Thursday, March 29, 2007

Death in the playgrounds

In 1968, ten year old Mary Bell killed two small boys. The horrified nation sighed with relief when psychiatrists said her behaviour was psychopathic and she was therefore not responsible for her actions. No-one wanted to believe a child could be responsible for cold-blooded murder. The next great shock was in 1993, when two year old Jamie Bulger was abducted and murdered by two ten year old boys in Liverpool. These cases, twenty-five years apart, were headline news for months; ten years ago the killing of children by children was a rare occurrence in Britain.

Earlier this month there were eight fatal stabbings of schoolchildren within four days and a non-fatal stabbing perpetrated by a seven year old. While the media shows grieving families and conducts debates on 'the new knife-carrying culture', there is not the same sense of horror about these crimes. Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary (whatever that is) said on television: “These are still, even though they are more prevalent than we’d like, relatively isolated incidents which cause extraordinary grief and agony in particular communities.” Perhaps she will become more concerned if the next stabbing occurs in her own 'particular community'. The whole of society should feel extraordinary grief and agony over the violent death of a child, especially when the killing has been carried out by another child.

Not all the youngsters who have committed these crimes are psychopathic, they are responsible for their actions. How have they come to consider that life has so little value? Gang rivalry, bullying and intimidation are not new but killing the rival or outsider is, at least in 'civilised' societies. Is it the fault of parents, schools, television, video games, consumerism? Is there a moral vacuum left by the decline of religion? Whatever the causes, we need to address the problem before all our children are going to school in stab-proof vests.


  1. Remember the paedophile alarms? Remember mad cow disease?

    The first thing to do is identify the problem, rather than react hysterically to a 'spate'. A 'spate' is created entirely by the media choosing to report particular events and link them as a 'trend'. Long term stats almost never reflect these made-up trends.

    The problem is exclusively within an inner-city 'gangsta' culture, which is what should be tackled. Sending Jimmy to Tunbridge Wells Primary in a stab-proof vest is a perfect example of media-induced hysteria.

  2. I'm not suggesting that knife-crime is more widespread than it really is. I am more horrified by the fact that society has not reacted with greater shock at the events of the past few weeks. The 'So long as it isn't in my backyard' attitude displayed in Ruth Kelly's remark is really worrying. What develops in city centres and on 'sink' estates today, spreads to a neighbourhood near you tomorrow.

    I don't think attaching labels like 'gangsta' and knife or gun 'culture' to criminal behaviour is helpful. It gives the gangs a glamourous image and an excuse for their behaviour.

    Don't you worry about your sister teaching in a London school? I have nightmares about it. The alarm system in her school is linked to all the other schools in the area so that when there is an 'incident' in one school, staff in all the others go into high security alert. Kids can text their friends in other schools and the potential for organised demonstrations etc is real.

    The perception of danger is always greater than the reality but denying that there is a problem doesn't solve it.

  3. These kind of heinous crimes by children are truly heartbreaking and puzzling. But they are pretty rare statistically speaking. And the problem with them is that it is almost impossible to put everyone on a footing to be able to spot and prevent them in most cases. It's easy to see the symptoms in the children after the fact, but they are symptoms that many young people exhibit that don't go on to commit murder.

  4. I've worked with young people professionally and in voluntary organisations for 40 years. Although I spent a few years teaching in schools, I've been privileged to spend most of the time working with individuals or small groups, and have been able to listen to their hopes and their fears.

    The most worrying thing that I have seen since the early '80s, is the development of an attitude that the kids call 'hard'. It used to start when children transferred from primary to secondary school, when they quickly had to learn to conform in order to survive in the playground. There might be verbal or physical bullying involved, demands for money or goods, pressure to perform dangerous or unpleasant tasks. In order to survive, you have to hide your true feelings and show you can take it, join the tribe or take out your frustrations on someone weaker.

    Taken to extreme, 'hard' leads to the kind of incidents we have seen recently. But for the majority of children, it means never being true to yourself. It means hiding the truth from parents and teachers, who are often too busy to notice. Sadly, it is becoming evident among children as young as ten.

    This is not something I've gleaned from the headlines. I have studied it seriously and I have some ideas on how we should be addressing the problems. We have a generation of children with unprecedented health and material wealth but they are not all the happiest children who ever lived.

  5. Monix
    I'm really interested in what you say about your studies. What are your ideas for addressing the problems? Perhaps that requires another post.

  6. Adelephant
    I'm just back from addressing a group of voluntary youth workers on this very subject. If you'll bear with me for a few days I'll put a new post together.


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