” Rachel said.
There will be some who say that these parents had an opportunity to know the details of Will’s passing prior to the inquest – as they did receive the paperwork before the hearing. However, the stark detail of the post mortem was so traumatic, they told me, that they burned the paperwork, unable to read more.
There was one sad story which his parents believe did have a major effect on his mental health. He had a dream to join the Army – a dream which could never come true but which he believed for a time was in his reach.
“He did an Army preparation course at a local college. He really wanted to join the Army and ironically I begged him not to as he might die. He really saw it as the opportunity to have a new life, a career,” said Rachel.
“But he would never have been accepted because of the medication he had to take for his ADHD. He would have had to be clear of that drug for three years before he could be considered. He was told this but it just didn’t seem to register. When he finished the course, we were told that physically he was perfect but it just wasn’t going to happen.”
Some of Rachel’s and Ashley’s concerns around their son’s death still exist. But they’ve now decided to engage actively in a campaign to raise £20,000 to perhaps set up a helpline for other young people in Wiltshire who are similarly vulnerable and their families.
“We created Will’s Friends to raise awareness of people like Will who need some extra support in their lives. If I won the lottery, I’d set up a residential home for people like Will where they would feel safe with other adults around to ensure that they couldn’t be exploited but they could have some independence.”
No one knows how many adults with learning disabilities suffer abuse – and it’s possible they never will. It’s sometimes now known as ‘hate crime’.
A report by the NHS’s Information Centre in March this year said there had been a 24 per cent rise in ‘safeguarding alerts’ around vulnerable adults between 2011 & 2012.
‘Alerts’ are the first contact between a concerned person about a vulnerable adult and a local authority safeguarding team.
Of those alerts, 20 per cent relate to adults with learning disabilities.
The most common outcome, in around a third of cases, was ‘no further action’.
Will’s Friends can be found on Facebook.