Reformed criminals and a boxing gym are tools being used by a Leeds school to tackle gang and knife crime culture

A school that teaches pupils from across Leeds who have been involved in gangs, knife and weapon crime and county lines has drafted in ex-criminals and a boxing gym to show them there is an alternative.

By Emma Ryan
Thursday, 3rd June 2021, 4:45 am

In recent months Southway Youth Hub, an alternative provision for young people that have opted out of main-stream school, has been working with the St Giles Trust, an organisation which seeks to educate young people on the long lasting consequences of crime, and Trident Fitness, a gym in Morley.

The collaborations are part of a strategy drawn up by the school and its designated police officer to address issues facing students potentially vulnerable to entering a life of crime or falling off the radar.

It comes as Leeds has seen several high profile gang and weapon related cases involving young people, and, fears that as lockdown restrictions continue to lift, there will be a spike in incidents.

Student Shariff Salam with Danny Jessop doing boxing training at Southway.

During lockdown 2020, knife crime in the city dropped by 15 per cent compared to 2019 and there were 142 fewer knife crime offences in the 12 months up to March 2021. However, an increase again is expected in line with figures from last year which revealed that knife crime across England and Wales rose by 25 per cent when lockdown was lifted in July.

Southway headteacher, Andrew Percival said: "It is something that we are aware of, every school needs to be aware of. We work closely with the local authority and we have a strategy about de-escalation, restraint and some of that is how we deal with weapons. Through the work we do, there are risk assessments in place, intelligence with schools and the police so we know where there are potential conflicts with other students and we can manage that and remain as safe as we can.

"We do have students where there are conflicts outside of school because of different areas of the city but they understand they leave that at the gate and the expectation here is that they work together."

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Amber Lewis trains with Danny Jessop of Trident Fitness at Morley.

Carl Morton works for St Giles and does sessions in Southway speaking openly with students about his own experience of crime, but also working with them and their families out of school.

He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: "That young person knows that I have gone through that life, come out the other side and I know what I am talking about. I am not a teacher, or a police officer or their mum and dad. I am someone who has been where they are now and can say 'this is what you need to do'.

"I come with a holistic approach, every young person is different, it is about time and consistency and building up a trust. Unless I believe there is a significant danger to their life or somebody else's - what they say stays with me. Southway has really embraced what we do and because of that - it is working."

He recalls a pupil who was going to start selling drugs, was not interested in school and had cut off communication with his father. However, with Mr Morton liaising with father and son, the boy went back to school and secured GCSE passes in maths and English.

Southway is an alternative provision school based at Belle Isle.

He added: "It is about stripping everything back. I don't mind if it is two steps forward and one step back, we are making progress. We are always going to have a gang culture, but the prevention stops people getting involved."

Meanwhile, an idea that formulated before coronavirus lockdown and restrictions is finally off the ropes. School police officer, PC Paul Coates has teamed up with Trident Fitness to deliver boxing training sessions in school a couple of time a week with a view to getting youngsters at Southway focused on training, fitness, diet and a positive activity out of school.

PC Coates said: "A lot have experienced domestic violence, been in trouble with the police, built bad relationships, have a negative view of school, police and males around them in all kinds of situations. They have never had a place to talk about anger or vent it in a positive way so this is about thinking outside the box."

Rio Wilson is just 12 years-old and admits his anger issues are out of control and he has made threats of violence to staff. At one point he had to be restrained by PC Coates. However, after just one session at boxing, he is back with a smile on his face and youngsters like Rio are the ones that gym owner, Chris Walsh and MMA fighter, Danny Jessop want to work with.

They said: "Kids come to school and do football or rugby but different kids like different activities and we want to give them more options. What young lad doesn't have anger issues? There used to be youth clubs, boxing clubs and boxing gyms on every estate, so when they stopped - where does that go? I know boxing is not for everyone but there is not that outlet to just turn up somewhere and do it.

"Some parents won't bring kids to a 4pm to 6pm class but for us we have quiet time in the gym where we can bring some kids in and work with the school. The demise of youth clubs and centres has had a massive part to play and if we can continue this we might change opportunities."