A troubled island school where two pupils have taken their own lives in the last year is on red alert over scores of vulnerable youngsters, a whistleblower has warned.
They also warned that several youngsters across the island had made attempts to take their own life in the last four months alone.
The insider said the current system at the 1050-pupil Nicolson – now the island’s only six-year secondary and the largest in the Western Isles – was failing vulnerable pupils and claimed not enough was being done to protect youngsters struggling with mental health problems and issues such as bullying.
A year ago, Anton Michael, 15, committed suicide in a toilet at the school. Eight months later, Hannah Mackenzie took her own life in the grounds of the town’s Lews Castle.
The Record understands around 10 per cent of Nicolson pupils are now considered “high risk”.
A source within the school said: “That is substantially higher than what you see at other schools. It has never been that bad.
“Since Hannah’s death, the number has been very high. The children want to speak to a counsellor after something like that but many are told after day five they can’t see one. A school in this situation should have counsellors available for at least a year after a death.”
The Record understands there have been as many as seven cases of attempted suicide on Lewis since Hannah’s death.
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Our source said: “It’s going to get worse. It’s an epidemic and unless something is done, this is going to be chronic.”
It’s not the first time The Nicolson has been rocked by the loss of pupils. Two decades ago, education chiefs promised to better protect youngsters when Katherine-Jane Morrison, 16, took her own life after being attacked by bullies.
Michelle McBratney and Lee Ann Murray, both 17, were sentenced to three months behind bars for leading the gang attack on the gifted student in 1995 and a special inquiry was ordered by inspectors.
But 20 years on, many parents and pupils say the issue of bullying within the school is worse than ever.
A recent petition calling for a tougher stance on bullies by the school gathered 850 signatures, with many victims, past and present, sharing harrowing accounts of their experiences at the school.
Though bullying in not thought to have a direct link to the deaths of Anton and Hannah, insiders say they were both highly-vulnerable teens who should have been better protected by the school.
An official review is ongoing into Anton’s death and key members of staff have been interviewed.
Our insider said Anton had struggled with “isolation” issues, living on a remote part of the island and not engaging with other pupils inside and outside of school.
They added: “He was one of the most clever guys in the school and would have gone so far. People really liked him.
“He was a bit eccentric but he had a lovely personality. He didn’t fit into the status quo. He could have if he had been given the support he needed.”
At the end of last summer, an anonymous message appeared on social media indicating that a pupil was planning to take their own life.
An assembly was held where education chiefs are understood to have attempted to identify the pupil who posted the message. They suspected the post had been written by Anton and instructed auxiliaries to be with him at all times.
During class, Anton went to the toilet to take his own life. He was pronounced dead by paramedics as they transported him to hospital.
The source said: “I think he thought the bathroom was the only place of privacy he could go without family, pupils or anyone else around him.
“The auxiliary who was on that day left their job and never came back.”
Hannah’s death eight months later was understood to be centred around her struggle with mental health issues and our source believes the tragedy may have been avoided if she was more closely monitored by partner agencies.
The insider said the severity of the problem at the school is being “swept under the carpet” and will escalate unless a new approach is adopted.
They said: “Even a year on from Anton’s death, the school have not done anything significant in terms of suicide prevention.”
In 2015, it was decided that the last rural secondary school on the Western Isles would close.
The move abolished the island’s S2 system, where pupils are taught in their own home district for the first two years of secondary school, despite hundreds of objections from parents. They voiced concerns about the extra two hours daily bus travel to the Nicolson for some pupils.
The source said: “The problem is largely down to changes in curriculum. These children don’t have the mental capacity to go from a rural school and into the Nicolson at the age of 12. Some have the capability to become another Anton, another Hannah, and we need to react and be proactive. We’ve had too many deaths.
“We need to put in place some support for our young people because they don’t know what to do.
“The only people who know what is going on is the young people themselves. It’s like we’re just sitting waiting for something else to happen.”
Neither education director Bernard Chisholm nor Nicolson rector Frances Murray could not be contacted for comment.
Local authority Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said bullying was not considered to be an escalating problem at the Nicolson and insisted they had not identified a rise in vulnerable pupils which could be linked to the recent deaths.
A spokesman said: “There are vulnerable young people in The Nicolson Institute and a number of our schools, as is the case across the country.
“It is not accurate to say this has escalated since the tragic deaths of two pupils in the past year.
“It is true that these incidents and a range of other factors have affected our young people and we have increased our levels of monitoring and supervision, as would be expected, to ensure all children and young people have access to appropriate resources.”
In relation to recent attempted suicides, the spokesman said: “Some vulnerable young people are
“The school and the authority, working together with all appropriate agencies, are ensuring these young people have access to appropriate support. The issues giving rise to these difficulties for children and young people across the country are complex, and include a wide range of factors other than school.”
The council said they believed adequate steps were being taken by the school and local authority to address bullying and provided a list of support measures available to pupils.
They said they have a 24-hour helpline and confidential service that has been in place for all staff and pupils since last May, and counsellors were based in the school for a period of time after both recent tragedies, followed up with drop-in sessions.
Psychologists, social work staff and youth workers were also on hand.
The council would not comment on any individual matters relating to the recent deaths of pupils.
A number of support services are available for young people and anyone worried about a young person. Papyrus (Prevention of Young Suicides) can be contacted on 0800 068 4141 or call Samaritans on 116 123.
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