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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 08:57 GMT
How schools tackle gang culture
By Hannah Goff
Education reporter, BBC News

A group of teenage girls discuss the latest hairstyles in a south London classroom. They are just like any other 13-year-olds.

But to youth counsellors Ahmet and Lee, who are there to deliver a workshop, they are all potential victims of gang culture and violent crime.

Anti-gun march
Hundreds of people marched against gun crime in Peckham

And these youth workers with crime prevention charity the Damilola Taylor Trust have far more street knowledge than the average teacher.

They are serving prisoners who have been given special dispensation by the Home Office, local police and the Southwark school to spread their anti-crime message.

As Ahmet puts it: "We've seen it, done it and worn the T-shirt. But you don't want to wear the T-shirt that we wear.

He adds: "Unfortunately, with young people nowadays there is a respect barrier.

"Most won't listen to a teacher or a policeman in a uniform telling them 'don't do this'.

"If there's someone there who has lived the life and is suffering the consequences of what they've done - it has much more impact."

Just weeks after three young people died in the gang violence that troubles some parts of south London, it seems even more important the message gets through.

Such is the sensitivity of the issue that the school involved does not wish to be named.

There was close to 100 kids and they were gang members and there was no trouble - no aggro at all
Yomi Sode
Kickstart project officer

Especially, as Ahmet explains: "Some of the students here do know the people concerned. They have boyfriends, cousins and family related."

Ahmet, who is serving a 15-year term over links to a 50m drugs deal, begins the workshop by asking the girls what they think he's been "banged up" for and how long he got.

"Drug dealing. Stabbing someone. Robbery. Murder - five years," come the excited answers.

"Five years for murder? Lovely thanks - I wish you were on my jury," he jokes.

The girls laugh, but the serious point of this exercise is to make them aware of the consequences of crime and that it does not pay.

Lee, who was jailed for eight years for his part in a 5m armed robbery foiled by police at Heathrow in 2004, tells his personal story to the girls.

Ahmet shares his experiences
Ahmet gets through to the girls by talking their own language

He describes how he and his fellow robbers thought they had got away with the heist only to find hundreds of armed police lying in wait.

"There were 80 red dots pointing on my chest. If I had made one wrong move - there would have been 80 bullets in it," he said.

Lee describes how he had always promised his son that he would never leave him.

But when the nine-year-old visited him in prison he broke his heart by saying: "Dad you lied to me - you said you would never leave me but you have."

This seems to hit home with the girls, some of whom have revealed they only have their mothers or even grandmothers living at home.

And there is a stark warning about what it's like to serve time. The girls are shown horrific images of prisoners who have been stabbed and mutilated in jail feuds.

'Come-back'

"In prison if they want you they will get you - they will cut you and if they can't cut you they will burn your skin."

Ahmet explains: "We are here to teach the girls the consequences of their actions - the ripple effect. That the ripples that go around will hit your loved ones."

And backed up by the friendly face of PC Marcus, who is stationed in the school, the project seems to be having an impact, with a 25% improvement in behaviour reported.

The nearby pupil referral units which the scheme, part of the Safer Southwark Partnership, also covers, have not had to call out PC Marcus since Christmas.

Youth worker Yomi Sode, who does crime and gang prevention work with the Kickstart project at another Southwark school, says it is vital that the wider social problem of gangs is tackled in schools.

Ahmet, PC Marcus and Lee
Ahmet and Lee never thought they would work with a police officer

"Teachers have young people at a crucial time in their lives," he says.

"But they have a lot of work on their plate and when it is so formal with the curriculum and all there is hardly any time for them to check up on a pupil to see how their day has been.

"They're just too busy."

This is why schools have to turn to organisations like his own for assistance.

'No aggro'

He suggests that giving young people more of a voice could have a good impact on pupils' behaviour in and outside school.

He recounts a recent party he and his team, this time working at the Brimington Estate in Elephant and Castle, helped young gang members to organise.

"A lot of the young people that came are affiliated to gangs. They chose the music and they held a dance competition.

"There was close to 100 kids and they were gang members and there was no trouble - no aggro at all.

"It worked well because we gave them a chance. We trusted them and we believed in them.

"They are just as human as me and you and anyone else but they've been stereotyped and labelled as gangs."

'Abhorrent crime'

But for Lee, the picture is more depressing.

He says there is a generation out there that youth workers and counsellors cannot reach.

"We have lost them. These guys that are in the gangs are off limits to us.

"What we are determined to do is start with the younger generation, the younger brothers and the younger sisters of those involved in gangs."

Yomi Sode
Youth workers use games to engage with youngsters

Southwark Council leader Nick Stanton says it is not all down to schools and youth workers.

There needs to be a step-change in how the community approaches these issues, he says.

"Schools, social services, there needs to be something done about parenting and the community taking responsibility for our children.

"We all need to think about how we do that."

But he adds: "You can whine on about lack of youth facilities but it is a bit extreme to turn around and shoot someone in the head.

"If you pick up a gun and begin shooting people in a bedroom - it's just an evil abhorrent crime."




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