Code of the playground can have tragic consequences

18th March 2016 at 00:00
We must tackle teens’ sensitivity to insults and unwillingness to tell on peers, experts urge

Teenagers’ deep aversion to “grassing” must be overcome if schools are to reduce the chances of a potentially fatal tragedy happening on their premises, experts in violence reduction have told TESS.

They have highlighted an old-fashioned sense of honour that still prevails among school pupils, which makes sudden acts of violent retribution likely if a family member is insulted by a peer.

Professionals have also warned of the danger of schools in more well-off areas becoming “complacent” about any apparent lack of violent behaviour.

They believe that the key to avoiding a repeat of the Cults Academy tragedy (see box, below) lies in training pupils to teach their peers how to speak up about violence prevention.

Christine Goodall, who works with the Medics Against Violence (MAV) scheme, which aims to teach young people about the potential consequences of aggression, said that many pupils would fear speaking up if they knew that a friend was carrying a knife, in case they were labelled as an informant.

“That’s not grassing. You owe it to your friends to be loyal to them and to tell somebody about that so that everybody can be kept safe,” said Dr Goodall, who is a surgeon specialising in facial injuries.

Another potentially harmful notion of honour among students emerged in a survey carried out by MAV: teenagers thought it was entirely acceptable to react violently if, for example, someone’s mother was insulted.

Dr Goodall noted that the mother of Bailey Gwynne, the boy who died at Cults Academy, had been insulted in the incident that led to his death. Adding a knife to that sort of “reactive anger” could create a “perfect storm”, she said.

Karyn McCluskey, director of the national Violence Reduction Unit, said the key to changing such attitudes and reducing the chances of more tragic events was for pupils to be trained to teach their peers about the consequences of violence. Messages hit home when delivered by young people in a way that teachers could not match, she added.

She highlighted Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), a scheme running in 10 Scottish local authorities and 60 schools, where senior pupils coached younger peers on how to respond to violence (see box, right).

“The majority of teachers that I work with are absolutely fantastic – they’re looking out for kids – but at the end of the day, it’s other kids you need to be training,” Ms McCluskey said. “You can’t expect teachers to know everything – there are loads and loads of things going on in kids’ lives that maybe no adult gets to hear about.”

Online networks such as Facebook and Snapchat were largely sealed off from the adult world, she added, so young people needed help to stand up and say “that’s not right” when they saw abusive behaviour online.

Out of schools’ reach

Dr Goodall has found that MAV’s anti-violence message works best when pupils can see the impact on individual lives. However, they were “desensitised” to “gory pictures” showing the consequences of violence, she said.

She has seen complacency in schools that, like Cults Academy, are in relatively affluent areas. “A lot of teachers will say, ‘We don’t have those kinds of problems in our school.’ But there may just be that one person, like the boy in Cults, who decides to come into school with a knife – so don’t be complacent.”

Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said that he would be “loath to go down any road that led to metal detectors or the frisking of kids” as a measure of preventing further tragedies.

Mr Thewliss noted that there were concerns about the boy who killed Bailey for some time before last October: “It seems that because no one had the big picture, nobody was able to intervene in the right way.”

He added that the Named Person policy – which is currently being challenged at the UK Supreme Court – was designed to ensure that someone responsible, such as a headteacher, did have that overview.


Bailey Gwynne review

A review will be held into the killing of 16-year-old Bailey Gwynne at Aberdeen’s Cults Academy last year. It will be jointly driven by Aberdeen City Council, Police Scotland and NHS Grampian, and chaired by social-work expert Andrew Lowe.

Bailey died from a knife wound to the chest in a fight on 28 October. A jury at Aberdeen’s High Court last week convicted a 16-year-old boy of culpable homicide. He was also found guilty of having a knife and knuckledusters at school, and will be sentenced at the High Court in Edinburgh on 1 April.

Peer prevention

A group of five eloquent and authoritative teenagers – all in S5 or S6 – is speaking to a first-year class. There are adults milling around, but they barely utter a word.

Some 50 older pupils at Falkirk’s Braes High School have been trained through the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) scheme. Originating in the US, it is based on the “bystander approach”: the idea that if you witness a violent incident, even if you’re not directly involved, you must do something.

The senior pupils talk about school corridors, a seemingly banal topic that is merely a starting point: if younger pupils build the skills and confidence to challenge bad behaviour in the hallways, the theory goes, they’ll be better equipped for deal with issues such as sexting, bullying and violent relationships.

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