The knife crime and youth violence epidemic that’s sweeping the UK is a serious cause for concern – one that certainly calls for introspection and external investigation. Introspection is needed at an individual, local and institutional level. We need to know why this is happening in our communities, and that calls for real, honest reflection. Investigation and regulation are also then needed from independent third parties so that the appropriate action can be taken to reduce this awful risk facing our young people.
According to The Children’s Society’s prevention order brief, knife crime rose by 22 per cent in 2017. Ten teenagers have already lost their lives this year. We’ve seen a torrent of accusations in the media – blaming exclusions, social media, a lack of funding and gangs – the list goes on. However, the issue is far more complex than that. Factors from the wider issues of youth violence all play a part, including gangs, drug dealing, and, with that, the growing threat of "county lines".
It’s no surprise that as many as 2.2 million children across the UK are worried about crime and anti-social behaviour, and an estimated 950,000 children aged 10-17 have experienced some form of crime.
While the debate carries on and the blame game continues, lives are being lost and more young people are being enticed into a life of violence and exploitation. It’s not one person or one institution’s fault – this is a social problem that demands a response from individuals, families, schools, community organisations and government bodies working together.
Tackling knife crime
Born and raised in Moss Side and growing up in the Old Trafford area of South Manchester, I have witnessed first-hand the consequences of youth violence. I lost one of my closest friends to gun violence at a young age. Deaths like that of my friend, and the tragedies that have occupied the headlines of late, make me angry. I’m riddled with frustration and worry about what the future holds, but instead of simply weighing in on the accountability debate, I want to make a conscious effort to make a difference. I want to take action to help change the social factors that keep leading our young people down this dreadful path.
Some 12 years have passed since I began working in community youth, and during this time recurring threads have woven their way into this narrative. An absence of positive male role models, familial disunity and financial struggles come up time and time again. But what is it about these factors that creates an environment prone to knife crime and youth violence, and what action can be taken to provide a safer environment for young people?
The importance of positive role models is not a groundbreaking assessment in the context of preventing youth and knife crime, but it shouldn’t be understated. In my 12 years of working with young people, with them telling me why they have been caught up in this lifestyle, many of them have reported the lack of a positive male role model or positive male influence within their family network. This, together with the over-hyped masculine representations in the media, leads these vulnerable young people to turn elsewhere for this support. Pair this with economic hardship and the lure of the protection from older gang members and financial incentives from affiliated activities like working "county lines", and it’s easy to see how young people are drawn into this way of life.
A few months ago, I met 16-year-old Max* at a youth empowerment workshop. After outlining my own personal story and the choices I have made in my own life, I urged the attendees to surrender any weapons to me at the end of the evening. Max lingered quietly in the corner and finally, once we were alone, he asked for my support. He told me he had been dealing drugs and wanted to get out of that life. He also handed me his weapon – a knife concealed in a bag – that he forfeited on the condition of anonymity. Max then ran home. Since then, I have reconnected with Max and, through our discussions, I have learned about his financial struggles and the traps laid throughout his life.
Max’s story demonstrates how interconnected each of these factors are and paints a larger and more accurate picture of youth violence in the UK. It’s insight like this that sheds light on why this issue is so difficult to overcome.
It’s not all doom and gloom. For every victim of youth violence and knife crime, there are many more success stories. Stories of young people, like Max, who are hungry for support and filled with gratitude, and have changed their course to either overcome or avoid this violence and exploitation. It’s these stories that should make us hopeful and keep us moving forward.
Within my current role at my school and as an ambassador for Moss Side, a community guardian and an anti-social behaviour champion for Manchester City Council, I have integrated education and awareness of these issues for all pupils and educators. We’ve encouraged an open dialogue to ensure that young people feel comfortable asking questions and seeking help if they need it and, in my opinion, this should be the basis of any effective safeguarding measures and pastoral care.
Thankfully, I’m in a position to help young people like Max, who is now applying for apprenticeship schemes. I urge anyone reading this to gain the knowledge that will empower them to also offer support. This can include connecting with local organisations or local youth clubs – for example, Community on Solid Ground – or undertaking safeguarding training courses such as those provided by EduCare, which has tailored content through partnerships with The Children’s Society.
These tactics aside, we also need community-driven approaches that stop stigmatising young people – those who are affected by, and at risk of, knife crime and youth violence need an empathetic, non-judgemental audience. We need to invest in youth services, social care, and extracurricular activities that can help to educate, support and rehabilitate young people, and we need to create training and employment opportunities to improve employment rates and get young people off the streets.
Addressing complex issues like youth violence is never an easy task, especially when they are fuelled by numerous social factors, but it’s time to support the ongoing debate with action that can effect positive change. A concerted effort needs to be made to divert young people away from the toxic environments that breed knife crime and youth violence and invite them into nurturing safe spaces that meet their basic needs. Achieving this involves an awareness of risk factors and a solid armour of safeguarding strategies, but disseminating this knowledge to all levels of society is key. Remembering that there is strength in numbers, I think it’s time we worked together, in unity, and brought an end to this violence.
*Max is a pseudonym