A subculture of violence among Invercargill's young people has city children, parents, teachers, and police worried. Is this something Southland has always seen, or is it a new phenomenon? Should we be worried for the future of our youth? Alex Fensome reports.
It was a pretty normal Anzac Day for Adam (name changed) and his two mates. The 15-year-olds had been to the movies and were walking home through leafy Queen's Park.
A group of older boys was walking behind them.
No words were said, no eye contact made – but suddenly the older boys ran and attacked Adam and his friends.
They unleashed a senseless, violent beating that left one in hospital and the other two fearing for their lives.
Adam says it has changed his views on Invercargill. It made him realise people will hurt you for no reason.
"The scary thing was that it was totally random – the guy didn't even know me, my background – no reason whatsoever. Even scarier is that it could happen to anyone, even people who do nothing wrong."
Adam's father said the randomness of the attack made him feel powerless to protect the most important people in his life.
"It was day time, in a public area, they were coming home from the movies," he says. "I want my kids to be safe and now I just don't know how to make that happen, do we have to think about things like that every time they go out during the day?"
He doesn't know why those kids decided to do what they did.
"What motivates kids this age to do that?" he asks. "Why is that cool? Why isn't it cool to be good at sports or excel at school?"
The mother of one of the other boys injured in the attack says she was terrified to see him in hospital.
"How frightening it was to see my son suffer from concussion, not knowing in the first few hours whether there was going to be any long-term or permanent damage. Knowing that some knockouts and falls to a hard surface could be fatal left us terrified that this stupid act could possibly be fatal for [him] too."
She says many parents are saddened it is no longer safe for kids even in daylight. "[We] are feeling gutted that it no longer seems safe for our teenage children to walk together during broad daylight," she says.
It is not the first incident of its kind.
A 13-year-old was attacked out of the blue in Mary St by a boy of the same age.
A 10-year-old and an 8-year-old walking in Yarrow St were confronted by three older boys who kicked and punched them before fleeing.
In April, an 18-year-old was sent to jail for two years and five months for beating a 15-year-old unconscious in the middle of Wachner Place. The victim was affiliated with one gang of youths, the attacker with another.
All these incidents happened this year, in Invercargill. They are part of an upsurge in violent attacks among young people in the city.
Worse, many other attacks and incidents go unreported through fear or embarrassment.
Kids have been picking on each other for generations. But those dealing with the problem say what makes this violence different is the way it has been dressed up – often literally – as gangster-inspired.
Some young people are falling in love with the kind of lifestyle modelled by the Crips and the Bloodz – trying to act like American street thugs in the belief it is desirable to be like them.
Young people face family challenges – poverty, lack of social skills, lack of parenting skills – and many are looking for a sense of acceptance and belonging when they join a gang or group of youths.
Bringing publicity to the "gangs" is risky – last year, The Southland Times ran a story highlighting the problem and members of one gang, enraged by what another gang had said about them, went looking for a confrontation at their rival's school and got arrested.
Sergeant Fred Shandley, of Invercargill, says there has been a slight increase in youth-on-youth assaults in the past few months.
While that doesn't necessarily mean overall youth violence is increasing, there have been several disturbing facts about the attacks.
"Some of the people involved have been recording them on video camera phones," he says.
"There [were] people standing around who could have either reported it to the authorities or intervened to help."
Police are doing all they can to bring the perpetrators to justice, he says.
Stan Tiatia, the principal of Invercargill Middle School, says some of his pupils are regularly attacked by youths.
They come to school and tell him their scooter was thrown into the Otepuni Stream or they were picked on at the Elles Rd skate park.
Kids as young as 7 are being threatened by older children, he says.
Youths old enough to drive cars are also involved, picking on younger people. Sometimes things turn violent.
"All the boys I spoke to have seen fights or have been beaten up by older youths around town," Tiatia says. "A few have even been chased by one of the youth gangs."
The kids are on edge in town, he says.
"My concern is as a principal," he says. "If we're going to have a family friendly city we've got to have a family safe city first."
However, he says the gang members are just the peak of a mountain of low-level violence among young people in Invercargill.
"There is a culture of lack of respect."
He says it is not just in one area, one school or one race - it's a problem across the city.
"It's a youth subculture, an ethos, a sense of belonging, of challenge for young males and a sense of acceptance."
We need more people willing to put their time and money into helping at-risk youths, he says.
"We can blame the families all we want, but we need to take ownership of what we are doing to help."
Kylie Jane Phillips is one of the people on the frontline helping youth in Invercargill. She's a youth worker at Number 10, in Esk St, which offers courses, medical appointments and counselling services for young people.
In May, a typical month, there were 579 different visits to the centre.
She doesn't have any answers as to why young people turn to violence, but does have ideas about how to stop it.
"I don't know where that comes from ... I can put it down to people's upbringings, maybe, that's their way of being able to vent, maybe being intimidated as a young person, being brought up with family violence, because it's a cycle ... sometimes you come from a world where it's portrayed it is okay, violence is okay in some family homes ... and it's not just Maori."
Some young people are growing up in an environment where violence is normal, she says.
Phillips sees her job as encouraging young people - not just ones who are known to the police - to believe in themselves and to see a future.
She runs programmes aimed at fostering a sense of achievement and belief in youths who might otherwise fall into a violent or antisocial lifestyle.
"Find your gift and give it away," she says. "Sometimes it's about doing some hard work, I'm a firm believer in getting out and doing some work ... work as a whanau, work holistically. Don't work for yourself."
Number 10 tries to give troubled youths the knowledge to understand violence and abuse are wrong, to be able to say "It's not okay," she says.
The city's schools are involved in efforts to prevent violence, with anti-bullying programmes and life skills courses, and the police youth services also try to engage with kids in trouble.
The Government gives funding to projects such as RAP (Respect All People), which teaches youth workers and teachers about fostering a culture of respect in at-risk children. RAP launched in Invercargill in June, with both Phillips and Tiatia attending.
But then there are those who fall through the cracks - the ones who don't go looking for help, or don't respond to it.
Phillips knows there will always be some, but she believes Invercargill's youth services are set up to help as many as possible.
It's clear she finds her job immensely rewarding - her words are passionate and full of belief. But are there enough people like her around?
She doesn't think her generation are unwilling or afraid to work with young people. She likes it partly for the rewarding feeling but also just because she gets to stay young.
"Come and support our youth," she says. "It's real, it's out there, it's in the skate parks. It's our youth that's perpetrating violence, out there doing these things. How do we be there to support them as a community? It takes a whole whanau to bring up a child."
Meanwhile, young people like Adam are carrying the physical and psychological scars of violence in our city.
- © Fairfax NZ News