Getting away with murder

13th January 2012 at 00:00

At the end of term, I saw a group of Year 9 girls cackling conspiratorially over a computer screen. Assuming they were up to no good, I peered over their shoulders and found the culprit to be the Twitter feed of two adult, female celebrities, neither worth naming here. They were either embroiled in a serious online spat or a contest to prove which one was most unpleasant, unimaginative and thick. Among the more decipherable insults they traded were "fat fucking bitch" and "dicksucking ho".

"Which one of those do you think is the biggest slag, Miss?" asked Really Quite Nice Girl A. "Don't talk like that," I said, "especially about other women. It makes you sound as horrible as them." Really Quite Nice Girl B rolled her eyes and said, "I can't wait to get older so I can get away with saying what I want, too."

A couple of weeks later, nearly 19 years after the event, two of the men accused of killing Stephen Lawrence are finally sentenced. I imagine this is being discussed in classrooms across the country. Judging from the reaction of the kids I teach, there is not really much of a sense that justice has been done. They are too jaded by years of depressing news to be particularly angry, too accustomed to tales of miscarriages of justice to be particularly aroused. The question they ask is, "How did the murderers get away with it for so long?"

This is incredibly difficult to answer. But for me, kids cackling over Twitter catfights and asking earnest questions about too-long-unsolved crime both highlight the insidious nature of the concept of Getting Away With It. In an unpleasant and unnatural reversal of nature, young people are associating the concept with adulthood, rather than the other way around.

Adulthood was once aspired to because you could get a car and choose your own bedtime - but it was nonetheless still associated with responsibility and leaving behind teenage idiocy. Now it is increasingly seen, certainly by the teenagers I teach, as a big playground in which you can Get Away With almost anything.

So much of the culture kids are exposed to today is not about taking responsibility but about avoiding it. Actor coked to the eyeballs assaults a woman? A psychotic reaction to his "medication". Politician caught trousering expenses to refurbish a palatial country home? People are just jealous and should get over it. Anyone who believes that these examples do not trickle down to every kid in every classroom is a fool.

Most of the kids I teach were appalled by last summer's riots. But many were also stung by what they saw as the hypocrisy of David Cameron's "we won't let them get away with it" stance on the looters when the MPs in the expenses scandal "got away" far more lightly for stealing a hell of a lot more of "it". There is a suspicion among my students that MPs' remorse and the scramble to pay money back was more like attrition than atonement.

In our Christmas pantomime, our thoroughly game headteacher played Santa and distributed sweets from his sack to the students. An hour in, he realised that some teenage Scrooge had stolen his sack - meaning no more sweets for the rest. Whoever took it deserves to be pelted hard with Quality Street - but I bet when he or she was doing so they thought, "While everyone's onstage and nobody's looking, I'll get away with it."

Chloe Combi teaches at a comprehensive in London.

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