“I have parents contact me from years ago and say ‘my children still speak about what they witnessed’. We’ve had kids pass out and we leave kids speechless, and by doing that we leave an imprint inside their head that they never forget about.”
Byron Highton lost his brother to knife crime in 2014 – an incident that has left him with PTSD – and is using a moment that ripped his world apart to ensure it doesn’t happen to other families.
His charitable organisation The JJ Effect – named after his brother Jon-Jo Highton who was killed aged just 18 – has begun partnering up with the Stoke-on-Trent-based youth organisation Together We Make A Difference (TWMAD) – part-funded by the Department for Education (DfE) – to bring his story to Staffordshire teenagers.
TWMAD is one of three local providers funded by the DfE’s Opportunity Area (OA) programme to deliver a pilot project to support vulnerable young people who may be at risk of involvement in gangs and knife crime in the city. Working within the OA’s Holiday Activities pilot, the project focused on improving the attendance and behaviour of the most hard to reach pupils, so they can benefit from a world class education. The project offered a range of positive activities, including horse riding, go-karting and bike rides.
Byron’s award-winning presentation was given to county school pupils for the first time in the autumn as part of Staffordshire Police’s ongoing #DitchTheBlade anti-knife crime campaign.
Normally face-to-face but currently given online because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it was organised in partnership with the Stoke-on-Trent Association of School, College and Academy Leaders (SASCAL) – who run in partnership with Staffordshire’s Commissioner for Police, Fire and Rescue Matthew Ellis.
It was a resounding success with Byron, who is from Preston, receiving one message just hours after giving a talk in one of the city’s schools. “He basically said it’s the best thing he’s ever watched,” Byron said. “He said he was biting his teeth and holding back the tears.
“In the past I’ve had admittals of grooming and other things people have been the victim of straight after the talk has finished. It’s probably the fuel that keeps me doing the job. It’s crazy. It’s what I call the JJ effect – it’s the effect my brothers story has on people.
“It’s just nice to know that I’ve created something that appeals and works across the entire education spectrum and I’m proud of what we’ve done.”
And some important information on getting help and support was handed out to the county’s youngsters via the presentation.
“The last slide has contact details for people like Crimestoppers, for Fearless – which is pretty much like Crimestoppers but online and all youngsters are always on their mobile phones – and also for the NSPCC.”
Marvin Molloy, from TWMAD – who work with children right across the county, said: “#DitchTheBlade is a campaign to get youngsters to ditch the blade and our knife crime safety presentation falls really nicely in that arena. We said ‘if we can add to the campaign then let’s do this’.
“In the autumn there were about 1,500 young people who’ve had their awareness raised about knife crime and this is ultimately what the #DitchTheBlade campaign attempts to do and that’s what we’re attempting to do.
“The students were attentive and focussed, they sat and watched and took it all in. They’ve been up and down with their emotions and been on the rollercoaster. We immediately had a disclosure from somebody who thought that they were in trouble.”
And looking at how the project can be utilised in partnership with Staffordshire Police and our other partner agencies moving forward, Marvin added: “With #DitchTheBlade now ongoing constantly, we want to move along that trajectory with it. It’s just being able to tap into the right things so we can all keep that momentum up and keep it more than just one knife crime prevention awareness week or month. That’s the idea now.
“The presentation we did just went out to one year group, but now we need it to go out to all year groups across Stoke and all of Staffordshire. Our objective will be to have all the schools in Staffordshire having seen this by the end of this year, pandemic permitting.
“Our intention before Covid was to go in and do the presentation and then work with the teachers to identify the students who they think are more at risk. Unfortunately that hasn’t been able to happen this time around. However, we would be hopeful that is something we can move towards in Stoke and Staffordshire in the next 12 months and solidify it.”
SASCAL’s Personal, Soial and Health Education (PSHE) Co-ordinator Vicki Spall spoke about how last year’s initial success despite the impacts of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic means they wish to roll it out to further establishments in future.
She said: “They delivered a 90-minute presentation within nine of the 14 academy settings [in Stoke-on-Trent] and also a school where students all have an educational healthcare plan and have more behavioural issues and vulnerability.
“There were a number of students who came forward and said ‘I’m involved in this’ and ‘I’m concerned and I’d like some support’, so that’s been really positive.
“The overall evaluation has been that the pupils were really attentive, it got the message across, they were talking about it in breaks and after the session and there was a buzz around it. There has certainly been a number of people who’ve contacted the speaker and told him it was ‘amazing’ and ‘moving’ and ‘opened my eyes’.
“It educates on knife crime. It looks at types of knives, social media influences, injuries that knives can cause, first aid information about how you can support your friends if you are caught up in a situation and also other stories from victims and the horrific injuries that they have received. It is quite hard-hitting and tries to deter young people from carrying knives.
“We got some really positive evaluation from it. It was aimed for children in the 13-to-16 year-old age-range. We targeted those as there are a lot of statistics around the vulnerability of youngsters to such influences at this age.”
Mark Hardern, Youth Violence Coordinator for Staffordshire Police and the force’s main point of contact with TWMAD, said: “Educating those in schools, colleges and universities is just one of a raft of tactics we employ to spread the anti-knife crime message. We don’t just target the young and we speak to all walks of society.
“The police will always get asked what we are doing about knife crime which, clearly, we are part of the solution for. However, by some of the great work taking place with different partners such as TWMAD and the support of SASCAL it all helps in the multi-agency messaging to tackle the issue.”
Anyone who has any concerns around a young person becoming involved in knife crime or carrying a knife can report their concerns via our website, through direct message on Facebook and Twitter or by calling Crimestoppers. In an emergency always call 999.
Tackling knife crime is a priority for Staffordshire Police and partners, under the multi-agency serious violence strategy. It is something that is focused upon every day of the year, with national intensification weeks used to highlight the issue and the work being done in this area.
More information on the campaign and advice is available here: www.staffordshire.police.uk/ditchtheblade
More information on TWMAD can be found at: https://www.twmad.co.uk