Scottish Borders Council leader Shona Haslam has come in for criticism for dismissing questions over safety at one of the region’s schools.
At the full council meeting held last Thursday, Hawick and Hermitage councillor Watson McAteer asked education chiefs for an assurance that behaviour problems at the town’s high school had been resolved.
He said that parents had asked him for reassurance that the school was safe and secure for returning pupils, after anti-social and threatening behaviour by some pupils saw police drafted in to patrol the corridors last year.
However, Mrs Haslam accused him of “fear-mongering” for “petty political gain”.
“None of us should be under any misapprehension about the nature and intent of this question,” she told the chamber. “It is an unashamed attempt by the member to stoke fear in the school and the community for his own narrow political purposes.”
Mrs Haslam said that a range of support had been put been put in place over the summer to respond to the needs of a small group of students and insisted: “This school is a safe school, and that is the message that local members should be putting out to their wards.”
It has since emerged that there have been behaviour problems in the new term, with four pupils being arrested and charged after a spate of incidents in its second week.
Four boys aged 13 to 15 were arrested at the school following separate incidents between August 23 and 29, with one of them being found to be in possession of a knife.
Speaking to the Southern this week, Mr McAteer said that the suggestion that he had put the question to the council for personal or political gain was “reprehensible”.
“I had been contacted by parents asking what I could do to reassure them, children and teachers that the high school was safe given the new term and following some concerning behaviour at the end of the last term,” he said.
“After submitting the question addressed to the executive member for education, a series of incidents subsequently occurred, including one where it was alleged that a knife was involved.
“Unusually, the council leader decided to respond to my question and proceeded to blacken my character and commitment to my town.
“The simple issue is that we appear to have started the 2018 term where we left off, and Hawick parents are not content to wait until a truly serious incident takes place.”
Mr McAteer, a former police chief, says he is keen to help tackle issues at the school but is being kept at arm’s length.
“I am the first to acknowledge that the problems are being caused by a small but disruptive group of youngsters and that solving this problem is not solely the responsibility of the education authorities,” he said.
“I am particularly keen to be involved in any solution, but the issue is about being involved and not being kept at a distance.”
Hawick and Denholm councillor Clair Ramage, a former teacher at the Buccleuch Road school, said she had been shocked by the council leader’s response.
“Last week’s meeting highlighted, for me, the incompetence of the current Tory-led administration,” said the Scottish National Party councillor.
“Councillor McAteer asked a straightforward question, but it was deemed political by the convener and instead of being answered by the executive member for children and young people, it was answered by the leader, Shona Haslam.
“To say she responded angrily is an understatement.
“I was shocked at the unprovoked attack on a fellow councillor.”
Mrs Ramage said that Mrs Haslam’s assertion that Hawick High is a safe school is contrary to the evidence coming out of the establishment.
“I am constantly being stopped by parents, staff and pupils complaining about the school and I wonder if councillor Haslam would be as complacent in her answer if it was affecting her children,” she said.
“We cannot ignore problems. We have to deal with them. Many of the issues are coming from the community into school, and the detrimental effect that this is having on our children is impacting on the teaching and learning of all children.
“To say that this is a safe school and that is the message the members should be putting out to their wards is a blatant lie and one that I want no part of.”
But Mrs Haslam insisted: “Hawick High School is a safe environment for our young people. The vast majority of kids attending that school are hard working, ambitious, conscientious pupils who deserve and demand our support.
“There are a small number of extremely vulnerable young people who require a complex and joined up response from multiple agencies, and this is not something that happens overnight.
“What I would remind local councillors is that these are children, youngsters who have gone through a huge amount and require all of our support. As does the school. Making unfounded allegations, stoking rumours and doing down the town and its young people serves no purpose, and is in fact destructive.
“I know that with the arrangements we have put in place and ongoing support, pupils will enjoy the secure and motivational educational environment that we expect and they deserve.”
A Police Scotland spokesperson said: “Police in the Borders have charged four boys, aged 13 to 15, in connection with four separate incidents at a school in Hawick between August 23 and 29. Reports will be submitted to the children’s reporter.”
The council refused to comment on the incidents reported at the school.
A spokesperson for the authority said: “Incidents that take place within a school are dealt with by school staff, and, where necessary, police support is requested.
“This applies across all Scottish Borders Council’s schools and is consistent with the rest of the country.
“We will not comment further due to our duty of care to our young people, other than to confirm that it has generally been a very positive start to the term, with many of the new S1 pupils commenting on how good their first week has been.
“Any pupils or parents with any concerns should contact the school in the first instance to discuss them with a member of staff.”