It's about respect

by Pamela Stirling / 04 November, 2006

It is becoming a spine-chilling spring ritual: the senseless stabbing of young New Zealanders. A year ago, a 15-year-old was stabbed to death by another 15-year-old outside a badminton hall in Hamilton. Last Sunday, a year almost to the day, it was a 14-year-old schoolboy who, on a warm, rainy Labour weekend evening, had his life extinguished in a random knife attack outside a church event in Avondale.

There have been plenty of other victims; including a 16-year-old teenager, who in October last year was left paralysed on one side and unable to talk. And the death of a 17-year-old just weeks ago from a baseball-bat attack while walking through the Otara town centre.

How it is it that we have allowed the safety of teenagers to be so grievously eroded?

Many commentators this week would have us believe that poverty is responsible for the alarming increase in youth violence. There's a glaring flaw in that argument: for one thing this country is experiencing record low unemployment. And violent offending is still far more rarely perpetrated by females, yet women are poorer than men.

Violence is often attributed to low self-esteem. In fact, the opposite is true: the biggest thugs often have the biggest egos. And the common excuse that young people are "easily led" doesn't wash: how many are easily led into joining the debating club or doing the lawns?

But policies like lowering the drinking age for teenagers have been disastrous - setting the scene for out-of-control behaviour in riots this year from Otago University to Mt Maunganui. And by failing to set boundaries on computer games we have provided training simulators for violent attacks. We have used these desensitising devices as a convenient form of childcare. And we are then shocked at the propensity to stab and wound.

Add in hip-hop culture and many teens are exposed to an explosive mix. New Zealand's most prominent gangsta rapper, a former King Cobra member who raps under the name of Ermehn, likes to blame youth problems on poor parenting, youth boredom and a weak justice system. All true. But isn't it just a little disingenuous for someone who menacingly points two guns at visitors to his website to then express concern about the use of weapons on our streets? This is an angry, profane and violent culture and it is entirely understandable that Ermehn doesn't let his own 10-year-old listen to the music. "I let him listen to the positive stuff; the radio-friendly stuff." Terrific.

But the obsession in hip-hop culture with respect and the willingness to engage in retaliation for any slight are not actually unlike politics. And if parliamentarians can be pulled up on every manila-folder misdemeanour, so should the police enforce zero-tolerance policies on young New Zealanders. There have to be robust and consistent consequences for everything from graffiti to burglary and violence. This is not to promote criminalisation; simply strong consequences. In Britain, there are now anti-social-behaviour orders; where curfews, for example, can be imposed. Although civil liberties must be guarded, a safe society is a government's first priority. It's about respect.

That starts with good parenting - school-based programmes are a superb move. And it needs a strong police presence. This year South Auckland has had one of the worst police-to-population ratios in the country. That's nothing short of criminal.

The government must honour its promise not only to provide police but also the resources for schools to target the increasing behavioural problems. The irony of the tolerance of abusive pupils in schools is that the minute they step into the adult workplace and address their workmates in the way they do teachers and other teenagers, they'll be out on the footpath before you can say "harassment".

But if ever we needed a reminder of the good-hearted and courageous nature of most teenagers in this country, it came on a news items about the death of the Avondale teenager. A boy called Walter, a friend of the victim, in a display of manners that would make any parent proud, thanked the security guard and all the adults who had helped after the death of his friend Manaola. And he had one other poignant thing to say to a boy he had never met before that fatal night: "I want to thank the other guy who got stabbed for helping me and Mana."

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