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Kristopher King And Bullying
Jeffery Taylor, the former dancer, critic and an arts feature writer for the Sunday Express, writes about the real lives affected by bullying and how the Dance Awards and the award winning dancers touched the life of one unhappy youngster. March 2003

The death of a child is every parent's nightmare. An offspring killed by any means whether by accident, illness or in the line of duty, turns nature on its head in the cruellest betrayal of life itself. But can anything in the world compare in terms of inconsolable anguish when your own flesh and blood takes his or her own life? In the space of the last six weeks, four school children have been reported as suicides. Oliver “Ollie” Sabine, 17 hung himself, while Karl Peart, 16, and Gemma Dimmick, 15, both took an overdose. Last week Thomas “Tommy” Thompson swallowed 12 pills and died. He was 11 years old. And they were all victims of bullying by their peers at school.

“When I saw little Tommy's mother crying on the television,” says Diane King, 39, “I realised that could so easily have been me.” Diane is speaking of her own son, Kristopher, who last January, then also 11 years old, appeared in local and National press when news leaked that because he took weekly dance classes he had been systematically bullied by fellow pupils. The injuries he received to his feet resulted in his doctors telling the youngster he would have to give up his beloved dancing. “What nobody but the family knows,” says Diane, confined by arthritis to a wheel chair since 1995, “is that the day the story came out, by chance I found Kris in the kitchen with a bottle of my pain killers laid out on the table and a glass of water in his hand. Another few minutes and it would have been too late.” It was the culmination of long running misery for Kris of verbal intimidation and physical assault by a few thugs at Asterdale Primary School in Spondon, Derby. But what horrifies Diane and her husband, Michael, 48, most about their son's incredible six years of torture is the apparent indifference on behalf of the men and women trained to nurture Kris in loco parentis, his teachers.

Khristopher King age 12 years with parents Michael and Diane
near their home in Derbyshire. Chris studies ballet.

Photo: © Haroun, Sunday Express

“He was always coming home with a limp or a bruise,” remembers Michael, a night worker for UPS distribution company, “but when we mentioned it to the teachers they put it down to boys having a bit of a rough and tumble. Then one day when he was about 7, Kris arrived home with painful ribs, he could hardly breath. He wouldn't tell us what caused it and Diane took him to the hospital. He admitted to the doctors he'd been kicked in the ribs. I told the police what was going on. They said take action one way or another because bullying never cures itself. We had a talk and decided to carry on trusting the school and the teachers. We reported the incident to the school and expected some action. That was our big mistake. We've been told repeatedly the school would deal with it and we've believed them, but nothing's happened.”

“It actually started when I was about 5” says Kris, his sulphur yellow T-shirt and colossal skate boarding boots brightening the compact three bed room family home in a quiet cul-de-s on the outskirts of Derby, where we were all gathered at the tiny dining table “There was a talent show at school and I did some ballet. There was a huge roar of laughter when I appeared and all the school, teachers included, just laughed their heads off at me. The teachers were standing at the back laughing at me. I stuck it for a couple of minutes, then ran off. Then they pinched my ballet shoes after the show.” It was all down a very stony hill from there for the lad who had caught the dancing bug six months earlier from his little sister when he was left behind at the local Hughes School of Dance while teacher Lisa Peach put Samantha through her paces. “I thought I'll try that,” he explains and liked it so much his beloved tennis and swimming took second place to his new passion.

Kris was christened Derby's Billy Elliot, the feel-good film that charted a lad from a Nottingham mining community who finally conquers prejudice and gains a place at the Royal Ballet School. But if only real life were as simple. “We always knew Kris doing ballet was going to be difficult,” admits Mick. “I wasn't keen at first,” he admits, “it seemed a bit sissy and I didn't want my lad to do it. I thought he'd soon give it up but he's stuck with it and I'm 100% behind him.”

“We discovered a bit more last April,” says Diane, “when he came home one day with a big bruise on his face. He refused to tell me how he got it and when I took him to dancing class Lisa said never mind his cheek, have you seen his feet?” Just before last Christmas, the bullies ambushed Kris kicking him and running over his feet with their cycles. His right ankle took most of the punishment, but still he said nothing to his parents.

“He changed,” remembers Diane. “His mood swings were terrible, he spent a lot of time alone and his temper would flair over nothing.” “Kris was ratty with me,” says Samantha, “but it was worse for Mum.” “There was one day when he flipped completely and went absolutely mad,” says Diane, tears by now coursing down her cheeks despite her best efforts to control herself. “I simply didn't know what to do with him,” Samantha adds, “He came kicking and shouting up the stairs, I was really scared.” “I put my fist through my wardrobe, didn't I, Mum?” murmurs Kris. “I thought he'd had a nervous breakdown. It was terrible,” is Diane's best assessment. “Then we discovered he was sniffing glue,” adds Mick. “I caught him at it in September. We were losing 4 – 5 aerosols a week, so I got suspicious.”

“I was having hallucinations,” the child remembers. “Your mind would go roomy and there's this music and beating and a line would appear and go straight into your eye. I knew it could kill me and I wanted that. And I wanted to talk to my parents but I felt if I was a tell tale I'd get it worse. Anyway, I felt there was no point because no one could do anything about it. Dad had been to the school about ten times and nobody did anything about it. If someone had punished those lads early on, maybe my foot would be OK now. It's gone on so long,” he adds in almost a whisper. After a painfully long pause, Mick quietly puts his point of view. “It's difficult to take in,” he says. “You might suspect your child is in trouble, but you cannot comprehend just how much its affecting him. What he's actually felt like through all the years of shoving, kicking, name calling, it makes you feel terrible.” Diane agrees. “It's a tremendous feeling of guilt, you wonder what have I done wrong that he couldn't trust me with the truth?” Though clearly uncomfortable with this very public airing of his most personal feelings, Mick agrees, “I feel guilty about putting our faith in the school. They've denied anything has ever happened, and if we didn't start the prosecution it would have all been swept under the carpet. They betrayed us all and I feel I've let Kris down.” Now it's Kris's turn to feel protective, “You haven't let me down Dad. I'm going to get better now and everything's all right. You couldn't do any more.” “You think you know your children, then you discover the truth,” sighs Diane.

When the organisers of the Critics' Circle National Dance Awards heard of Kris's suffering, though ignorant at the time of the full extent of the boy's slide into depression and attempted suicide, they paid for the family to attend last January's star studded Awards Ceremony at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre. Among the crowd of celebrities including Darcey Bussell, Angela Rippon and Baroness Betty Boothroyd, Kris met Jonathan Cope, principal male dancer of the Royal Ballet and Jeremy Kerridge of Northern Ballet Theatre. “You could see in his eyes how scared Kris was,” recalls Kerridge, one of Britain's most accomplished actor/dancers. “I told him that all male dancers experience prejudice, but it does get easier to cope with as you get older. Follow your dream, that's all that matters, and in the end you'll have the last laugh.” As well as one of this country's finest classical dancers Jonathan Cope is also a father whose son, Joseph, 6, has just started ballet lessons. “I was appalled that in this day and age people could inflict such savage injuries just for doing ballet,” he remembers. “Talking to Kris made me aware of the dangers Joseph may face and better equipped to handle it. His school has a lot to answer for.” But Kris's most treasured memory of the day is his meeting with David Bintley, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet. “Mr Bintley asked me to go to for treatment with his company. I've been every week since and Sharon (Morrison, Clinical Director) has got me back dancing when I was told it would put me into a wheel chair if I continue. That means more than anything to me.”

Michelle Elliot, director of child welfare charity, Kidscape, says “There is a 10 fold increase in reported bullying in schools over the last decade, and we estimate there is an average of one child suicide a month. The culprit is the “no blame” policy in education which means no consequences for your actions. Was Kris made to shake hands with his attackers? It's a waste of time, we cannot let then get away with any longer.”

There are a lot of conflicting emotions in the King family that are still creating tension and all caused by a problem as old as the human condition itself. But unlike Ollie, Karl, Gemma and Tommy, Kris was pulled back from the brink of the ultimate price of desperation. And as the conversation, and the revelations, bounces back and forth across the tiny dining table you can almost taste the relief, love and forgiveness that will bind these four souls closer together for some time to come.
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