It's midday, but the blue

curtains in the home of

Luke Mitchell are closed. The 15-year-old hasn't been to his school, St David's RC High School in Dalkeith, Midlothian, for nearly four days. He was suspended by his head teacher on Monday.

Yesterday, though, nobody was at school. The streets are empty and the stream in Newbattle, where children and teenagers usually gather to catch fish and splash about, is deserted.

''It's like a shadow is hanging over everything,'' says Colin Cassidy, who runs a tool-hire business in Newbattle, near Luke's home. Cassidy's

15-year-old son also attends St David's. It is a school struggling to get on with business as usual after the murder of Jodi in June. There can be no closure for the community, Cassidy says, until her murder is solved.

The news that Luke was returning to school last Friday added to the uneasiness among parents. Although he has only been questioned, not charged, by police in connection with his girlfriend's murder, the local gossip machine has been in overdrive, and was quickened by the boy's appearance on Sky TV on the day of Jodi's funeral. After the interview, one tabloid hired a psychologist who claimed he showed no real sign of grief and may even have rehearsed what he was going to say in public.

''After that amount of police interest in him, which parent wouldn't be worried?'' says Cassidy. ''He had attracted so much attention, you can understand why the school was watching its own back and why the head teacher would choose to isolate Luke. The police have not made any arrests, so, of course, emotions are still running high.''

But not only is the community still feeling raw, it is starved of answers. Cassidy speaks of a town that is theorising incessantly. The many whispers might, or might not, have led to an incident involving Luke and other pupils at St David's. All the same, they decided to keep him apart from other pupils. But did the school make the right decision? Has it correctly balanced Luke's interests and those of other pupils? And, ultimately, has Luke been unduly robbed of his right to an education?

Whether it is legitimate or not, several parents of pupils at St David's admit privately to having been concerned about Luke's return to school. One parent claims he saw the teenager turning up to school with his mother on his first day, smoking, wearing a bandana, and out of uniform. He says: ''I was upset that he had shown up like that so I complained to the deputy head. She told me that several other parents had already got in there before me.''

Cassidy warned his own son not to get into trouble with teachers over his treatment of Luke. ''I'd heard from other people that other pupils were taking it into their own hands, following him around, giving him a hard time.''

Luke's solicitor, Nigel Beaumont, does not understand why, on Monday, Luke was sent to the deputy head's study to have his lessons in isolation. He strongly disputes that there was unrest among parents over Luke's presence, or that there had been any aggression towards him on the previous Friday.

''There was no threat to internal order of the school. He had not been attacked or bothered. That's all urban myth. There had been no threats, nothing. When Luke told his mother, both their patience ran out. Luke felt he had been deceived,'' he says. Within hours of arriving at school on Monday, Luke had been suspended. Midlothian Council said it had become clear he was not prepared to accept the authority of the school.

It wasn't the first time Luke had had a disagreement with Marion Docherty, the school's head teacher, whom Beaumont claims has not been helpful. ''He had a difficult

relationship with Ms Docherty before Jodi's murder, and they had disagreed several times over uniform and behaviour,'' says Beaumont.

The community is not entirely unsympathetic to Luke. Luke's father left the family some time ago, leaving his mother, Corrine, to run a business to provide for Luke and his brother, Shane. ''People have said how scandalous it is that he went to Jodi's grave with a cigarette,'' says a mother who did not wish to be named and whose son used to socialise with Luke at The Mission, a club night.

She adds: ''It's ridiculous and hypocritical. So he smokes: so do lots of people. People are so quick to condemn a boy who has not even been charged with anything. If he is

innocent, he's gone through a traumatic time. If he's guilty, he's going through a terrible time, too. He's

just a child. It makes me uneasy that so many people are focusing on

this one young boy, when there is a murderer, who could be anyone, on the loose.''

Nor are all parents against Luke's return to school. Jean Watson, whose son is also at St David's although not in the same year, says that the worry of parents is probably greater among those whose children are in the

same year. ''If I had a daughter, it might be different. But my son's path never crosses Luke's. He could go

to school, come back, and never

see him, and it's not like my son is looking round the corner for him all the time.''

On the day after his suspension, Luke's mother made an official request for a school transfer. This has worried some parents of pupils at Dalkeith High and Newbattle High, such as Cassidy, whose daughter attends the latter. Like Watson, he is only worried for his daughter. He says: ''I'm not worried about my son being in the same school as Luke. If my daughter was, I would be.''

The head teacher of Newbattle has the right to refuse Luke a place in the school, which is visible from Jodi's parents' home, if it is believed it would be detrimental to the delivery of education for all. Luke has since refused the offer of home tuition. ''He wants to go to school,'' says Beaumont. ''He has the right to an education, and he should have had access to normal schooling.''

While Luke's rights to education are undisputed, and even backed by the Education Act of 2000, it is not an absolute right, says Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

''Everyone has the right to an education, that's the start and stop of it. But nobody has rights that can override the rights of others,'' she says. ''There is also more than one way of providing the education that someone has a right to. If the pupil does not want to comply with the way the school is going about providing education, they have a right to exclude that person.''

In other words, the school chose what they thought was the best way to educate Luke, given the concerns of parents, heightened emotions, and the fact that Luke had already been so widely identified.

Gillespie suggests that, in a situation as intense and sensitive as that at St David's, there is often no clear path for head teachers. ''They have to manage the needs of all groups. It is not a case of bending to what parents want, but doing what benefits everyone. People can't stop feeling how they feel, whether they have reason to or not.''

Somehow, in the haze of gossip and fact, concern and panic, Marion Docherty had to make a decision that would promote the safety, comfort, and rights of all. All this, while the community she serves looks over its shoulder for an unknown killer. Mike Doig, president of Headteachers' Association Scotland, says Ms Docherty had to do the best she could in exceptional circumstances. ''It can be the hardest thing for a headteacher to balance one youngster's needs with those of the other 29 in the class and the teacher,'' he says.

''When a pupil is lost, the whole school is affected. It makes this situation all the more difficult that time lapsed between the murder and funeral, and that there is still a culprit out there. Unfortunately, there is no script for a head teacher.''

There are as few clear solutions for Ms Docherty as there are certainties for Luke, whose school life shows no signs of normalising. As his peers troop past his window to school next week, he may well decide to keep his curtains shut, and the whispers out.