How can schools identify those most at risk?
In previous blogs I have outlined the evolution of “Beyond The Gate” – our school based response to the societal challenges of youth violence. Here, blog 4 of the series, I will outline the approach that we have developed to help identify those students who are considered most at risk.
A Research Informed Approach
‘Connecting The Dots’
Any school will:
- Know its students as individuals
- Their family history and dynamics
- Their influences and peers
- The community it serves and,
- Its own pastoral & academic data.
This 5 considerations place schools perfectly to identify risk factors and inform early identification – another key element to reducing risk.
This criterion is by no means exhaustive, but it seeks to highlight a number of key areas of understanding that are particularly relevant within a school context. When connected, a series of apparently unrelated factors can significantly point to an increase in risk.
All schools should have an awareness of what is happening within the communities that they serve and the risks or impacts that this may have on their students.
It is essential that schools have updated knowledge on the family composition of each student. Factors such as, for instance, father deficit, known family links to gangs or involvement with police heighten the risk factors.
3. Peers & Influencers
Monitoring of friendship groups and/or changes to these can be an early indicator of heightened risk.
Changes in behaviour can sometimes reflect student experiences outside school. For example changes in boys around Year 9 such as increased defiance and aggression could be signs of heightened risk. Within girls, this tends to manifest itself later, usually in Years 10 or 11, and can be evident through sexually risky behaviours.
For some students, they are drawn to gang involvement in response to needing a sense of belonging and acceptance. Identifying those students who are on the margins of the school community can be an early indicator of heightened risk.
6. Cultural Deviance
As with marginalisation, those students who do not necessarily conform to their cultural “norm” can also be an indicator.
7. Child Sexual Exploitation
One common feature of gang behaviour is sexual exploitation, particularly of girls and those most vulnerable. Those students who have a history or demonstrate risky or highly sexualised behaviours should be considered highly vulnerable and at risk of such exploitation.
Schools are well placed to monitor attendance. Short periods of unexplained absences could be an indication of County Lines involvement, whilst regular truancy and poor attendance could suggest a heightened risk. Beware of exclusions as these could fuel a rise in gang membership.
10. Drill Music
So-called ‘Drill Music’ is used by gangs to make threats towards other gangs or boast about their actions. It is often highly sexually explicit and contains racial, homophobic and inflammatory language. It also seeks to glamorise gang life through its lyrics and linked videos. Listening to this is the ‘norm’ for many students but could also be a further indicator of heightened risk.
11. Social Media
As with drill music, social media is used extensively to glamorise gang life. Ultimately the responsibility for the policing of this has to sit from within the home, yet as schools, we need to develop the counter-narrative to challenge this.
12. Gang Slang
The street language used by gangs originates from the need to remain ahead of law enforcement, and as such, it is constantly evolving. Care also needs to be taken as many of the terms used have found their way into the colloquial language of students today.
Connect The Dots …
In considering each of the above I am not saying, for instance, that any student who listens to drill music or has an absent father is in a gang. However, using this understanding as a foundation to “Connect the Dots”, it can be used as an effective mapping tool to track applicable risk factors and identify those students who are considered most at risk.
Information sharing and early intervention is a must between schools and across agencies is an area of ongoing frustration. It can yield significant and relevant information that can flag early identification and inform intervention.