In the aftermath of the death yesterday of 12-year-old Keane Wallis-Bennett at Liberton High School in Edinburgh, the local councillor Nick Cook chose precisely the right words to describe the incident:
tragic and troubling.
Keane died around 10am when a wall at the school collapsed and landed on top of her. She received medical treatment at the scene of the incident but was pronounced dead. In the hours that followed, groups of pupils gathered around the school, upset and confused by what happened.
The priority for the authorities in handling this upsetting situation will be to offer the right help to those pupils, as well as their parents and the family of Keane. Thankfully, this appeared to happen promptly yesterday with senior staff at Edinburgh City Council and Health and Safety officers promising support would be provided to staff and pupils.
In the coming days, many of those staff and pupils will be asking what caused the accident and although, as the police have said, it would be wrong to speculate about that at the moment, it is troubling that Keane's death happened a short time after Edinburgh City Council was fined over an incident at the same school in which a girl was seriously injured falling down a lift shaft.
The council pled guilty to a breach of health and safety in that case and will have to demonstrate that it learned the right lessons from the incident, and learned them in time.
Keane's death will also be troubling for many parents of pupils at Liberton. Sending their children to school is an important act of faith. Schools act in loco parentis and the expectation is that they will do everything they reasonably can to protect the pupils in their care. When an incident such as the one at Liberton High School happens, parents quite naturally question that arrangement and ask: is my children's school safe?
It may be that some of those parents will conclude a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) into Keane's death is the appropriate next step and that is understandable. FAIs are vital in ensuring lessons are learned from accidental deaths and that effective measures are taken to prevent further tragedies and the Crown Office will consider holding one as well as examine whether there should be a criminal prosecution.
Whatever the final decision, what is critical is that the decision is reached promptly and that any FAI is completed as swiftly as possible and on this, sadly, the Crown Office has performed poorly in the past, with some inquiries taking more than two years to set up. The process is much slower than its counterpart in England and Wales.
The Scottish Government has already said it will consider changes to speed up the process, first proposed by Labour's Patricia Ferguson, and that may provide MSPs with a chance to introduce improvements. But whatever happens, families, including the family of Keane Wallis-Bennet, have the right to expect any decisions on FAIs and prosecution are completed quickly and that they are not kept waiting in the search for answers.
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