The victims: 'Gimme your phone right now!'

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The Independent Online

The Inner-City Schoolboy

Sam, 14, attends a north London secondary school

It's only a short walk to my school, but on the way I have to go down a road which is home to a notorious local gang, who people say have been involved in at least one murder in my area. I've had many close encounters with them, but they usually let me off because I know someone they know, which is all that counts in their eyes.

Things are not as bad at my school as they used to be. In my first year, there was only one area of the playground we were allowed in – if you explored elsewhere older students would try stuff on you. I can't remember how many times I was asked to jump up and down, partly for their amusement but also to see if I had any loose change.

I still see a lot, though. The other day I found out that an MG boy [a feared local gang] was in my media class. I've seen videos of what these guys do. In one, they got a boy from a rival gang and were holding him hostage. They drew the gang's sign on his face in black marker and forced him to do all kinds of things. They're known for showing up in other areas just to start trouble, chasing and stabbing people for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But you wouldn't believe the boy in my class was a member. He's talkative, gets on with his work and appears to be a good student. That's often how it is.

At the end of the day I usually obey the head teacher's advice to "go straight home, quickly and quietly, and don't meet friends outside of school at the gates". Sometimes, though, I catch the bus to basketball training. I hate it because I have to wait around at this bus stop shadowed by the park. One evening recently it was getting dark and it was just me and an old woman standing there when three guys turned up. I knew one of them, some guy called Noel who was in my year before he was permanently excluded. He's a lost cause, known for robbing people and selling drugs. I was glad he was there, though, because he has always been cool with me, and otherwise I would have been worried about what the other guys would do. One of them was 6ft, with a bicycle mask covering most of his face. A bus pulled up at the stop and Noel got on, without acknowledging me or anything, leaving me standing there with these two dangerous-looking guys. I tried to keep my head low until I heard a sudden "Oi" from the one with the bicycle mask.

"Yeah, blud, what you got for me?" he said. "Nothing," I answered. He moved nearer to me. "Don't chat shit, blud. I'll shank [stab] you up if you lie to me." My throat tightened. "You can check my pockets, man. I swear I don't have anything." My phone was in my shorts pocket underneath my trousers. "Gimme your phone right now. Swear down, blud. I'm gonna pull out a shank!"

I kept saying I didn't have a phone so much I started to believe it myself. He changed the subject. "Where do you live?" I've learnt to never say exactly where, so I pointed indirectly. He then tried to make me go with him into a nearby estate – where he could rob me without anyone seeing. I kept refusing and he gave up eventually, swiping my gloves and all the money in my pocket.

I still think about what happened all the time. It hasn't put me off basketball, though. We play every week. We all look out for each other and we all get along. We're teenagers, most of us very big and apart from me, all black. Something I notice when we are travelling is the constant stereotyping of us as a group: the looks we get, the way people avoid coming anywhere near us. In shops, the owners follow us and count the coins or notes we give them carefully. Anyone would think that we were in a street gang ourselves.

The Concerned Carer

Judy, 59, is the grandmother of a young offender, Joe, 16

Things came to a head with Joe three years ago when his mum and his stepfather split up. John was the disciplinarian and kept Joe in check. When John left, Joe's mum spiralled out of control; she couldn't look after herself, let alone the children, and it went downhill from there. It started with something small: Joe stole some rhubarb from the neighbouring garden and the police charged him. After a big argument with his mum, he came to stay with me. He's been living here ever since.

One-to-one, he's not a bad person, but the people he started knocking about with were a bad influence. They'd steal hubcaps and hang around on street corners drinking – since he met them, Joe's been charged twice with being drunk and disorderly.

One night two years ago I got a call from the police to say he'd been arrested for hitting someone in the leg with a home-made catapult. He was put on an ISSP (Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme). When he breached that, he was given six months at a young person's prison. Half of me wanted him to go away, the other didn't.

He's done very little since he got out of prison in January, but I know he'll re-offend. He thinks he's invincible. I no longer feel I've got a life. I worry that any moment I'll get a call to say he's been arrested again. Sometimes, I want to tell him to pack his bags, but how do you put a 16-year-old out on the streets? He's breaking my heart; my greatest wish is that he will change.

The charity Disc can provide help and support to carers and those who 'fall through the net'. Visit www.disc-vol.org.uk

The Good Samaritan

Santhia Bretherton, 31, tried to help a crime victim and ended up being subjected to a savage attack by a gang

It was about 9pm and I was heading into Manchester for my evening job. I was driving along a main road and I passed a group of four youths in dark hoods, hats and scarves taking it in turns to kick a man lying on the pavement. I didn't want to get involved, but it was so brutal I had to do something. I pulled up alongside them, wound down my window and shouted at them to leave the man alone. They turned away from the man and dived on to my car like a pack of wild animals. One of them came in through the passenger side, so I jumped out.

I had my legs kicked out from under me and collapsed on to the ground. The group started kicking me all over and screaming, "Give us the keys, you stupid bitch." One of them tried to rub my face into some broken glass, while another pinned me down and put three of his fingers and a thumb into my eyeball and literally tried to scoop my eye out. The pain was so intense I felt like I was looking in on myself. I bit down really hard on his hand and he squealed and let go. Meanwhile, the man who'd been lying on the ground had regained consciousness and crawled off, calling the police from his mobile. When the kids heard the sirens they grabbed my phone and ran off. The swellings were pretty bad, especially around my eye socket – my son was absolutely shocked when he saw my face – but luckily there was no serious lasting damage.

The aftermath, though, has been harder to deal with. My husband said I shouldn't have become involved, and I felt he didn't understand what had happened to me. That drove a wedge between us and we're now divorced. I had to move to a new area too, as there were a lot of youths where I used to live, and I just couldn't cope with the worry; they all appeared as a potential threat to me.

I'm now too scared to go out at night, so I hardly see any of my friends anymore. I just wish I could leave the country and get away from it all. Would I do it again? At the time I remember thinking I wish I hadn't got involved, but I think you have to; if everyone did, the world would be a safer place. My actions ended up with a chief constable's commendation, but my mum just said, "Don't do it again."

A WORD FROM THE FRONT LINE

'The pupils tut in unison, as if I am stupid'

Ben Jenkins is a teacher in a large inner-city comprehensive school

In school, boys will be boys. Every day in the playground you can see them bragging about imaginary fights. They share the "evidence" on their mobile phones, which they view in packs, whooping with joy as they witness films of people getting happy-slapped, knocked out, stabbed or battered in mass beat-downs.

Many pupils have two handsets because that's what they see "shotters" [drug dealers] doing. I assume they dress like gang members in the hope that they'll get their chance of an initiation. They tell stories of what they've seen, as if they were old men. Stories of how they "backed it" [supported their friends] when a "beef" [disagreement] occurred between rivals. Stories of the pride they felt in knocking out a young boy from behind, in front of his family.

In class, I find myself being blankly stared back at, as I ask why an 11-year-old would draw a "pimp stick" [extravagant walking stick], a gun and a stack of dollars in his homework diary. I tell him that the dollar is weak, and he looks offended. I ask him why he wants a gun and other pupils tut in unison, as if I am stupid.

In the playground on break duty, I see the same boys in their bragging circle and the 11-year-old will be holding forth in his unbroken voice. "Fucking fing, yeah? My cousin punched the fucking shank [knife] so hard into his chest cavity that the blade broke." This is met by a chorus of "brraps", as the group fire imaginary machine guns in the air to signal approval. The stories are usually real but not theirs. Lying to your friends in school is normal but the content has changed to fit the times.

It is a given that a teenager has little understanding of consequence, and the hue and temper of these conversations is akin to a computer game or gangsta-rap song. The bleak reality of these kids' environment means that a lot of them are imitating art to colour their lives.

"It shouldn't be up to us to stop the violence – we're just products of our time," my pupils say if you challenge them on their behaviour.

So does that mean that you shouldn't be held responsible for your actions, I ask them.

"Yeah, but no, but wait – it's like we live in a zoo. Survival of the fittest, innit."

"When have you been to a zoo?" someone shouts. "You haven't even been on the Tube and you definitely ain't fit."

Everyone laughs. Oh God, I think to myself. Plenty of questions but very few solutions.