What's in your locker?

30th June 2006 at 01:00
They say you can tell the state of a woman's mind by the contents of her handbag. In that case, mine says I'm trying to hold onto organisation, have a sweet tooth, too many lipsticks for one lifetime, a penchant for shiny silver items, a fetish for Post-it notes and an eclectic pen selection.

Spot on then.

Yet not, one hopes, as bad as the pupils I teach. Their bags and lockers are no-go zones that I try not to get close to unless absolutely necessary.

Occasionally, I march them off for locker inspection. Amazing what they cram in and how immune to smell they are. Socks stiff with sweat, halves of jacket potatoes, odd training shoes. Why only ever one? "It's Connor's, Miss", as if that's a perfectly rational explanation.

I wear latex gloves. They snap on with a reassuring sound of authority, sending a clear signal that I'm going right to the back of the locker. My form collectively groans. I open bin bags with an expectant air. There is no escape.

Hopefully, they won't ask to see my locker. At the last check it had half a plastic bottle of pale blue liquid on which I had written "poison", three different types of cough medicine and a bright yellow cycling cape from Disney with a huge Mickey Mouse emblazoned on the back. No, I don't know why either.

However, I wouldn't go through bags or blazers - and never trouser pockets (oh, the horror!) without their consent. Yet a proposed measure contained in the violent crime reduction Bill about to complete its final stages in Parliament suggests that teachers should be given powers, albeit voluntary, to frisk pupils suspected of carrying knives.

Stop and search in the classroom. Isn't it dangerous enough when conducted by the police? A legal affairs spokesman says that taking a knife from a 14-year-old can be extremely dangerous. Tell me something I don't know. How will we know what constitutes "reasonable grounds for carrying a weapon"? Bulges in clothing? Hoodies up? Furtive attitude? Odd walk? That's most adolescent males. At least we're to be spared strip-searching, as this will be forbidden. Let's be grateful for small mercies.

This Bill will see sentences for carrying a weapon that serves "no peaceful purpose" increased. When did "weapon" and "peaceful" go together? Have they become a 21st century oxymoron that reflects our violent times?

Why do some politicians and sections of the media delight in making our schools seem like war zones? Is it really true that 60,000 children aged 11 to 16 years carried knives in 2004 as the British Crime Survey alleges and that most are carrying weapons for protection and defence? What is real are the 18,000 weapons that have been handed in during a 10-week knife amnesty, according to Home Office figures. These include, wait for it, an anti-tank rocket launcher. It's also true that more than half of all children excluded from school carry weapons, as the Youth Justice Board claims.

These weapons are carried as a response to anger and hatred with no thought for the consequences.

Giving us training and instruction in children carrying weapons won't change knife culture. Yet again the Government looks to our education system to tackle a serious problem, rather than deal with the root cause within society. Yes, I want us all, pupils and staff, to be safe in our schools and on the streets, but the questions to which the answers don't yet appear to be found haven't been asked. Why are so many children armed? Of what are they afraid? Why do they think knifing someone is the solution?

I watch my young nephew with his games console gleefully blowing up aliens, bodies and blood flying everywhere. I ask if he'd do that to a friend. "It's OK Auntie Julie, 'cos they just get back up and fight again, it doesn't hurt for long". Yet as Kiyan Prince and his family know only too well, you don't get back up again; you bleed to death at the gates of your London secondary school.

Thankfully, such tragedies are still rare and searches tend to be surreal rather than dangerous. The weirdest item I've found in a locker to date is a Tupperware box of live fish. I use the word "live" advisedly. Most were floating at the top of the inch of water they'd been left to flounder in, gasping for air. "Fish don't need air, Miss, they live in water!" yelled Kieran when I said they were suffocating. Two survived. I kept them in my classroom and the pupils named them Beckham and Little Fish. Little Fish ate Beckham. As I told the form, life can be unpredictable and cruel sometimes.

Julie Greenhough teaches in a London boys' school

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