November 5, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
It’s a particularly heinous act, to kill a teacher in the course of them doing their job. I’m not just saying that because I am a teacher, but because killing a teacher is an attack on the society you are in. Teachers don’t tend to do their jobs for the money, they want to contribute to the community. When someone like Ann Maguire, someone who had been a pillar of her community, teaching at the same school for almost 40 years, died in service, it felt like an attack on all of us. So it is no surprise that the same society seems satisfied that her killer, Will Cornick, aged 15 at the time, has been sentenced to life imprisonment. But I think it is important for us all to stop and think for a moment about that sentence. What good will it really do?
Cornick has apparently harboured an irrational hatred of Ann Maguire since he had been in year eight. It was now Year 11, and Maguire was doing what all good teachers do, having high expectations of her pupils. She had banned Cornick from a school trip because the high ability student had fallen behind so much on his homework. This, apparently, was the last straw for Cornick, as he vowed to kill not just her, but also the Assistant Head who had spoken to him in his office when Cornick turned up for the trip anyway.
Good teachers do challenge their students. They will challenge bad behaviour, challenge lack of effort, and challenge an attitude that is holding a student back from achieving their aspirations. Sometimes, the student will react negatively, and this is the risk you take, but it is normally irascible words, or perhaps they will walk away from you. Ann Maguire had a history of making a massive difference to her students’ life chances. She will not have done that just by letting the get on with what ever direction they were going in.
The result this time though was that Cornick got a knife out, walked up behind her as she was leaning over a desk helping another student, and stabbed her in the neck and back repeatedly. As she tried to flee, he carried on, until she got into a room, which her colleague barricaded, seeing Cornick expressionless at the door. He dropped the knife, walked back to the classroom, sat down and said “good times.” When some staff came into his classroom to apprehend him, he calmly raised his hands to allow them to. Apparently, he had decided to carry out his murders in school as then he “could be caught.”
Dr Kent, a forensic psychologist who examined Cornick on behalf of the Court, had noted a “gross lack of empathy for his victim and a degree of callousness rarely seen in clinical practice.” Here was a personality disorder with “marked psychopathic traits.”
Passing the life sentence, Justice Coulson pointed out that Cornick had loving parents, was a successful student, with 5 GCSE passes by the end of Year 10. But he had “planned the murder, knew it was wrong, and didn’t care.” The judge added that he could understand why people had used the word ‘evil’ and the experts had “said he was bad, not mad.”
Nobody doubts that Cornick needs to be punished. That punishment had to be exemplary as well as consequential to what he did, because killing a teacher is one thing, doing it in front of pupils is another, having no remorse whatsoever is even worse. On this basis, a life sentence makes sense. Given he has no remorse and doesn’t care about his victim or her grieving family, there is a strong case that society has to be protected by him.
On the other hand, he was a teenager, and one with quite obvious mental health problems. Cornick argued during questioning that it was about “kill or be killed”, in that he was convinced his life was being destroyed by these teachers, and so it was a choice between killing them or committing suicide. Someone who thinks like that needs to be worked with. What good will come of him being locked up in prison for 20 years, coming out maybe when he is 37, with little chance of a job or career, given who he is and what he has done? We feel better, because we have punished him and we are safe from him, but Will Cornick needs help, and a lot of it. Would it not be better if he was out somewhere he could get that help?
You can’t ‘cure’ a psychopath though. You can only help them understand that in the society in which they live, they can’t kill people. What a life sentence does is make there no deadline. Had he been sentenced for 20 years for instance, he would have had to be released within that time, whether he was a further danger to society or not. A life sentence gives the opportunity for rehabilitation, but with no time limit for it to happen, and if it doesn’t happen, he doesn’t get released.
It is right that everyone’s thoughts are with Ann Maguire and her family. But I think it is possible to give a little thought to this boy, who has done so much to destroy lives, but whose life may now be over not so long after it had begun,