IT’S a Monday, it’s 8.30am and a queue of hushed teenagers line a school corridor.
Not that these Firrhill High pupils are waiting for double maths to begin or have even been sent to see the headteacher. Instead, they want to talk to the police. In fact, to their own campus cop, Pc Jim Gillanders.
And among the concerns that they’re eager to share with him are negative comments made about them by fellow pupils on social media sites Facebook and Twitter over the weekend.
“I’m a wee bit like a social worker as well as a police officer,” smiles 48-year-old Jim. “The pupils want to unburden themselves so they come in for a blether.
“On Mondays you have all the internet stuff – MSN, Facebook, Twitter. If one word is taken the wrong way, all hell breaks loose and the pupils start arguing and parents get involved. So on a Monday morning they’re all outside the guidance teachers’ office and I’m right next door waiting to assist. By Wednesday it will all be resolved.”
Jim is one of 12 police officers based in schools across the city – funded by Lothian and Borders Police to the tune of more than £400,000 every year – who help pupils overcome a range of issues from cyber-bullying to truanting.
The father-of-four, who lives in West Lothian, has been a police officer for nearly 24 years, the first nine of which were spent on the beat in London before transferring to Lothian and Borders in November 1997, where he covered Wester Hailes, Oxgangs, Corstorphine and South Queensferry. He adds: “In February 2009, an inspector asked if I would be interested in being a school link officer, which was something I had never considered before. At the time, there were four schools in Edinburgh that had these officers – Tynecastle, Boroughmuir, Broughton and Liberton – but I was totally oblivious to the role.
“I knew the headteachers because I had worked in Oxgangs before and I had been at Firrhill and dealt with various problems, and because I was the local officer, I knew lots of local kids. I wasn’t the type of cop just to sit in a car driving about – I would engage with them and have a blether.
“But I’d always been used to doing 24/7 response policing shifts, and all of a sudden I was asked to do a community role, 8am to 4pm, Monday to Friday. But it was time for a change.”
It is a decision that Jim has never regretted, describing the role as the “most rewarding” of his career.
“Helping a kid, that is the most rewarding thing,” he explains. “And because you have got involved with them at a young age, the pupils flourish and they stay on at school, go into sixth-year and have ambitions for university, whereas before when they were in first and second year and they were on the line they could go either way, most likely the other way.”
Not that Jim sits in his office waiting for the kids to come to him. A large part of the role is delivering presentations to different year groups on topics including alcohol, smoking, drugs, hate crime, internet safety and “sexting” – which involves pupils sending inappropriate text messages, including photographs, to each other.
Today, the first such talk is with a first-year class who are being warned about the dangers of alcohol and drugs – which includes showing them graphic images of former EastEnders star Danniella Westbrook’s damaged nose following years of cocaine abuse. The session is very interactive and incorporates Jim’s own experiences of dealing with drug and alcohol abuse from more than two decades in the force.
At noon there’s a discussion about knife crime with third-year pupils, and this time they’re shown a hard-hitting DVD with various real-life clips – including the story of former Firrhill pupil Kirsty Nisbet who was slashed in the face at the age of 15 with a razor-sharp craft knife after an argument on Princes Street in December 2002. She was scarred for life.
Jim, who grew up in Queenslie in the east end of Glasgow, divides his time between Firrhill and the Wester Hailes Education Centre, where he is also the campus cop.
Since March this year, every state school in Edinburgh – excluding Panmure St Ann’s and Gorgie Mills Special School – have had their own police officer, who usually splits their time between two schools.
“The benefits from a police point of view are that youth calls have decreased and minor crimes have fallen,” says Jim.
But it’s not just the statistics that highlight the successes of a cop presence in city schools – the pupils themselves have plenty to say on the matter.
Chloe Murphy, 17, a fifth-year pupil at Firrhill, praises Jim for his unwavering support, particularly after her father passed away in October at the age of 36. She explains: “I think Jim’s brilliant. He helps a lot with things like bullying and family circumstances – he’s always there for everything. If you ever have something wrong, you go to see Jim and he deals with it there and then. He’s helped me with a lot, even looking for jobs and stuff like that.”
She added: “Everyone loves him here.
“A month ago I lost my dad and didn’t want to come to school – I couldn’t be bothered – but Jim phoned me and I came in for a coffee. It felt good because I spoke about it and I thought maybe I should be back here because there are people here who support me.”
Sixth-year pupil Benitha Iradukunda, 17, adds: “Jim’s easy to talk to and has good banter with you. If something’s wrong, his door’s always open.
“It feels safer too because there have not been so many fights since Jim’s been here.”
Jim’s next talk of the day is on “sexting” for second-year pupils, which gets under way at 1.40pm. He admits he’s had to deal with a handful of incidents at the school where girls have sent boyfriends photographs of themselves in their underwear, also known as “fan pics”, which have then been passed to other pupils. With a guidance teacher present, Jim is able to advise the pupils of the legal implications.
Another part of Jim’s role is helping to cut truancy figures and, with parents’ permission, he visits pupils at home to encourage them to “get out of their beds”.
“You try to find out what’s causing the problem and rectify it,” he explains. “It could be that they have been up all night on the Xbox or texting. Around a year ago, I took a girl’s mobile phone away with her father’s permission. She was in school the next morning, chomping at the bit to get her phone.
“And they don’t like the fact that if I have to collect them on foot, I wear my big fluorescent jacket so everybody notices – so there’s the embarrassment factor.
“But the main thing is, if they’re in school, they are safe and learning, and not causing any problems.”
‘Officers break the ice’
COUNCIL chiefs say anecdotal evidence suggests campus cops have had an impact on truancy and behaviour.
PC Jim Gillanders, the school link officer at Firrhill and Wester Hailes Education Centre, says: “If a school has a link officer it means they are used to break the ice when cops are speaking to youths at night, as they both have a common link. Cops will also tell the youths that they will inform me if they have been causing problems.
“There’s not been a proper fight after school at Firrhill since over a year ago. There used to be regular organised fights at the field next to Tesco [Colinton Mains Drive] but they are virtually unheard of now.
“The fights were common when I first arrived – about once a month – but gradually decreased over time. Most kids don’t want to fight; it’s peer pressure that causes them.If I get information that a fight is going to happen, I will get the pupils individually out of class and tell them off.
““I have a long chat about what has caused the problem and how to fix it. If someone is encouraging them to fight, I challenge them about why they want them to fight. The pupils will then use my name to say I have warned them not to fight,
and that way
‘A positive role model’
THE city’s education leader, councillor Paul Godzik, is a big supporter of campus cops.
“The work that school link officers do to improve behaviour and attendance at our high schools cannot be overstated,” he says.
“Since the scheme was rolled out earlier this year, we have had hugely positive feedback from all those involved and officers have been welcomed into the school community. It is a fantastic example of partnership working and anecdotal evidence suggests that a friendly, visible police presence in and around our high schools has a real impact on reducing truancy and improving behaviour. As well as tackling crime, bullying and exclusion, officers also act as role models for pupils and establish positive relationships between them and the police that can continue throughout their lives.
“I know that local communities are also grateful for the visible police presence when pupils are leaving for the day. We’re committed to improving standards in our schools, as we know that this also impacts on overall pupil attainment. “Innovative projects like these take us a firm step in the right direction.”