Teachwire Logo

Four Ways to Protect Students From ‘County Lines’

Organised gangs are targeting young people to move drugs through rural areas, often with devastating consequences, says Dawn Jotham - but understanding the tactics they use can help teachers stop it happening...

  • Four Ways to Protect Students From ‘County Lines’

As educators, you’ll likely be aware of serious youth violence – crimes where homicide and knife and gun crime play a key role. However, you may not know that research by the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee reports an increase in the number of victims of serious youth violence, and those that are connected to the threat of exploitation and ‘county lines’ activity.

Cutting across numerous crimes, county lines is the trafficking of drugs across rural areas using dedicated phone lines. Predominately targeting vulnerable children, the exploitation of county lines can have a devastating effect with consequences ranging from financial debt, drug addiction, and even loss of Iife.

Tackling county lines is high on the government’s agenda but our vulnerable teens need more support. Adopting a preventative approach will be key, but this is futile if educators are unaware of the warning signs and key stages of exploitation.

1. Targeting

According to Iryna Pona, Policy Manager at The Children’s Society, targeting occurs when a young person has been identified as a potential recruit and that “while children in care or growing up in poverty are often targeted, these perpetrators prey upon any sign of vulnerability.” This often involves careful observation, assessing vulnerabilities and developing trust. Being approached by older teens or adults, victims are ‘befriended’ to help establish a rapport and often refer to experiencing a sense of belonging and power over other people. It’s a potent mix of emotions that is difficult for many teens to disrupt.

Warning signs:
+ Secretive behaviour about their whereabouts.
+ Constant talk or praise about another young person

2. Experiencing

Another stage of recruitment is best known as the ‘experience’ stage and is strategised by creating an appealing lifestyle to reel victims in. These relationships are cultivated through gift giving, offering protection, fostering a sense of belonging, and in some cases ‘gifting’ weapons. It is, at its core, a process of buying the victim’s loyalty in order to bend them to their will.

Warning signs:
+ Dropping out of extra-curricular activities.
+ Adopting a new nickname.

3. Hooked

When young people are ‘hooked’ they associate a sense of pride with the gang. Their positions of responsibility expand and this ownership over activities further cements their feelings of importance and respect. It is also at this stage that victims expand their criminal involvement as they recruit others to join the gang and buy into this lifestyle.

It’s important to note that this type of recruitment can be exhibited through minor offences. For example, the gang may use peer pressure to encourage a victim to smoke marijuana; however, this can quickly escalate to more serious activity.

Warning signs:
+ Possessing large amounts of money or drugs.
+ Breaking ties with old friends and spending time with only one group of people.

4. Trapped

The ‘trapped’ stage is arguably one of the more precarious recruitment strategies for county lines as victims feel dependent on the gang for survival. This can include the provision of money or food, or even drug dependency, and depending on the extent of their involvement with the gang, young people may feel trapped and isolated if threats of blackmail and retribution are used. To this, Ms Pona adds that threats of physical violence such as stabbings, rape, and torture are not uncommon.

Warning signs:
+ Being scared when entering certain areas.
+ Spending considerable amounts of time in towns or cities many miles from their home.

As with many of the challenges facing young people, context is key, and where possible, a contextual safeguarding approach should be adopted. These warning signs will certainly help lay the groundwork for protecting young people, but they are neither prescriptive nor exhaustive, and the location and culture of a community are important considerations. That said, some valuable steps can be taken to help create a safer culture around serious youth violence, including challenging the normalisation of violence, reducing victim-blaming language, and building positive relationships that encourage a healthy dialogue between students and teachers.

Dawn Jotham is a pastoral care specialist at EduCare

Sign up here for your free Brilliant Teacher Box Set

Practical ways to help children with autism / Download your free CPD Make your school more autism-friendly / Get your free download

Find out more here >