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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

The safety of children and young adults

Posted on 19th February 2018 at 21:22pm

As regular readers of CRJ will be aware, we have often reported on how young people have been exploited by criminal and terrorist groups. In our current issue, just published, we not only look at school safety as part of crisis and resilience planning, but we also examine some of the factors that are affecting young people, especially online, where they can be preyed upon, manipulated and encouraged to commit acts of self harm, or to injure others.

Now, in the aftermath of the school shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida – in which at least 17 people were killed – Lina Kolesnikova raises the perennially concerning issue of school security and overall safety among children and young adults.

The beginning of 2018 has also been marked by unprecedented violence at Russian schools.

On January 15, two 16 and 15-year old teenagers, using knives, wounded 15 pupils at a primary school in Perm. They used one of their school entrance permits to enter the school in what was, undoubtedly, a planned attack. One perpetrator blocked the door to stop students from escaping, while the other stabbed pupils in the classroom. A teacher who tried to shield children was heavily wounded. Afterwards, both teenagers tried to commit suicide, but they survived.

The attackers were ex-classmates (one was a former student at the school) with very different backgrounds. One had been expelled on the grounds of extreme violence and aggression towards classmates and teachers; the other was among the top students. Their improbable ‘friendship’, the plan to attack school and their suicide pact seem to have been born through social networks.

A few days later, on of January 19, a 16-year-old armed with an axe and Molotov cocktail, attacked children at a secondary school in a military village in Buryatia. More than 10 children were severely wounded. He tried to commit suicide after the attack, but also survived.

There seems to be a common factor behind these attacks. The teenagers in Perm and a teenager in Buryatia were fans of the American teenagers who carried out the Columbine school shooting in 1999. Both attacks could also be connected to social networks, which have connections to – or are similar to – the notorious Blue Whale groups that encourage negative behaviour among teenagers and children in general. Could this be a form of social warfare? (See CRJ 13:2 for Patrick McIlwee’s article: Blue Whale – fact or myth?)

Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, known as Roskomnadzor, demanded that the social network VKontakte block public groups where participants actively encourage vulnerable teenagers to commit murders at schools, or suicide after committing crimes.

Several social media groups dedicated to the Columbine shooters were also discovered.

It appears that teenagers and young people could be considered to pose an increased security risk in many countries. Law enforcement authorities around the world are being challenged by attacks on schools or in the streets by armed lone wolves or small groups of teenagers – sometimes called ‘baby-gangs’ – whose members are often younger than 12 years old.

Some suggest that modern society is not accommodating or considering the needs of young people, or that the strong stress of uncertain futures owing to massive societal changes – including economic, social, physical or migration – are starting to affect youth as well as adults. In such stressful conditions, people can easily feel lost and seek meaning, however nihilistic that meaning might be.

Terrorist groups are also using children and women, partly in response to an urgent need for extra human resources. And there is the added benefit of children attracting less attention in crowded places.

Criminal organisations actively use children under 14 as drug runners (or, in extreme cases, as killers) because minors are immune from prosecution. On January 15, around 2,000 people took to the streets of Naples to protest against a wave of violent attacks by gangs of youths, many of who were minors.

Italian police and prosecutors have been successful in prosecuting and jailing members of organised crime; as a result, these organisations have searched for new opportunities in recruitment.

This is nothing new – child soldiers have been routinely recruited or coerced to fight, most notably in Africa. But the latest novelty is that children are being allowed to reach higher ranks in criminal groups.

And if the problem is not already not serious enough, the existing challenges could be exacerbated by teenagers and the children of returnees from Syria and Iraq. Most of these have experienced violence as part of their everyday lives. They will need dedicated and professional assistance to come to terms with the trauma of their experiences.

Is there a solution? How to address the negative effects of social media when deliberately used by those who wish to encourage young people to harm themselves or others? How can societies espousing the principles of free speech reconcile this with the growing number of sites that glorify people who have killed fellow students? How do we address the increased malaise that many young people seem to be experiencing? What is the solution for prolonged mental trauma, as experienced by those in conflict zones? And how can societies tackle the grooming and coercion of young people into criminal activities?

These problems could be, at first glance, considered as unrelated, but maybe they present a larger, multifaceted problem that should cause unease when viewed from a societal resilience perspective. It is likely that a panoply of interlinked, yet individually tailored, approaches will be required. CRJ is keen to explore this issue further, and encourages readers to share their thoughts and experience in this area.

Further reading:

Helping child soldiers, Emily Hough, CRJ 11:2, December 2015

Families and countering violent extremism, Emily Hough, CRJ 11:4, May 2016

The growing use of children by terrorists, Lina Kolesnikova, CRJ 12:2, December 2016

How to reintegrate juvenile and extremist offenders? Jip Geenen & Liesbeth van der Heide, CRJ 13:1, October 2017

Learning in safety: Improving school security, Brian Dillon, CRJ 13:2, February 2018

Overcoming the trauma of conflict, Larissa Sotieva, CRJ 13:2, February 2018

Intergenerational trauma, Dr Nadia Elkarra, CRJ 13:2, February 2018

The Blue Whale challenge – fact or myth? Patrick McIlwee, CRJ 13:2, February 2018 

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