With 60 percent of the victims of knife related crime being teenagers, it’s important to get in there and talk to them about the dangers early. But how early is too early?
When I go in to prison to talk to young people about the implications of knife crime, sadly, they are already fully aware. Each one of them will know someone who has been a victim or perpetrator of a weapons assisted crime; many have been victims themselves. In fact the last time I did a session with a group of eight 15 to 18 year olds in a young offender’s institute (YOI), five of them were in for murder. At these sessions I don’t hold back. I make them listen to a whole ten minute recording of a call in which a young girl is sobbing and screaming for help from an ambulance service operator after her brother has been the victim of a vicious fatal assault. As they await the arrival of the emergency services, he lays dying on the floor, his last animal like groans are clearly audible in between her hysterical screams. Even in the normally raucous YOI they sit in silence from the moment the recording begins right through until I finish my testimony; and my testimony too will contain every distressing detail of a call that I attended where a young lad tragically lost his life to knife crime.
Then there are the Young Offenders in the community and Pupil Referral Units, perhaps surprisingly, I find that they are my toughest audience. They have places to go, people to see and often do little to disguise the fact that they are itching to get away from the whole unpleasant business. I usually make them listen to the whole recording too – that often quietens them down, for those few minutes at least…
In secondary schools I feel torn. It is usually the older age groups that we speak to but most of these young people wouldn’t dream of leaving the house with a knife, let alone using it on someone. I hate upsetting them and of course it is usually those that get the most upset that needed the lesson the least. I find that in each class at least one or two of the children will be reduced to tears. The schools that request the sessions argue that these kids have seen and heard worse and that I won’t be describing violence that they haven’t already been exposed to on TV, DVDs and in computer games. I hasten to add that I don’t use any gory images in my sessions, I simply ask them to close their eyes and listen. Perhaps that’s the secret – they can actually imagine being there. They can actually picture themselves as the girl caller or the dying boy, and the mind is a very powerful tool. I usually cut the recording down to 5 or 6 minutes for these groups but I don’t hold back on my testimony.
In the most recent session that I did with Word4Weapons I didn’t play the recording at all. Both me and the head of year felt it wouldn’t be fair on them as they were only year 7. However, when Michael in his introduction, asked the group how many of them had played realistic and violent computer games like Grand Theft Auto most (of the boys) put their hands up, let’s not forget that this game is not for under 18 year olds. I also tone down the testimony – as I take in their little faces looking up at me while they sit cross legged on the floor I just don’t have the heart….
Does it do any good? I don’t know. But, every time I hear a story about the senseless killing of another young person in their prime, I know that all we can do is keep trying, trying to get them thinking about the choices they make for themselves; in particular who they hang about with and the wisdom, or not, of carrying a knife.