Talking Point: Prevention is the best cure

Written by Alan Robertson on 16 April 2014

Close your eyes. Imagine someone you care about being verbally or physically abused in the street. A stranger walks on by. They do nothing. Instead, they leave the person you care about helpless and alone. Open your eyes. What are your feelings towards the perpetrator? Equally important, what are your feelings towards the person who walked on by?

It is a straightforward, albeit powerful, exercise that four secondary school pupils conducted with justice professionals as part of the latest Building Safer Communities event. The four, teenage pupils from Portobello High in Edinburgh and Calderhead High in Shotts, show maturity well beyond their years, having been involved in implementing the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) programme in their schools since 2011 and 2012 respectively.

The model is simple: impress upon young people how to safely challenge aggressive and inappropriate behaviour by their peers that can, in many cases, prove a first step on the route to violence. Then use those young people to train up others in their school surroundings, thereby underpinning the sustainability that so many promising initiatives strive to achieve.

Since being copied from a US model by the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, MVP has been used in seven schools across six local authorities; a figure that project lead, Chief Inspector Graham Goulden, envisages will double within the next few months. And so it should. Too often a culture of silence obtains, particularly within the school setting where peer pressure often dictates what you say and when.

The four pupils embark on another exercise, this one around ‘sexting’ – a text message from a male friend, with an attachment showing a sexually explicit photo of his ex-girlfriend. Options are then discussed as to what you might do in such a situation.

Of course, the attendees do not necessarily reach a consensus on the course of action that should be taken. Significantly, though, they acknowledge that at least they should do something.

Attitudes shape actions. Tackle the attitudes and you can determine the action. It’s neither a complicated nor costly message. Expecting the criminal justice system to remedy the wrongs of society is neither smart nor sustainable. Initiatives such as MVP are. To use the words of another, it is easier, after all, to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.

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