A closer look at the Hartlepool girls tragedy

AWiddowsonAs the recent trial of two young girls from Hartlepool reached its conclusion, I have no doubt that many of you, like me, found yourselves examining the appalling details of the crime with a professional scrutiny.  Clues as to why it happened were easy to glean from the media reporting;  insights into how it might have been prevented were harder to come by.

The defence case drew upon a number of half-truths which will have come as no surprise to those who deal with children on a daily basis:

  • Firstly, they sought to blame it on We are told that both children came from “troubled” backgrounds and that the older girl came from a household in which domestic violence and anti-social behaviour was routine.
  • Secondly, they cited the impaired Processing powers of the children. The older girl’s defence claimed that she suffered from “abnormality of brain functioning”. Certainly it is true that the extraordinary naivety with which the girls ignored the evidence mounting against them in the public domain ( CCTV, Instagram images inside the house) indicates significant cognitive weakness.
  • Finally, for good measure, they threw in the impact of Peer-pressure, with each child attempting to lay the blame on the other. The younger child claimed to be a bystander, whilst the older child claimed that the younger girl was the dominant partner. The truth, as the jury concluded, was likely to have been a complex feedback loop in which each child’s actions fuelled the response from their partner.

I think we would all agree that these three factors undoubtedly played a significant part in the unfolding tragedy. However, to allow ourselves to hang the blame on these convenient pegs is to deny our responsibility, as a society, to monitor and take action where we see evidence that a child’s behaviour lies outside the normal parameters.

Yes, environment is important – which is why, from an early age, children in this country spend a considerable proportion of their waking moments in the morally literate context of a classroom.

Yes, poor processing was a factor in the girls’ actions – but when the girls chose to silence their victim rather than cut their losses and call an ambulance at an early stage, they were acting within well researched paradigms for human behaviour;  paradigms which it is our responsibility to challenge.

Yes, we all know that peers influence teenage behaviour more than parent or teacher – yet that peer-influence can be positive as well as negative and we should not shirk from taking action where we see it to be otherwise.

In my own school we consider good choices to be the product of two factors; relativism and consequentiality.

To know how to behave is to understand the impact of our behaviours on others. Many children struggle to see the world from a perspective other than their own and will continue to make poor choices until they have broken free from this constraint. Restorative Justice is a systemic approach to behaviour which can be highly effective. However, simply taking the time to talk back through misdemeanours and analyse them, can in itself be enough. When a child arrives at my door, often without me knowing the reason for them having been sent to me, I do not have all the answers, but I do have all the questions – “What have you done? What was the impact of what you did? What should you have done? How are we going to make sure you make a better decision next time? When a child cannot answer these questions for themselves, alarm bells start to ring and I know that we will have to work harder to provide that child with a solid behavioural foundation.

To understand that all actions have consequences and to modify our choices to achieve better outcomes is fundamentally what it means to be a “learning” animal. A behaviour system which links choices to consequences can be powerful even without a moral conscience to support it. Whilst I am no expert, it is statistically probable that my school houses individuals with sociopathic tendencies, and I could probably name them! My job is to persuade them that operating within the law leads to better and more reliable outcomes than operating outside of it.

That the two young girls from Hartlepool, on hearing the verdict, could cry for their own loss but not for their victim is evidence enough that, somewhere in their tragic history, these simple behavioural paradigms were forgotten or diluted, in a system which seeks to protect children from everybody but themselves. The sad outcome, for all concerned, should galvanise us to look again at the way we work together and redouble our efforts to identify and respond to anti-social behaviour before it becomes a threat to others.

Alexis Widdowson, Head Teacher at Berwick Academy, Northumberland

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