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I recently had brought to my attention the allegation that a third year male student had called a girl in his class ‘a whore’.  My instant reaction, shared by the Depute was, it’s never acceptable, he’s out.  The boy’s reaction however took us aback.  ‘No,’ he said, ‘I shouldn’t have said that in school but there was no harm meant.  It’s just how we speak to each other.’  His rationale for his behaviour notwithstanding, we excluded him.
Despite a lifetime in education I’m not always entirely familiar with the latest nuances of youth culture.  Could this, I wondered, be an affectionate term in rap vocabulary?  (I confess that when I first heard the phrase ‘pimp my ride’ I entirely misunderstood its import.  I won’t share with you the interpretation I erroneously put on it.)  At home I checked with my reliable ambassador to teenage thinking, my 18 year old daughter.  Her reaction was instantaneous.  Girl to girl, among close friends, in private, it might just be a term of humorous jest.  Male to female, never acceptable.  In public, always insulting.  My initial judgement was confirmed.  Interestingly, my depute had, quite separately, checked with her teenage daughter.  The response had been identical.
The next week, another incident tested our reactions.  A very irate parent was demanding to see me, the headteacher, insisting that she would speak to no-one else.  I had seldom seen someone in school so close to tears, so angry.  On the Friday evening her daughter had been in the local park with friends.  They had met another group of students whom they knew.  One of them offered her daughter a drink of juice.  She took the bottle, drank and vomited as she realised that she had been given a bottle of urine.  To cap the cruelty, she was then inundated by e-mails ridiculing her.  The mother wanted action against the perpetrator and those who had been electronically ridiculing her daughter.
The second part was relatively easy.  The mother was informed that the e-mailers would be pulled in and well warned that any repetition of their behaviour would see them dealt with harshly.  The major offence however, committed well outside school grounds and time, was essentially a police matter.  Fortunately, despite the absurd arguments of my own Union’s vice-president, we have a police officer on campus.  Within 20 minutes she was with the mother and daughter, both reassuring and promising action.  She then followed through on her promise.
Two cases seemingly satisfactorily addressed: except that the same lad was the perpetrator of both offences.  He is not the product of poverty or of a family in crisis.  He might, more accurately, be seen as symptomatic of a culture which has lost its ethical perspective.  The recent events involving Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand should remind us that a society which pays megabucks for the public humiliation of others can hardly be surprised when that culture becomes the norm in wider circles.
This article was first published in Scottish Review on 13 November 2008: .  It also appeared in The Scottish Review, Annual Anthology, 2009.

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