An obfuscation of obligations

If fights were to break out every year at a specific football match, and these fights were to become progressively more dangerous until the point that one year someone died, we would expect heads to roll in the boardroom of the company in charge. Subsequently, if the appointed heads of that organisation had the audacity to say ‘it is not our job to police people after the game has finished and they have left the grounds’, I think it is fair to say that the leading voices in that organisation would find their next day trip would be to the job centre and future football matches would run the risk of being banned. Therefore when we find patterns of violence in a group of students who, over the past three years, have shown escalating disregard for the safety of their peers and the general public, culminating in the stabbing and death of a young man, should we not be asking questions of the head of that particular educational institution, and should they not say more than ‘it is not our job’?

The first stabbing I witnessed was during a street fight in Sutton High Street. Nobody knew that there was a knife present until a yelp was heard and a young man dropped to the floor. I was around 18 years old but this wasn’t the first or last time that I would be affected by knife violence. At around the age of 19, one of my best friends was stabbed multiple times in the West End of London and almost died. It changed him for the worse and made me think differently about how I should protect myself in the future. Over the next three to four years I witnessed multiple stabbings and a shooting. The most relevant situation to the one I am choosing to involve myself in now was at my college in Carshalton when a young man was stabbed in the car park. He fortunately survived, but the very next day there were undercover police and metal detectors at my college. It was too long ago to be precise, but at least one student was arrested when police positioned around the college found a blade on him.

Late in the afternoon on Friday 2nd November 2018 I was working in my office, which is positioned across the road from Clapham South underground station. I saw the usual crowd of students around the bus stop and tube station, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Maybe a little extra hustle and bustle, but nothing too dissimilar from a regular weekday. That was until the Police cars and Ambulances started to arrive. Police quickly cordoned off part of the road, and passers-by stopped to see what was the cause. On this junction in Clapham South, it isn’t rare to have traffic accidents as the cycle highway runs straight through the main intersection. However, it became apparent very quickly that this wasn’t a traffic incident. As I stood outside my office with a clear sight to the station I could see police extending the taped-off sections of the roads. There was no longer a doubt in my mind that someone had been seriously injured, or worse. A family whose son was friends with my four-year-old daughter at a local nursery stopped to talk to me. They are both doctors and told me that a boy had been stabbed and not only had they both witnessed the aftermath of the incident, but they had also helped to try and save the victim’s life. Despite their valiant efforts, the teenager was pronounced dead in hospital at 5:23 pm.

Stabbings are not rare in London, and this was the 115th homicide in the capital this year. What angers me the most about this tragedy is that there were warning signs and patterns that were either ignored or not taken seriously by the college that this young man attended. Every year, between the half-term break and just after bonfire night there are elevated levels of anger and criminal activity on the 100-meter strip of high street by Clapham South underground station. This is not an over exaggeration or oversimplification, and this log of events should show this to be true. Three years ago on the days leading up to bonfire night, there were incidents of students from the local college setting off fireworks in the street and from my office window I observed fights breaking out which I personally intervened in. This was throughout a period of a week or so, and sadly this was the mildest of the years leading up to the tragedy on 2nd November 2018. Two years ago it was fireworks again, except this time the students were aiming them at each other like a wand-waving scene from a Harry Potter movie. The young granddaughter of one of my customers was almost caught in the crossfire and I had to pick her up and run her out of the line of fire. She was less than a meter away from being struck by a firework. I shudder to think what would have happened to that beautiful young girl had she been stood a few steps to her left. Also that year a firework struck a car belonging to a friend of mine. The young men jumped in their car and sped off down the road as my friend and I left my office to confront the assailants. Again, this incident happened just after school hours when a crowd of 40-60 students were on the high street. Last year saw another escalation, fireworks were fired from one side of the high street to the other, a mother was almost hit whilst pushing her child in her buggy and tempers flared beyond their typical levels. I intervened in the two fistfights I saw – of course, there were others incidents that I didn’t witness which locals reported but I would like to be consistent and only report on what I personally witnessed. Things took a darker twist a few days after the second fight I saw. As usual, the students were leaving the school and everything seemed to be normal. I finished shopping in the Sainsbury’s across the road from my office and a crowd began to gather. The talking turned into shouting and then things became very heated, extremely quickly. As I got closer I realised that it was an argument between two girls. I worked through the crowd to try and calm things down and one of the girls brandished a knife. Quickly the group jumped back and the two girls separated. The girl with the knife moved away from the scene quickly with her friends and was not seen again that day. This year a young man was stabbed to death, again between the hours of 15:30 and 17:00, again on the short strip of high street in Clapham south and between the beginning of the half term break and fireworks night.

The students at the college are generally a healthy mix of energetic and confident with a disproportionate percentage of them being extroverts, so it’s common for people to misinterpret the loud, brash communicating for aggression but I believe their demeanour to be essentially that of a peacock fanning its feathers in an attempt to garner attention. Yes, the students are annoying as a business owner when I have to ask them to step away from my shop doors so that clients can get through, or when they lean on our advertisement boards, but 99% of the time if you ask politely they will apologise and move on.

Even though I believe that the incidents I have cited are the direct fault of the people committing the action, I think it is quite clear to see that there is a recognisable pattern. It is a pattern that wouldn’t exist if it were not for the college being open. So it is for this reason that I believe that the college has an obligation to take steps to ensure the safety of its students and the local community.

When I first put my opinion forward to the college, it was in the form of a letter that was signed by other business owners in our little high street. It was a request for more to be done to stop the disturbances during the time that we all assumed is the end of the school day for the students. We wrote this letter in November 2015, the response that we received was at best lacking in compassion. Fortunately as tends to happen the closer we got to Christmas, the fewer issues we had. The next year I decided to make my concerns more public and personally wrote a letter and Tweeted @ the college (the twitter account has since been deleted and replaced with a new handle). I made three suggestions at the time.

1) Stagger the school leaving time for pupils so that crowds were less likely to form

2) Take a security member of staff from the front gate of the school and move them to the high street

3) Either the Head Teacher or some of the senior staff stand around the high street during the hours of 15:30 and 17:00.

The response that I received read somewhere along the lines of ‘it is not our job to look after students after hours’ and ‘all students and parents sign behavioural agreements’. This seemed to me to be an attempt at washing their hands of the situation. I can’t imagine that the powers that be don’t care about the safety of the students, and from the conversations that I have had with teachers in the college, I am convinced that they are amongst the most passionate and committed individuals that I have ever come across. This leads me to believe that it wasn’t lack of compassion for the students involved that led to this tragedy. The powers that be either felt that they were actually responding to the situation suitably, which was a fatal misjudgement, or they miscalculated the potential severity of the situation to an ultimately fatal degree.

To the college’s credit, they have had a security presence from time to time on the high street and the Head Teacher has also been present, but when it is needed most, in a time that has historically been more troublesome than any other time of year, why was more not done?

Although I am a firm believer that we are all responsible for our own actions and a child’s behaviour has more to do with their family environment than an educational institution, I also believe that if patterns of violence in and around a college can be identified then it is the college’s responsibility to take suitable steps to mitigate those risks. Maybe, as I keep on hearing ‘the police wouldn’t have been able to stop it’. Maybe, as a few have said ‘they would just do it somewhere else’, but so far there is little or no evidence of that, and the opposite seems to hold true. Whenever a representative from the college is visible on the high street, crowds dissipate at a faster rate and students tend to be less rowdy.

Unfortunately, it is too late for Malcolm Mide-Madariola. NHS doctors are now being reported saying that school-leaving times should be staggered to help mitigate instances of violence. We will have to wait to see if this will have any effect on the waves of criminality that we are experiencing in and around schools. I may join those doctors in being wrong; It may not make the slightest iota of difference, but if we are to treat these situations with the seriousness that we can all agree that we should, then trying something new that could help seems a more appropriate action than defending something that is proving to do nothing.




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