Youth violence in Northland is a growing concern. In the first of a four-part series looking into the issue, Karina Cooper talks to a mum who says enough is enough after her daughter was brutally attacked.
"Protect our babies," is the plea from a Whangārei mother whose daughter's head was allegedly stomped on more than five times by a teenager.
Her call for community action to remedy youth violence is a cry public health experts say could echo around the country as it has been a prominent issue nationwide for the last 20-odd years.
But for Moana Miru-Makara, now is the time for everyone to confront young people and violence following a vicious attack on her 11-year-old daughter, Aurora Makara.
The after school attack by an unknown teenager left the Whangārei Intermediate School pupil "looking over her shoulder" in fear, Miru-Makara said.
"I'm so angry this happened to my baby. It just isn't right and something needs to be done to protect our babies and help these teenagers who just don't seem to care about the harm they're doing."
A routine weekday in March marked the last time Makara made her usual after school trek along the bike track, popular with students from the four schools close by – Whangārei Intermediate, Whangārei Primary, and Whangārei Boys and Girls high.
"I saw a girl being mean to my friends and was like that's not cool, I don't like people doing that to my friends," Makara said.
She ran up to the teenage girl, who was not wearing a school uniform, and demanded she stop yelling "mean things and nasty things" to her school friends.
The teen's attention turned to Makara as she spat abuse at the intermediate pupil, supposedly calling her a 'f******* b****'.
Makara, angered by the verbal assault, swore back at the girl before then trying to walk away from the situation as the teen stared her down.
"Then she grabbed me by my bag and threw me into the gate and on to the ground."
Where the teenage girl, flanked by a pair of friends, purportedly stomped on Makara's head "six or seven times".
Miru-Makara said her husband became concerned about their daughter when she failed to show up on time at their usual meeting spot which was his younger son's school, Whangārei Primary.
"When Aurora was running five minutes late my husband thought, something isn't right. He started walking down the bike track."
He bumped into a young girl crying and stopped to see if she was okay.
"She looked up at him and recognised him and just yelled at him 'go, Aurora'," Miru-Makara said.
When he reached his daughter, she was being comforted by her Whangārei Primary School teacher from last year, who had phoned police.
A bruised Makara with an extremely sore head was taken to White Cross where her family were relieved to learn she would recover from her minor injuries.
"The teen that did this to my daughter and the others getting caught up in all the violence are old enough to know what is wrong and what is right," Miru-Makara said. "I just want it to stop and I don't want it to happen to anyone else."
An emotionally driven post about the incident Miru-Makara left on a community Facebook page attracted a huge amount of feedback she never expected.
"A lot of mums reached out to me and told me their stories. Some kids are so scared to go to school or walk around town or their neighbourhoods. We saw how scared our daughter was," Miru-Makara said. "I just want to keep our babies safe."
People are less likely to report incidents of assault and fighting by young people which makes it difficult for Northland police to grasp an accurate reflection of the experiences being shared online by people in the region.
But police have an acute awareness about the existence of youth violence in Northland and are taking a variety of steps to address the root cause.
And as much as the online world makes us feel like the problem of violent young people is growing out of control, police and fresh research tell us there is a problem but it has been mostly stagnant for years.
Whangārei-Kaipara police area commander Inspector Marty Ruth told concerned councillors at a Whangārei District Council meeting recently that there is "nothing huge in comparison to recent years".
Since January this year, Whangārei police have attended around eight call-outs to local schools involving minor assaults and fighting.
Two were on the same cycle track where Makara experienced her ordeal.
Mid and Far North relieving Area Commander and strategic partnership manager, Chris McLellan, said police had received a high number of calls related to youth involvement in violence within the communities further north.
On occasion police had attended Mid and Far North schools to support teachers in a situation where all options had been exhausted and police intervention was required.
McLellan said police continued to pour a huge amount of resources and work into the youth space across the district.
"From a policing point of view there are still acts of violence and or criminality that need to be dealt with but alternative resolutions are a wonderful way of trying to correct the behaviour by wrapping around as opposed to criminalising the behaviour."
He used an example of people calling police about kids riding dirt bikes through town in Kaikohe.
"We have to consider are they just kids on bikes or is it criminality or is it boredom - what is it? We can go and deal with the bikes but what would create change is to understand why they're doing it and deal with those issues to affect the behaviours."
Schools were being stretched beyond their roles as they develop innovative initiatives, without much Government support, to aid troubled youth – who instead need expertise support in areas such as mental health outside of the classroom, Te Tai Tokerau Principals' Association president Pat Newman said.
Te Tai Tokerau has a high demand for services in schools to provide extra assistance to a child with challenging behaviour.
The Ministry of Education's Katrina Casey, deputy secretary sector enablement and support, said students with very challenging behaviours and complex situations "often has little to do with the school itself and more to do with a range of social factors".
Exposure to family harm, a lack of role modelling in everyday life, equity, and the absence of hope were some of the social factors impacting young Northlanders - and youth nationwide - highlighted by Dr Terryann Clark (Ngāpuhi), a registered comprehensive nurse with extensive experience in youth health, youth mental health, Māori health and a University of Auckland associate professor.
"I think when you work with violence or you are constantly confronted anecdotally about violence you're going to think that it's getting worse but our data and what our young people are telling us - 7500 young people in Northland, Auckland, and Waikato regions - is there's not a whole lot of difference," Clark said. "The fact people are getting hurt is still incredibly sad and speaks to much bigger social issues."
Part one: Mum's plea 'Protect our babies
Part two: Social factors
Part three: How our education systems are coping
Part four: Solutions