Gangs, alas, are offering what boys need

Harriet Sergeant
Published: 19 August 2007

What are the reasons behind the spate of murders by feral gangs of youths? And can we as a society do anything about it?

For my report on the care system, I spent last year interviewing young men who, as Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said, “put a knife in their pockets as routinely as they pull on their trainers in the morning”. Drugs and alcohol are merely the symptoms of a deeper problem. Too many young men suffer from an absence of authority at home, in school and on the street. We have created a moral vacuum around our young people. We should not be surprised at how they fill it.

Young boys join gangs, they told me, because they are afraid. There is nobody else to protect them, certainly no responsible adult. “You don’t start off as a killer,” said a 19-year-old gang leader, “but you get bullied on the street. So you go to the gym and you end up a fighter, a violent person. All you want is for them to leave you alone but they push you and push you.” Another boy aged 13 explained that in his area boys “would do anything” to join a gang. If they join a gang with “a big name” people will “look at them differently, be scared of them”.

The police and the Home Office have not taken crimes against young people seriously because they do not know they are happening. The British Crime Survey, described by the Home Office on its website as “the most reliable measure of crime” does not include crimes against anyone under 16.

The Home Office admits that young men aged 16-24 are most at risk of being a victim of violent crime. But only at the beginning of this year did a Freedom of Information request to each of the 43 police forces reveal that four out of 10 muggings are committed by children under 16 – and that is only the ones reported.

How can protecting young people on the streets take priority when the Home Office does not acknowledge the number of crimes against them? It is no wonder one young gang member said, “There’s no one to look after me but me.” He is quite right.

It is the same story in the majority of inner-city schools. As a mother of a 14-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl I know that young men are a different species to the rest of us. In times of war we value their aggression, their sense of immortality, their loyalty to one another. But in peacetime they are at best a nuisance, at worst a threat.

Teenage boys need different treatment to girls to become responsible members of society. They need a role model.

When my son was about nine he became resentful of his young female teachers. He had no respect for them. He then moved to his middle school where most of his teachers were male. The change was dramatic. Suddenly it was all, “Sir says this and sir says that.” In state primary schools 80% of teachers are female.

I am lucky. I can afford to send my son to a private school. The discipline, pastoral care and academic rigour do a good job at counterbalancing parental failings. Compare his experience with that of boys in the inner cities.

Those with a chaotic family life need school to be a refuge and a contrast. Even more than middle-class boys with a stable background, they need school to provide authority, moral leadership and an outlet for their aggression. It should be giving boys what they need to thrive: discipline, sport and a group with which to identify. Instead what do they get?

My son does one to two hours of sport a day with a match on Saturday. He is so exhausted by the evening he can barely pick up a knife to eat, let alone stab anyone.

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