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November 2007

This story with clips of ‘Stereo’ in schools was filmed as part of a community item for broadcast on BBC London News in December 2007. The full feature can be watched online at: BBC London News: London’s teenage murders

Tom’s Legacy

Kurt Barling – BBC News Special Correspondent reports for BBC London on Arc’s Stereo programme for schools.

Tom Easton was a sound engineer, musician and youth worker.  He was stabbed to death in an unprovoked attack during a gathering at a youth club in Islington in September 2006.   Kurt Barling went along to see one of the events being supported by The Flavasum Trust set up in his memory.

Carlton is in his mid-20s and serving time in a young offender’s institution.   He was sentenced for drugs related offences but only served six months.   When he was released he very quickly slipped back into the lifestyle that got him into trouble in the first instance.

Unfortunately whilst he was in prison, his younger brother got involved with the local gang and was subjected to a severe beating.  Carlton exacted revenge and in a knife fight murdered the man he held responsible.

This is a story.   It is the central theme in a play called “Stereo”, as in stereotype.  The production, written by playwright Clifford Oliver, is touring around a number of the capital’s secondary schools.  The play was commissioned by Criminal Justice agencies to target young people attitudes.

‘tough choices’

At Salisbury School in Edmonton, north London, I joined a group of around 100 15-year-olds to experience the production being put on by Arc Theatre as part of the PHSE curriculum.

“The objective is to get the students to offer the actors different choices of behaving that could lead to an outcome which may be more positive.”

Gun and knife crime is a subject full of tough issues and one that not all schools are happy to address in curriculum time.  Some fear stigmatising students, others worry with such a crowded curriculum, school time (and money) is better spent on other matters.

The attentive response from the pupils is what Dolores Altaras is hoping for.  The Flavasum Trust, which she set up after her 22-year-old son Tom was murdered, is supporting what it says are innovative ways of getting young people to think about tough choices they may be called on to make.

She is determined to give young people the opportunity to openly discuss how they feel about the threat of knife and gun crime before it affects some of them for real.

In the play Carlton’s mother is seen to be increasingly desperate to keep her wayward son off the streets.   But in her keenness to divert him away from his friends, the audience sees the relationship between mother and son fracturing.

Fast forward to the end of the play and the actors stay in character but ask the students to remodel key moments in the play. The objective is to get the students to offer the actors different choices or ways of behaving that could lead to an outcome which may be more positive.  In Carlton’s case not going back to prison.

resolve conflict

Perhaps surprisingly there was very little cynicism from the students during the debate after the performance.   What struck me as important though is that the young audience came up with solutions which showed an appreciation for the need for negotiation in order to resolve conflict; in particular between the play’s mother and son.

A group of students I spoke to after the play said the performance was incredibly realistic.  It made them think about the relationship between parents and children in a different way.  It also made them think, they said, about the choices they might make if street violence affected them or a friend.   A debate they were sure would continue on that ubiquitous tool of youthful networking, MSN.

Carole Pluckrose, who runs Arc Theatre, says it is nevertheless a lottery which students get to see and discuss the material because so few education authorities have specific budgets to support this type of school intervention.

At a time when Gun and Knife Crime has risen to the top of the political agenda it may seem strange that those willing to engage young people in a debate about how these issues affect them find it so hard to sustain longer term funding.

The Home Affairs Select Committee report published in June 2007 (Young Black People and the Criminal Justice System) criticised the lack of financial support for initiatives to help schools tackle these often sensitive issues.

Whilst Trusts like Flavasum can do a small amount to fill the funding gap, they argue that there needs to be a more coordinated approach to ensuring all children are given the same opportunities to discuss these issues in curriculum time.

Stereo’s ending is a bleak one.  Carlton is sentenced to life imprisonment and his mother describes her anguish as she leaves court under a cloud of shame; forever a victim of her son’s foolishness.

meaningful impact

In the students’ version, Carlton convinces his mother to sit down and listen to him for once.  He suggests over a cup of tea.  They explain to each other why they feel the way they do and embrace to make up.

The students’ ending may sometimes be difficult to achieve in the real world, but it does show this group of young people know the type of outcomes they would prefer.   It also shows that their instinct to resolve argument through negotiation was stronger than dealing with it through violence.

It’s very difficult to measure the qualitative impact of the performance of Stereo on the students who saw it, but Dolores insists that avoiding the subject in schools is not an option if we are to have any meaningful impact on the hearts and minds of young people.

Her son’s death in September 2006 did not get a lot of media attention.  Ironically that may have been as a consequence of another stereotype.  Tom was middle class and white.  The recent spate of knife and gun crime has had a heavy focus on young black men.

But Dolores’ determination to help others benefit from her tragic experience mirrors that of many of the other parents and families of victims I have met over the past few years.

Increasingly they’ve become active in their communities, spearheading public awareness of the dangers of gun and knife crime to prevent other families suffering through more young people needlessly losing their lives.

Unfortunately, these disparate efforts often depend on the fragility of personal commitment of those who are struggling to get their lives back to a form of normality.

One of Flavasum’s objectives over the next year is to build a network of common experience so bereaved families can have a permanent impact on changing attitudes amongst young people.

Kurt Barling – BBC News Special Correspondent, Monday 5 November 2007

Full article can be read here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2007/11/05/kurt_tom_feature.shtml

Find out more about The Flavasum Trust

See October News for full details of the current tour of Stereo, including a new public performance on Tuesday 13 November at Dreams Nightclub, NW10.