Jessica Tunks is a sixth form student from Walthamstow, east London. The following article was awarded the 2020 Orwell Youth Prize, described by the judges as “a powerful piece about knife crime, written from personal experience”.
I live Walthamstow, an area that has often been associated with violent crime, and was once even described as “WARTHAMSTOW” by The Sun. But while it’s easy for people on social media to call the perpetrators of these crimes “animals”, sometimes encouraging “lethal injection” as punishment, it’s different when you go to school with them.
I know people who have been stabbed. I know people who have lost loved ones to knife crime. I also know people who carry knives. They are not animals. They are not monsters. They are children. Children should not be killing other children. So why does it happen? As my friend Hani* put it, “No one cares.”
Hani’s half-brother Ali has been described as a “knife-wielding thug” in an article reporting the offence, a non-fatal stabbing, that landed him 13 years in prison. While nothing can excuse his actions, what the article fails to mention is Ali’s absent father, schizophrenic mother, and the fact that he was excluded from school in Year 9, and never returned.
“I don’t know what you get from excluding a 14 year old. In school you’re safe, you’re not safe on road,” Hani says, expressing a disappointment in the system she believes failed her brother. It appears that as soon as the school was rid of Ali, after excluding him for persistent disruptive behaviour, they lost all interest, and offered him no further support. At 14 years old, Ali was barely a teenager, and yet was left to fend for himself in a world that, as a young, Black boy from a working class family, offered him little guidance and help.
In 2017-2018, 7,905 children were permanently excluded from school in England, and this number was the highest we’ve seen in a decade. Of these children, 78 percent have been identified as those that fall under the Special Educational Needs, Free School Meals or “in need” categories, showing that school exclusion policies often impact the children most in need of the school’s support.
The “schools-to-prison pipeline” describes the disproportionate tendency for young people, like Ali, from disadvantaged backgrounds to become incarcerated, and the evidence supporting it is overwhelming. Of 15 to 17-year-olds in Young Offender Institutions, 86 percent of young men and 74 percent of young women have been excluded at some point during their education. Half of them have literacy levels of seven to 11-year-olds, despite being much older – a sign of how much education they have missed.
Ali’s history of exclusion began in primary school, when he first began behaving disruptively, but Hani believes the story started well before this.
She describes how their father was never there for Ali, and how, having always lacked a positive male role model, he ended up making friends with “the wrong boys”. She tells me stories about how, from the age of seven, Ali would find himself being woken up in the middle of the night by a frantic mother, who did not recognise him, before being thrown out onto the street. As children, we often turn to our parents when we are in trouble, or need guidance. For children like Ali, raised by a single parent with severe mental health issues, this isn’t always possible. With no alternative support system, it would have been easy for him to feel alienated and ignored.
As Hani unravels Ali’s story, he began to appear less like a “knife-wielding thug” and more like a deeply traumatised teenage boy who did something terrible. What we experience as children shapes us for the rest of our lives, and research suggests up to 90 percent of young offenders have experienced maltreatment or loss. Here, a disturbing pattern begins to show, and it is impossible not to wonder: if there had been some form of intervention earlier on, how many of these crimes could have been prevented?
At 16, Ali ended up in a Young Offender Institute for his involvement in a stabbing. Richard Garside from the Centre of Crime and Justice Studies described YOIs as “grim and gruesome institutions”. He described visiting one and seeing blood in the showers, rats in the cells and solitary confinement cells that were entirely bare, apart from a blanket on the floor. He also explained how the Ministry of Justice permits officers to use techniques described as child abuse by the Independent Inquiry into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse.
A Chief Inspector’s report in 2017 concluded that “there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people.” How can we justify continuing to keep children in these conditions?
During his time in the YOI, Ali was stabbed, sustaining serious internal injuries that left him needing constant medical attention. But violence doesn’t only leave physical scars. Victims of violence are six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and three times more likely to suffer from depression. These mental illnesses are likely to stay with them for life.
Two years after being held in a YOI, Ali committed the knife crime, and ended up in an adult prison, where he remains to this day.
At no point in Ali’s life was there any intervention from any support groups, despite all the trauma the family had experienced. Where were social services? The local authority? The child and adolescent mental health services?
It seems that as soon as a child leaves the school system, it is very easy for them to fall off the radar, even if they are the ones in need of the most support. Research has repeatedly highlighted that early intervention can help prevent violence in the future, and yet educational, domestic violence and mental health services have all had their budgets cut in recent years.
Stories like Ali’s can’t just be throwaway headlines in newspapers, they need to be lessons for us. The main aim of the youth justice system is to prevent the offending of children and young people. The youth justice system isn’t working. Incidents of violent crime have been on the rise since 2013, with 2019 seeing a 19 percent increase on the previous year. We need change. And change is possible.
In 2004, after struggling for years with high levels of youth violence and gang crime, Scotland introduced a Violence Reduction Unit that took on a public health approach to violence. Violence was no longer a police issue, tackled with high visibility policing or more officers. It became a community issue, tackled with empathy, health visitors, and early years provision. Between 2004 and 2019, the country saw a dramatic decline in violent crime and school exclusions.
One of the many success stories of the VRU comes from the Easterhouse area of Glasgow. In 2007, a Community Initiative to Reduce Violence was established. They introduced a case management team involving people from education, social work, police, community safety and housing services. This team had a 24-hour hotline that dealt with calls from young people with links to gang crime, and provided them with support. Referral sessions were held, in which young people heard from different voices in the community, such as police officers, doctors, mothers of victims, youth workers, and previous offenders. People with seemingly little in common came together under one goal: ending violence in their community. In the first two years of the CIRV, violent offending had decreased by 46 percent and gang fighting by 73 percent. School exclusions dropped by 85 percent. But the benefits of the CIRV extended well beyond the gang members themselves. The number of tenants satisfied with the area as a place to live rose by 21 percent, and those not feeling safe at night fell by 22 percent. This is just one of many case studies that give evidence of the VRU’s success.
The ten-year plan implanted by the VRU across the country focused on three types of intervention: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary intervention sought to prevent the onset of violence. For Ali, this would have meant supporting him and his family, making sure they always had somewhere to go for support. Secondary intervention sought to halt the progression of violence once established. For Ali, this would have meant identifying his aggressive behaviour when it started developing in school, and helping him instead of excluding him. Tertiary intervention sought to rehabilitate people with violent behaviour, or victims of violence. For Ali, this would have meant supporting him with his mental health and his future after he left the YOI, to ensure he wouldn’t offend again.
It’s too late for Ali now. But it’s not too late for the many children who are currently in similar situations. Youth violence is tearing apart families all over the country, but stories from Scotland have shown us that the motto of the VRU is true: “violence is preventable, not inevitable”. We can do better. We must do better. Every time a life is taken in this way, two families lose a child. We owe it to them to build a future that ensures stories like Ali’s are never heard again.
*Names have been changed.