A flash of temper in the playground can wreck a child's career prospects. Steven Hastings reports on an initiative to raise pupil awareness of the long-term consequences of lashing out.
Catherine, a 16-year-old from Nottinghamshire, has always been clear about what she wants when she leaves school: to work with children. But her hopes of becoming a nursery nurse were destroyed when an argument outside her school ended in violence. "I was with my friend and these girls were calling us names. My friend went over to them and it turned into a fight. She was shouting at me to help, and in the end I joined in. I threw a couple of punches, that was all."
Catherine was convicted of common assault and ordered to pay compensation and serve a community penalty. But, more significantly, having been found guilty of a violent offence against someone under 18, she was classified as a schedule one offender (see box, page 27). A walk-on part in a teenage dispute automatically put her in the same category as murderers, rapists and child abusers.
The compensation has been paid, the community penalty almost worked off. But the schedule one status will be with Catherine for the rest of her life. It's a label that makes it almost impossible for her to find work with children. "I knew nothing about schedule one," she says. "I had no idea that getting caught up in one fight could affect the rest of my life."
This widespread ignorance of the law - shared by many teachers and parents - has prompted the Mansfield and Ashfield youth offending team to launch a campaign aimed at giving young people the facts about schedule one. If Only I Had Known is the title of an assembly that Kieran Lee, of the Mansfield and Ashfield team, has been delivering to local schools. "That's the refrain I hear time and again from young people convicted of violence," he says. " That's how most of them feel when they learn that schedule one status can put an end to hopes of a career in teaching or medicine - or even helping out with local child-minding or sports coaching."
A group of Year 11 pupils at Kirkby College in Ashfield were so motivated by what they learned during Mr Lee's visit that they decided to help spread the message. As part of their GCSE coursework, they designed a leaflet to help get the facts across to others.
Nottinghamshire police and Mansfield council took the project a stage further, paying for 15,000 copies of the leaflet to be produced and sent to every local secondary pupil. Pupils at Kirkby College feel strongly about the issue, and genuinely hope their leaflet will make a difference.
"We don't tell anyone how to behave. We just present the facts, in words people of our age can understand," says 16-year-old Gary Lappage. "Then they can make informed choices. There will always be a hard core who won't listen. But most young people do care about their future - even if they pretend not to."
The leaflet's message is blunt, using language designed to make teenagers sit up and take note. "Keep your cool," it urges, "or you could screw up your future."
"The law is stupid," says Kirkby pupil Claire Banner. "It's wrong that people should pay for one mistake for the rest of their lives." Others agree. "If an adult hits a child," says eborah Olko, "you could argue they are a danger to children. But if one teenager hits another, that's part of growing up. Most people get into a bit of a fight at some point."
Not that the pupils at Kirkby feel their generation is any more prone to violence than previous ones. "That's just lazy stereotyping," says Lisa Newton. "I don't think young people today are more violent, but I do think they are more image-conscious. Most problems arise because of an inability to back down."
Kieran Lee agrees. "Before I took this job I used to think violent offenders were 16-year-old lads, skinheads with drug problems, carrying weapons. But the reality is different. Most of them are perfectly ordinary youngsters. Maybe they're having a bad day. Then someone says or does something that upsets them. They might hit out once - just a slap or a kick. But that's enough.
"And the chances of ending up in court are much higher than 20 or 30 years ago. Parents who encourage their children to hit back aren't doing them any favours. Our message is that a split second can change your life forever."
A young person who hits out once in the heat of the moment will be treated more leniently by the courts than a repeat offender who makes calculated attacks. But both will attract schedule one status. "It's not the sentence that's important," says Kieran Lee. "It's the label. Schedule one status makes no distinction between someone involved in a playground scuffle and someone who is a genuine danger to others."
"If only I had known" may be a common lament, but does a knowledge of the law really make young people more likely to walk away from playground provocation? The evidence suggests it might. The Mansfield and Ashfield youth offending team says every school it has visited has seen a substantial fall in the number of violent incidents. One school reported 18 cases of violence in the six months before the visit and just four in the following six months.
As one Kirkby teacher points out, the success of the initiative lies in its appeal to self-interest. "Moralising about it and saying 'it's wrong to use violence' doesn't work. Most children who resort to violence feel they are justified - if they've been called names or whatever. But if you point out how much they themselves could suffer - that has real impact."
Copies of the leaflet are available from the Mansfield and Ashfield YOT, Dale Close, Chesterfield Road South, Mansfield, Notts NG19 7AQ
LABELLED FOR LIFE
Schedule one status aims to protect children by highlighting offenders who may pose a continuing threat to young people. It stems from the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act, which details a range of violent and sexual offences which, if committed against a person under 18 are known as "schedule one offences", regardless of the perpetrator's age.
This is never wiped from the record. Anyone applying for a job involving work with children is subject to an automatic police check. If this reveals schedule one status, the employer will be alerted. The most common offence on the schedule one list is violence against the person.
Almost one in four violent offences is committed against someone under 18. In most of these cases the offender is also under 18.