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Bullying: That my child may know peace

on December 8, 2011

“That my child may know peace” by Roger Crouch

The day the inquest on our 15 year old son Dominic was reported in the press a female school friend posted on Face Book. She said “The school chaplain said today that we should all remember how you lived not how you died”. I didn’t challenge the girl but I do beg to differ. Indeed I think it is dangerously irresponsible to give such a message to young people in a school where two pupils had taken their own lives following allegations of bullying. If we don’t seek to understand how and why they died we can’t hope to learn the lessons that could prevent future tragedies. So I’m going to tell you about how and why Dom died and the lessons that can be learnt. Some of this is strong stuff, including four letter words when I quote from his notes. I make no apology for this.

On Monday 17 May 2010 Dom returned from a residential trip with his independent, catholic school, St Edward’s, Cheltenham. He was happy and in very good spirits. He told us how he’d helped a friend who’d had an epileptic seizure – “one of the best things I’ve ever done” and how much he’d enjoyed the trip. We had dinner as a family and later his older sister and I watched his favourite TV programme with him. He was laughing and joking as he teased her by spoiling the plot.

On Tuesday 18 May Dominic got up as usual to return to school. He showered, dressed and was driven to school by his sister, a 6th former at a nearby school. As they parted he reminded her of the time he needed to be picked up because of an after school activity.

At the start of lunch at 1.15 Dominic left his school. He walked to a nearby 6 storey block of flats and was able to get in to the private, residents only block. Once inside he went to the 6th floor and was able to gain access to the roof. Dom, who was about 5 foot six, must have jumped to open the hatch in the ceiling as there were no signs that he had used anything to stand on.

Dom was now on a flat roof with no parapet or railing. He was up there for well over an hour. At 2.22 he texted 999 –“ I’m about to commit suicide I’m on top of a council housing estate next 2 st Edwards senior school”. He received an automated response at 2.24 it read “You texted 999. No emergency service has been alerted. You must be registered to use this service”. We can only imagine how a distressed and dyslexic 15 year old would have interpreted this.

Around 2.50 Dominic ran and threw himself off the roof of the building. He reached a speed of about 10mph and landed face down about 26 feet away on the driveway (his blood was still there the next morning). At 2.56 a 999 call was made. Dominic was taken to A&E at Cheltenham hospital. They phoned home using his mobile and we rushed there. Dominic was in deep coma, had multiple fractures of the skull, pelvis, arm, leg and facial bones and internal injuries to his lungs and liver. He was moved to intensive care but despite “full and aggressive treatment” never recovered consciousness. His mother, sister and I were with him throughout. At some point in the evening a police officer passed me one of the notes that Dominic had written. It read “Dear Family, I’m so so sorry for what I’m about to do. I have been bullied a lot recently and had a lot of shit made up about me that ain’t true. Mum and Dad and Julia I’m sorry for being a cunt. I know you were only trying to help. I’m sorry for what I have done and what has happened. This led me to commit suicide. Love Dominic Crouch. I go to St Edward’s school”. Dom died from his combined injuries at 7.56pm.

So how was it that a boy who returned home from a residential trip so happy; who had no history of depression or emotional problems; no history of drug or alcohol abuse and who came from a loving and supportive family was driven less than 24 hours later to take his own life in such an extreme way. What was it that he had done and what had happened?

We didn’t even begin to get an answer until nearly 6 months later when we received a file of papers from the Coroner. We then learnt that during the residential weekend the youngsters had played a game of spin the bottle. Dominic had been dared to kiss another boy and had done so. This was captured on mobile phones. At the time everyone was laughing about it. Dom certainly didn’t think it important enough to mention it. For him it was far less important than his cross country run to get assistance for his mate.

The picture continued to emerge between November 2010 and the Inquest in March 2011. We learnt that on the Tuesday texts and images were circulated around the school, although not sent directly to Dom. We also learnt that Dominic “was the butt of some jokes”. These were described, by the boy Dom named in his note to his schoolmates, as “no more than school banter”. He added “there has never been any physical abuse”. Another pupil recently commented, “I think he misinterpreted the situation about the gay stuff”.

Neither the police, the school nor the coroner focused on Dominic’s allegation of bullying. Only a few pupils were interviewed. The school observed that Dom had never previously reported any bullying. Nor was there any mention at the inquest that Dominic was the second pupil in that school year to take their own life after alleging bullying. A 15 year old girl in the year above Dom jumped from a road bridge in September 2009. However, the former head teacher did quote from an inspection report “the quality of relationships…… amongst pupils is outstanding promoting a positive and nurturing atmosphere”.

Dominic left 3 notes. All mention bullying. I’ve read one in full. Another said “I’m so sorry I have been really bullied this has led me to go and kill myself”. His note to his fellow pupils thanks the people who were nice to him but begins “All of those in St Edward’s school thanks for making up shit about me that ain’t true and especially XXX just because you want to be king of the fucking world”! I believe that these notes were hastily written on the roof of the flats in the last 20 minutes of Dom’s life.

Is the spreading of rumours bullying? The school’s policy says it is and lists “name calling, sarcasm, spreading rumours, teasing” as forms of bullying. It even mentions bullying on the basis of sexuality. However it also says, following DoE advice, that “it is not bullying where there is no intention to hurt or harm”.

Were the rumours and so called banter homophobic? There was no suggestion that Dominic was gay before the rumours were spread about him. Was it just a way to mock a boy who was vulnerable because of his specific learning difficulty and who would have been easier to pick on in this way than he would have been physically? A former County Councillor called it “cruel peer group pressure and nastiness”. But it is clear that the banter and rumours were based on Dom’s alleged sexuality.

We also heard at the Inquest of a note written about the school trip. It reads “apparently there were rumours that Dom was gay and this [the spin the bottle game] might have fueled them”. The school could not answer the question of when this was written at the inquest.

One of Dominic’s teachers noticed that he was “very distracted”, describing other pupils who had been on the trip as tired. No-one spoke to him about why he was so distracted. Pupils are not allowed out of the school over lunch without written permission. Dominic’s absence from the start of lunch went unnoticed in a school with only around 450 pupils. When his absence was noticed at the start of lessons it should have been reported to the school office. It wasn’t and the school had to check on his whereabouts after 3pm following my phone call. Dominic texted 999 giving his rough location and saying he intended to commit suicide some 20-25 minutes before he ran off the roof. He received the automatic response that no emergency service had been alerted. Maybe a different response to any one of these issues could have prevented his death.

Nothing suggests that Dominic set out for school planning to take his own life. His behaviour that morning was quite normal. He had been happy on the school trip and in the days and weeks before his death he had been looking to the future. His description of the flats suggests he did not know the building. It was simple bad luck that he was able to get in and onto the roof.

Dom died in May 2010, the inquest was 10 months later, making it even harder for us to adjust to our permanently changed lives. We felt kept in the dark and at times almost as if we were on trial throughout both the inquest and the Child Death review.

Some lessons to take back to your school:

  •  The spreading of rumours and teasing are bullying, not banter. There were 3 deaths over 18 months in Gloucestershire where this was an issue;
  • Homophobic bullying can affect any pupil;
  • Teachers need to be watchful for students who are distressed or distracted as this can be an early indicator of cyber bullying and to act on absence immediately;
  • Ask is your bullying policy acted on or is it just fine words?
  • Use PSE to talk about the impact of bullying (41% of teen suicides) and how young people would handle a crisis.

 

4 changes we’d like to see from the Department and Ofsted:

  • DoE must use the White paper to make schools adopt the victim centres definition of bullying that we have in most workplaces;
  • In light of the White Paper all schools must implement both a zero tolerance approach to bullying and whole school approaches that promote dignity and respect for all;
  • Ofsted and the ISI must focus on the effective implementation of bullying policies and talk directly to young people about how safe they feel in school;
  • Safeguarding Boards need to prioritise young suicide and the bullying which so often triggers it as key safeguarding issue.

 

Some maintain that mystery still surrounds Dominic’s death. The Coroner seemed baffled by it. Others have rightly emphasised the critical role of homophobic bullying. There’s no real mystery around why Dom was driven to take his own life. He was desperate that his happiness after the residential trip was punctured by rumours and being the butt of jokes. Over a single morning he felt he went from hero to zero. He over reacted to this -as teenagers will – but no-one noticed or acted on his upset and absence until it was too late. So when his 999 text, his cry for help, went unheeded, he scribbled his notes and threw himself off the roof in the last rugby tackle he would ever make.

 

The real tragedy is not just that he died; it’s that his death was preventable.

 

Thank you.

Roger Crouch

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