Two Stories of Violence on Campus

Does your college put students first? Great. Which ones?   Early in the Autumn term, one of our teachers left work with a long-term sickness.  We found a supply teacher who seemed well qualified and prepared, and he took over the classes.  Early on, we knew we had problems.  Students came to complain they could not understand the lessons and the tutor complained that the same students would not listen.  Leaving aside the details of the story, I want to focus on a single incident and the issues it raised.  In one lesson a girl, who I will call Kira, threw pen lids at the teacher.  My manager and I felt it was clear what should happen.  That student should be removed from college.  Their head of department felt differently.  She struggled to concentrate in the badly taught lessons, he wasn’t listening to her, she had anger management issues, etc.  Everyone defending Kira’s place on the course began with the phrase, “I’m not excusing her actions, but...” 

She was excused.  Though barred her from maths lessons, she was kept on her main course and it was unclear what (if any) sanction was put in place.  That was not the end of it.  Several months later a new student came to my colleague Mike’s class.  She very politely explained that she had changed course and been transferred to this group, and could she sit in today while the admin was being sorted out.  Mike agreed (I know, technically he shouldn’t have without confirmation, but this is FE and messy course changes happen all the time.  He was trying to be helpful).   

Halfway through the lesson the “new student,” Kira, leapt out of her chair and attacked someone.   Mike tried to separate the flurry of bites, scratches and screams and, as he did so, Kira’s nails actually flayed a strip of skin from the other young woman’s arm.  After she had been taken to A&E we learned what had happened.  It was something to do with which one of them owed money to the other over some drugs they had purchased together.  Mike was almost reprimanded.  This had happened, apparently, because he allowed a student to enter his class who was not on the register.  The union objected, rightly, on the grounds that Kira should not have been permitted to remain in the college after assaulting a member of staff earlier in the year. 

In a separate incident a student was chased out of the building and attacked by three of his peers in a shopping centre near college.  It followed an argument about his behaviour toward one of their girlfriends when he was previously in a relationship with her.  Both the alleged behaviour in the relationship and the assault were serious incidents, but when the various charges were all dropped by mutual agreement, the college leadership decided all four students should be allowed to remain on their courses.  Since the assault had taken place off site, it was outside of our jurisdiction.  This was something of a technicality, since they had started pursuing him from the college lobby. 

In the past, I have explained our tolerance of poor behaviour, terrible attendance and bad attitudes in terms of the college funding model.  For large numbers of students causing low level disruption and regularly truanting a handful of sessions a week, this makes sense.  Most colleges could not afford to enforce the kind of standards they would like to see in an ideal classroom.  Our tolerance of serious incidents like the ones above, though, cannot be explained in this way.  Although the college is big, you could count on one hand the number of such cases in an academic year.  We could easily afford to lose two or three students.  We could easily afford to say “if you throw things at your tutors, you can’t study here.”  So, why don’t we? 

I have a theory.  When we are trained as teachers, we are told it’s all about the students.  When we get a new job somewhere, we are told it’s all about the students.  When marketing produce their publicity material, they say “our college puts students first” (I think it’s a rule of college marketing teams that they literally all have to say this somewhere in the prospectus).  When governors interview for a new principal or head, they want reassurance from the candidates they will put the students first.  Of course, it is all about the students, but the platitude is so ubiquitous we rarely think about what it actually means.  The way we usually take it is: I put whichever student is currently demanding the most attention from me first.    Now factor that into the context of college leadership teams who rarely step into a classroom – their only regular interactions with students are disciplinary meetings.  That means their only opportunity to demonstrate how much they put students first is to give whichever unruly character is currently sweet talking them a second, third or fourth chance.  The same is true for governors.  I once approached one at a lunch which had been organised to allow middle managers to meet the governors and tacitly brought up the question of what exactly our standards were.  She wrung her hands and sighed deeply, then told me with the compassionate smile of a great sage that we did have to keep standards high, but we also had to put the students first. 

The problem with this, of course, is that there are more students in the college to think about than just the ones demanding the most attention.  The most disruptive, violent and dangerous students in our setting occupy the majority of our leaders’ limited contact time with the student body.  But they make up less than one percent of that body, and their continued presence in it damages all the rest, sometimes quite literally.  A second chance for the Pike is bullying, distraction and possibly a trip to A&E for the minnow.   

In the case of Kira, she would not have had the chance to abuse a fellow student if abusing a member of staff had been a red line.  In the case of the boys who committed the violent assault in a shopping centre... who knows what further developments are down the line?   

No one goes to work in a college because they hope one day to kick a student out of it, but an increasing number of my colleagues are looking around and asking each other “why are we allowing this?”  We wonder what message it sends to the civil majority when they see how accommodating we are of uncivil behaviour from a small minority.  Perhaps it gives them the impression they don’t need to try so hard.  Or, perhaps it makes them feel like we are not putting them first.