No, it was not the educational system which failed Liam Debono

No school can replace what is missing from home: the sense of feeling grounded, loved and cared for, but with the firm hand of discipline to guide them during their most turbulent adolescent years

Liam Debono
Liam Debono

It is perfectly understandable that a defence lawyer has to use all means possible to lessen the charges when representing his client, because that is his role. However, a comment made by Liam Debono’s lawyer, cannot be allowed to slide.

As reported by, (translated from Maltese), the lawyer said: “He (Liam) is a product of our Maltese educational system, as he was still in school up to last year.”

The implication here seems to be that Liam turned out the way he did because the educational system somehow failed him - which is a highly unfair blanket statement that casts a negative shadow over all those who somehow came into contact with this obviously troubled teenager.

As soon as the name of the under-age hit-and-run driver who grievously injured PC Simon Schembri was made public, I saw a number of posts by teachers who had at some point come into contact with him over the years: they all repeated the same story of trying to help him, of being aware of his difficult background and of trying to reach out and get him back on the right path. One teacher said that even when he was in Form 1, he already had a grudge against authority and constantly rebelled against any form of discipline. That means the traits which would lead him to this fateful day, were there even at the age of 11.

But the reality is that there is only so much that teachers can do, especially in classroom situations where there is not just one, but perhaps a number of other ‘Liams’, all acting up, all exhibiting disruptive anti-social behaviour and all, in their own way, actually crying out for help.

I am not going to discuss the details of Liam’s background because what I have heard so far is based only on loose talk, which may or may not be rooted in actual fact. What is clearly evident from the court proceedings, however, is that this teenager has probably never bonded at a humane level, and is absolutely devoid of empathy and compassion. During the harrowing, graphic testimony of the police officers who were on the scene, and who eventually caught up with the boy and arrested him, when he was asked, “do you realise what you have done?”, Liam’s only reply was to tell them how he had bought the stolen car license plates.

It emerged in Court that he started swerving the car back and forth, not because he was not aware PC Schembri was being dragged underneath the car. He did know. He wanted to dislodge him, much like one would try to dislodge a piece of cardboard wedged in the undercarriage.

“I’ve seen people crying because they ran over a cat... This guy was like nothing happened, like he had just had breakfast,” Inspector Pierreguido Saliba said in Court. During questioning the accused remained emotionless, passive and uncooperative, the Inspector added.

What should concern us as a society is how it is possible for someone of such a tender age to have reached the point where the life of another human being means so little to him.

In the UK, where teenage stabbings have spiralled out of control, a term for these type of teenagers was coined as far back as 2009, that is almost ten years ago, describing them as ‘feral youth’. It is an extremely apt, if not terrifying, description of a lost generation of young male teenagers who are illiterate, school dropouts who come from low income families, usually with no father or father figure in their lives. They are idle and restless, so they join gangs to gain a sense of identity, belonging and empowerment, while trying to appear tough in front of their peers. Rap stars and drug lords are their role models and ‘how to get rich quick’ is their motto. They start with petty crime and many of those who are caught and have their first brush with the law relapse again and again, gradually moving on to more serious crimes.

In the 2009 report I read about the UK situation, the similarities with what is happening here is uncanny. There was an influx of skilled migrants from other EU countries, willing to work hard, while many male teenagers born and bred in the UK had no desire or motivation to even travel a few miles for work. “One young man I met in South London, for example, had never crossed the Thames because he couldn't read the bus timetables,” the article read. “Four years ago, I met a young Pole who was then sharing a room in Ealing, West London. He could barely speak English and was working for the minimum wage. He has now opened a beauty salon in St John's Wood, a smart area of North London.”

In Malta, where from all accounts, lack of jobs is certainly not the problem, we are still facing a comparable scenario. Some find it easy to blame the educational system for the number of male youth like Liam, who keep slipping through the cracks, but ultimately, no school can replace what is missing from home: the sense of feeling grounded, loved and cared for, but with the firm hand of discipline to guide them during their most turbulent adolescent years.

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