Suicide pointed police to top schools (22.11.97)

The Guardian, 22nd November 1997

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A SUICIDE last August pointed the way to a wide-ranging paedophile investigation that culminated yesterday with 15 raids involving eight police forces.

 The body of public school master Adrian Stark, who disappeared after being charged with three counts of having indecent photographs of children, was pulled from the sea near Beachy Head in East Sussex a year after three public schools had been raided by Scotland Yard detectives investigating a paedophile ring.

 But it later emerged that address books believed to have been seized by police at Stark’s home probably led detectives further in the direction of a paedophile network involving public school teachers across Britain.

 Stark, director of music at St John’s School, Leatherhead, Surrey, had proved to be a gifted musician and talented teacher during his two years at the school, according to the bursar, Christopher Pelley.

 He had come to the school in 1995 from Hurstpierpoint College, West Sussex, where the chaplain, and a science teacher, were cautioned by police last year for possession of indecent material. The Rev Brian Boucher, aged 57, and Trevor Jones, 44, left their jobs – although it was stressed at the time that none of the material was connected with pupils.

 With police inquiries intensifying, a teacher from the Yehudi Menuhin school for gifted musicians was charged last month with child pornography offences.

 By then, Scotland Yard’s Paedophile and Child Pornography Unit was investigating allegations of a network involving teachers from some of the country’s major public schools.

 In August last year, with the inquiry in its infancy, at least six teachers had been questioned and their homes raided.

 A month later it emerged that videos, computer discs and books had been seized from a master at Harrow School, although the head said the matter had been fully investigated by the child protection unit at the London Borough of Harrow and that “nothing of concern was discovered and it was decided that no action was necessary”.

 The teacher’s solicitor said later: “My client has stressed he is not a paedophile. I think he may be unfortunate in his friends.”

 Yesterday’s raids for the first time involved public schools in the north – the City of Durham, and Sedbergh, in Cumbria.

 A Catholic priest from Durham, Father Adrian McLeish, was jailed a year ago after being convicted of sexual abuse and having pornographic material, much of it on computer discs.

 Swift moves were made yesterday to reassure anxious parents.

 Sedbergh’s headmaster, Christopher Hirst, said in a statement: “I can confirm that the police have requested the school’s co-operation in certain inquiries they are conducting. It is the school’s policy to co-operate fully with the authorities at all times. As yet, we have not been made aware in detail of the reasons for the inquiries.”

 But last night Dick Davison of the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS) said that, although there were statutory checks which independent schools had to make on prospective teachers, they only identified people with established criminal track records.

 “It is difficult to know what we can do short of searching every teacher’s home and computer system,” he said. “But this is a problem not only for independent schools, but state schools too and any organisation which attracts interest from those with a sexual interest in children, such as church choirs and cub and scout troops.”

 He stressed that schools were obliged to check with the Department of Education’s list of persons deemed unsuitable to teach, to check with police criminal records and to obtain personal and professional references when appointing a new staff member.

 Teachers’ unions were anxious yesterday to reassure parents that their children are safe in public schools, strongly denying that the checks used to vet potential teachers in independent schools are less stringent than those used in the state sector, while admitting that it was inevitable that some paedophiles would slip through the net.

 Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, whose membership includes around 16,000 teachers at independent schools said: “Paedophiles with sexual obsessions will always be attracted to certain professional activities, but the checks upon teachers and intending teachers are very stringent indeed. Equally, whatever the outcome of this case, all the evidence is that paedophiles are brilliant at covering their tracks.”

 David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “I think that the public can be reassured that children are safe in public schools. They have to check criminal records as well as ‘List 99’, listing all teachers banned from teaching for criminal offences. That’s as tough a check as you could wish for.”

 But last night the launch of a pounds 250,000 campaign designed to dispel old -fashioned images of boarding schools was cancelled because of the adverse publicity generated by the police raids.

 The Boarding Education Alliance (BEA), representing 170 schools and 45,000 pupils, was due to have been launched on Monday, providing parents with a “shop window” to help them choose schools.

 The aim was to try to revamp the image of boarding schools, which has barely changed since the 1930s, putting Tom Brown “out to pasture”. But last night a spokeswoman said the launch would not now go ahead as it would be “inappropriate” at this time.

 The problems faced by even the most diligent of schools were highlighted by the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children yesterday.

 “Research suggests that people who do abuse children work their way into positions of authority and responsibility and trust and are well entrenched, often working in senior positions across many years,” said an NSPCC spokesman.

 Detective Chief Inspector Jim Reynolds, who co-ordinated yesterday’s raids, agreed. “Obviously they (paedophiles) can’t make their activities legitimate, they have to conceal their activities at all times which makes it difficult for us.”

 By chance, the raids come in the very week that the risks faced by children living away from home were highlighted by the publication of Sir William Utting’s disturbing report into children in care.

 The investigation which preceded the report, his team concluded, “seemed at times a crash course in human (predominantly male) wickedness and in the fallibility of social institutions . . . The fact that the bad is only a tiny proportion of the whole should not obscure the fact that it tarnishes the lives of many children.”

 The report concluded: “Abusers may be good at their jobs, winning respect, affection or fear from their colleagues and admiration from the parents whose children they corrupt. They are adept at avoiding detection and disciplinary or criminal charges – in which they are inadvertently assisted by the assumptions and values of our social institutions. They are very dangerous people.”

 Now the officers from the forces who carried out yesterday’s raids – the Metropolitan police, Cumbria, Durham, Merseyside, West Mercia, Hampshire, Surrey and Wiltshire – have the task of examining the material seized.

 Then they must decide whether, in the wake of the scandal of children in care – many of whom had come from some of the most under-privileged homes in the country – a second scandal exists which affects those who teach children from quite the other end of the spectrum.

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