A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a teenager in the village. She was talking about “walking past the bus stop outside the church” and said “usually we cross the road if they’re there but this time we thought they weren’t there but they were… They were just hiding inside.”
It was an interesting insight into a child’s world for all sorts of reasons. There was the identification of a problem, the cool practical way that it was being dealt with, and the horror that she clearly felt when this practical solution had gone awry. She was at least laughing.
More serious is the problem itself. The “they” she was referring to were the groups of youths who frequently gather in Wye outside the church and on the village green. These youths are predominantly teenage boys. They are often over-loud and frequently dare each other into carrying out increasingly anti-social behaviour. Young men desperately searching for challenges to prove themselves as adults, this is a sometimes intimidating gang right in the heart of our village.
There’s a danger here that I might be accused of taking a minor problem over-seriously. “Hey J! Lighten up!” I can hear friends say, “Boys will be boys… Intimidating gang? What are you on about? Just ignore them!” But there may be others who agree with me that no-one should be made to feel uncomfortable in their own neighbourhood – least of all a child.
Something that is very likely completely unrelated to the emergence of this gang is a sudden increase in police-recorded petty crime in Wye – as reported by the community warden in this month’s parish council meeting. There have been seven instances of rubbish bins being over-turned or set on fire in the past month.
These crimes represent a small blip on Wye’s otherwise fairly impeccable police record. They are something for the insurance companies to chew over when they set all our premiums. But otherwise I would imagine that they’ve gone practically unnoticed.
Sociologists and criminologists might however clock them as interesting episodes in the development of a community. Indeed, they might refer to the “cycle of decay” identified in 1981 by American criminologists James Q. Wilson and George F. Kelling in a famous article called ‘Broken Windows‘. Stage one is the appearance of an unemployed group of young men. Stage two is a rise in anti-social behaviour.
There are eight stages in all, culminating in the place becoming a no-go area – even for the police – with drug gangs and boarded-up windows, and, quite probably guns on the street… Imagine it! Shoot outs on Church Street! The vicar driven in an armoured car to church?
I wouldn’t want to suggest that Wye is heading all the way down this particular path. After all we are just talking about a very small gang, and anti-social behaviour is fairly minimal.
But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do something about it as a community. Currently the way that we deal with the problem is as follows. The insurance company picks up the tab (though with bins costing £70-80, we have not been able to claim for most of the damage as the amount falls below the excess). The police look for evidence and compile statistical data. And the community warden is the only individual who has responsibility to interact with youths on a regular basis, whether or not they were involved in such incidents, and request that “whoever has done it…. Please don’t do it again”.
I don’t think that is sufficient – particularly given that our community is growing and we will be playing host to increasing numbers of teenagers at Wye School over the coming years. Possibly the soon-to-be-opened Multi-Use Games Area will make a difference (but could just as easily be a target for damage as a place to let off steam/demonstrate sporting prowess). The fact that the Friday night youth club (predominantly for 10-14 year olds) is thriving is definitely a positive.
But I still think that there is a lack of provision in the village for 14-25 year olds – particularly boys – and the fact that most adult men leave the village for work compounds the problem as this is a group who do not have adult mentors to help them on their way. The result is that a small group search around for some way of asserting their manhood without any proper adult guidance.
Recently I have been in email communication with someone at Kent County Council about the possibility of commissioning our own youth services for the village. If we were to do such a thing, it could be very rewarding because we could commission exactly what it is that each group in the community needs. I’m particularly interested in what we could provide for this 14-25 age group.
Maybe others are too? If we were to commission our own children’s services, we’d need many more people to come and help out. If you’re at all interested and have a bit of time to invest in your community, please get in touch with me through the blog.