"One day I was given the job to kill someone" – former gang member and the founder of charity Refocus, Lennox Rodgers, describes gang life and gives his take on the UK should tackle crime pic.twitter.com/4RKrZpCtbY
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— Sky News (@SkyNews) May 7, 2018
Weapons in schools: ‘I used anything I could get’
More children are getting caught carrying knives and makeshift weapons – including rolling pins and beer cans – police in England and Wales say. Here, one woman explains why she took weapons to school as a child.
“I used anything I could get my hands on,” says Bali Rodgers, from Dartford in Kent, who had been arrested three times by the age of 11.
“I didn’t take knives but used fists and other things,” she says.
She recalls using a shiv – a type of improvised blade – to harm other pupils, and put pins in another girl’s shoes.
“To think now about [what I did then] frightens the life out of me,” she says. “I was in total denial at the time.”
Mrs Rodgers finally changed her life after leaving school at 15 and ending up in a psychiatric ward by the age of 21. She now counsels schoolchildren who are on the verge of exclusion from school.
She says of her own childhood: “I didn’t know any other way,” she says. “I ended up hurting others, and myself.”
The 49-year-old counsels children in Dartford, Maidstone, Hastings and south-east London, and says many of those she talks with are “extremely paranoid” that they will be attacked if they don’t have a way of protecting themselves. This is particularly the case with those who have been bullied at some stage.
She believes pupils are now carrying a bigger variety of weapons – and at a younger age – than in previous school generations.
“They get their hands on a knife or some object and think ‘I’ll never use it but carry it just in case’,” she says.
“I am working with one 14-year-old girl who doesn’t fit in at school, but is carrying knives for her boyfriend. It’s really sad.”
A recent Freedom of Information request found an array of dangerous items – including swords, axes and air guns – were among the 2,579 weapons seized in schools in England and Wales in the two years to March 2017.
“You get the ones in gangs who brag, and see it as a bit of a fashion,” she says.
“But it’s the silent types who feel vulnerable, so they carry things.”
She recalls that her own turbulent childhood – with an alcoholic father and being racially bullied – made her “constantly violent” at school.
“My dad used to threaten me, I was petrified of him,” she says.
She ran away from home at 15 but a decade later was taken in by a family in Kent who helped her turn her life around as a young adult.
“They were a couple, who were missionaries in Africa, and they helped me get a whole new understanding of family, respect, values.”
She says that living in a stable home helped her learn that her anger was out of control.
“That’s what’s missing for many kids,” she says. “If there’s no-one at home to talk to, you don’t learn to respect teachers or how to control your rage.”
Mrs Rodgers says teachers are “under more pressure than ever” and may be unable to deal with pupils who have complex issues at home.
In an unusual incident three years ago, teacher Ann Maguire was stabbed to death at her school in Leeds by a teenage pupil.
Will Cornick, who was 15 at the time of the murder, later said he had gone to class that day in “a red mist, not conscious of his surroundings”.
‘Sense of power’
Mrs Rodgers now runs a charity, Refocus, with her husband Lennox, who himself carried a knife when he was a teenager.
Organisations Foundation4Life and UserVoice offer a similar service, by using ex-offenders to speak to young people at risk of turning to crime.
“Unlike with teachers and parents, these kids open up to us,” she says. “I will tell them a little bit about my story if they share a bit of their story.”
For husband Lennox, who co-founded the charity in 2004, he thought when he was younger that carrying a knife “gave me a sense of power”.
He carried weapons after being bullied for being black when growing up in Oxford.
After leaving school, he was involved in gangs and spent two decades in and out of prison.
Mrs Rodgers says that young people hang on to every word her 54-year-old husband says when he is talking about his life, but insists that his stories do not glamorise the carrying of weapons.
“They do think he’s cool – but also listen to the dark side of his story – that if you deliberately put yourself on a route of violence you don’t succeed and end up in serious trouble,” she says.
“I’m hoping we turned some bad into good.”
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Bali Kaur can pinpoint the moment her mission began. It was a February morning this year in a hall in south London, where 18 women unburdened themselves of woes previously shared only with each other. Tentative at first, the women told Bali that their marriages, incomes and family life were being gnawed away by a drug that had gripped their husbands so tightly they seemed lost forever.
It was not the pull of the pub, or the high of heroin, that was causing the rift, but a crimson-brown plant that, if chewed for 30 minutes, has an effect comparable to drinking 10 cups of coffee. Grown in east Africa and the Arabian peninsula, the stimulant khat (also known as qat, chat and jaad) has followed refugee and immigrant communities to Europe from Ethiopia, Yemen and, principally, Somalia. In Britain, it is legal and sold at greengrocers’ or by individuals for about £4 a bunch. It is chewed by about 90% of men in the Somali community.
“The women were very, very frightened to raise the issue with their husbands,” says Bali, development and outreach worker at charity Turning Point’s community drug project in Bromley, south London. She had met the women during a drugs awareness session at a well women’s clinic. “They felt hopeless; that it was not a problem that could be resolved.”
Bali believed otherwise. A telephone call from a Somali community leader, who was also concerned about khat, led her to set up a steering group to explore precisely what problems khat use was causing.
If used in moderation, khat creates a feeling of wellbeing. In Somalia, men will meet in the late afternoon, after a day’s work, and chew outside for a couple of hours, once or twice a week.