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Gang Culture can Affect Young People Anywhere, Anytime

What do you know about county lines? No one who works with children can afford to ignore the facts, insists Daniel Jarrett...

  • Gang Culture can Affect Young People Anywhere, Anytime

These days, the topics of county lines and rising gang crime are never far from the national papers.

With headlines like ‘gang TERRORISES rural town’, accompanied by clichéd photos of hooded young people, it’s easy to view this issue as horrifying, yet distant.

It’s also tempting to perceive all gang members as villains who have actively opted for a lifestyle of crime. But what happens when those gang members are vulnerable children – and students in your care?

I’m the safeguarding manager at School-Home Support, a charity dedicated to helping children overcome barriers to education, such as poverty, gang affiliation, and abuse.

In recent years, we have seen a rising number of young people being at risk of child criminal exploitation.

This is when gangs and criminal networks exploit vulnerable children to traffick drugs and money across the UK.

These youngsters are made to travel across county boundaries, using dedicated mobile phone lines to supply drugs to small cities, towns, and coastal areas (hence, it is also referred to as ‘county lines’).

It’s a growing problem, with individuals as young as 12 becoming involved.

Now, anyone who spends time with children will know that they can be bright, brilliant, and full of potential – but they’re also vulnerable and at risk of exploitation.

As educators interacting with young people regularly, your support is of immense value when it comes to recognising the signs of a child being vulnerable and at risk.

Know your students

Children who feel unsafe, unloved, or unable to cope are highly likely to be targeted by gangs. This could include children from chaotic family backgrounds, those living in care, or trapped in poverty.

Young people who have experienced previous abuse, or neglect, or those with current or previous offending behaviour are also at risk of coercion.

It’s important to note, however, that children at risk of criminal exploitation can be found in all schools, from state and Pupil Referral Units, to private and grammar schools.

Children from all backgrounds are being targeted by gangs across the country.

Child criminal exploitation often occurs without the young person immediately being aware of it.

Gang members may offer something in return for the victim’s cooperation – from money, alcohol, and clothes, to improved status.

This exchange will usually be manipulated so that the child feels in debt to their exploiter. Gang members with more power (be it through age, economic status, etc) use physical threats as another form of control.

However they become trapped, the children involved feel like they have no choice but to continue doing what the gangs want. They are therefore at a greatly increased risk of sexual exploitation, violence, and drug addiction.

But there are ways you, as their teacher, can support students at risk – and it doesn’t involve retraining as a criminal detective to know whether your students are being affected.

The signs are often right in front of you, and there are straightforward actions you can take to make an impact.

Take Simon, for example, who was criminally exploited in ‘county lines’ gang crime at just 13 years of age.

Spotting the signs

Teachers had begun to notice Simon was regularly missing school. When he did attend, his behaviour was increasingly aggressive. He seemed to be isolated from his usual friends, and several teachers suspected older people in the community were waiting for Simon outside of school.

The combination of issues just couldn’t be ignored, so Simon was referred to me, his SHS Practitioner. We work alongside teachers in school, providing vital pastoral support to families with low engagement, attendance, and attainment.

My work began with an initial home-visit, where Simon’s mum mentioned he regularly stayed out late and sometimes stayed over at friends’ houses – but she didn’t know who these friends were.

One week later, Simon was caught in possession of cannabis. We quickly established a multi-agency network around the family, including Simon’s school mentor and a Youth Offending Team (YOT) worker.

Then one day, Simon went missing, leaving everything behind but his phone and wallet. After two days, Simon made contact to say he was OK, but still didn’t come home. A week later, he finally returned – unkempt and extremely hungry.

If you have a student who is increasingly absent from lessons, and often goes missing, or seems to have new friends outside of the school – keep an eye out.

If you notice they suddenly have unexplained money and possessions, or even have two phones, these are important signs to pay attention to, likewise if they’re involved with older people, have unexplained injuries, or display changes in behaviour such as anger or self-harm.

To ensure the focus is on the welfare of a vulnerable child, it’s crucial that you report any concerns to your designated safeguarding lead.

What can you do?

The YOT worker and I decided to meet with Simon away from his home. As we listened without judgment, Simon eventually disclosed he’d been asked by a local gang to sell drugs and had been arrested.

As a result, the gang had threatened Simon – either he sold further drugs for them, or they would seriously hurt his family. It transpired that when Simon was missing, he had actually been in Scotland selling drugs and staying in a house where he was very scared all the time.

As a teacher, you can speak to the family about positive routines (eg setting curfews), and signpost parents to places that can provide further support.

It’s important to build the self-confidence of a young person who has been criminally exploited, so arranging one-to-one work with a school mentor and/or youth worker could be really beneficial.

Engaging the young person in extracurricular activities at school is also an effective way to keep them in a safe space.

It’s important to share the warning signs with parents, as tackling such a complex issue requires a whole family and multi-agency approach, and parents are a vital element of that team.

We told Simon he had done the right thing in telling us. An immediate strategy meeting was arranged with the police, social care, and housing, and Simon and his family were thankfully moved immediately.

We ensured that the local social care department and Simon’s new school were made aware of the risk and a mentor was assigned to Simon to work with him moving forward.

Stark statistics: children and gang culture today

  • The Children’s Commissioner estimates there are at least 46,000 children in England involved in gang activity
  • It is estimated that around 4,000 teenagers in London alone are being exploited through child criminal exploitation, or ‘county lines’
  • There are currently over 720 lines across England and Wales
  • London is the largest hub, currently having 283 county lines reported
  • The youngest reported child involved in county lines was 12
  • Even younger children have been found in dealers’ homes
  • An estimated 85% of county lines members carry knives
  • Another 75% carry firearms
  • For more information, visit tinyurl.com/shscountylines

Daniel Jarrett is safeguarding manager for School-Home Support (SHS), a national charity that supports young people to overcome challenges beyond the classroom in order to thrive and achieve at school.

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