The recent riots in the UK make us ask questions. Could it happen here? What disturbances do we have on the street? And what can schools and parents do to stop them?
Kids are huge consumers of TV, movies and video games. They mirror much of that behaviour when they go on the street. More and more Australian schools are worried about kids in trouble on the street, though they are reluctant to admit it.
Schools call in professionals to help keep kids out of trouble. One such is Trent Southworth, who runs the Teen Strategies Group in Sydney. He now works with schools to help them manage kids’ out-of-school behaviour and keep them out of trouble. He speaks at a large range of State and private schools in Sydney and other areas of NSW, mainly high schools.
The first problem, Trent says, is the growing use of knives. He surveyed four high schools, State and private. He found a third of pupils said they had been threatened with a knife or seen a knife used on the street. Eight per cent said they had brought a knife to school on one or more occasions.
In State Parliament House in Melbourne, many adolescents scanned by a machine were found carrying knives. It seems likely that kids were just carrying a knife in their bag as they often do when going to school. It makes you wonder if we will copy US practice and start screening kids for knives at school.
Most kids carry a knife “in case I get into trouble”. They don’t realize this can have very serious consequences. First, if found carrying a knife in a public they can be fined – up to $550 in NSW. Second, if they pull it out and threaten someone, they can be charged with a criminal offence. Third, if they throw it away it can be picked up and used by a friend and the knife-carrier can then be charged. Or fourth, they could stab someone, with criminal consequences.
Trent speaks at parent evenings to teach parents about the dangers of being on the street unsupervised. Sadly, from a school of 1,000 kids, only 30 or 40 parents attend such a night. Some schools answer this problem by insisting that parents attend most parent education sessions.
These problems are not limited to Sydney. Kids in a country town have just a small pool of friends and acquaintances. There aren’t many options for kids, and the weekend doesn’t offer much more than the pub and a few games of footy. Some parents are struggling with running a farm and a business. But one country school principal said Many parents want the kid out of the house. They will pay money to the child to roam the street on a Friday night – AND we are talking about twelve year old girls.
A second problem is still alcohol. It’s everywhere. Almost every movie features it. It’s plastered all over football and other games. Kids see parents do it. And it’s all over the net. Eastern Suburbs Command of the NSW Police Force warn that teenagers using fake ID to buy alcohol risk heavy fines. Clearly it’s a common problem.
Drugs are the next priority issue. Many kids smoke, and smoking a cigarette often leads on to smoking marijuana. Even that can be risky enough for an adolescent. From there, a kid can easily graduate to the hard stuff. They all want to fit in, to look good, to be ‘grown up’ like the notorious celebrities who are often described as heavy drug users.
Another issue is graffiti. It’s illegal for under 18s to buy spray cans but they’re easy to get from an older mate, according to Eastern Suburbs Command. A kid copies other kids who have put their tag somewhere. Kids, especially boys, want to take risks, says Mark Rix of the Catholic Education Office Sydney.
There are differences according to the wealth and culture of families. My Chinese friend Neil says the difference between Asian and Western kids is that the former are driven to seek a better and brighter future. And they are driven by their parents, as the “Tiger Mother”, Amy Chua, has explained.
Finally, many kids are waging or jigging school. Police say that they often speak to kids and ask why they’re not at school. But it’s easy to find school age kids smoking and hanging round in shopping malls in school time. Nobody seems to interfere with them.
Rix says that when kids are absent from a Catholic school, a text message is sent to their parents. But kids leave school at 3 (or earlier in some cases) and no adult comes home till 6 or 7pm. Too often, kids just wander round in the afternoons with mates looking for something to do.
This is the most unsupervised generation of kids we’ve ever seen, says Rix. Kids used to be kept in place by fathers and mothers, churches, schools and a fairly tightly-knit community. As I reported in Fathers, Sons and Lovers, a book about how Australian men have changed since the 1930s. Those of us who grew up in the fifties and earlier under those tight controls can’t understand today’s free-ranging kids. Today, as we saw in London’s riots, risk taking is an adventure, and consequences are slow to arrive. Parents often seem overwhelmed and won’t persist with the hard work of keeping adolescents in line.
Parents must be more aware of what goes on out of school hours. They should do more to help kids use their time productively, rather than search aimlessly on the net or wander down the street with friends looking for whatever comes along. They need to be doing more: home chores, sport, music or hobbies.
It all adds up to more headaches for busy school administrators. But unless schools enlist parents to help them and face the hard facts of what happens on the street, we seem likely to go further down the path that leads to the riots we’ve seen on TV. And the worst excesses of American schooling.