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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » The Role of Schools and Communities in Preventing Criminal Exploitation

The Role of Schools and Communities in Preventing Criminal Exploitation

In recent years, the UK has faced a growing concern regarding the criminal exploitation of children and young people. Vulnerable youths are increasingly targeted and manipulated by criminal organisations for criminal activity including drug trafficking and grooming. The threat of criminal exploitation continues to grow, with an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 children being current victims of criminal exploitation by county lines gangs in the UK.

In light of this growing issue, today we will look at the important role that schools and communities can play in preventing the exploitation of children. By examining strategies, initiatives and collaborative efforts, we will explore how proactive measures can be implemented to safeguard vulnerable youths and create safer environments free from the threat of criminal exploitation.

Understanding Criminal Exploitation

Criminal exploitation occurs when young people, often those who are vulnerable or impressionable, are coerced, manipulated or forced into engaging in illegal activities by criminal organisations or individuals. This exploitation can take various forms and can exploit different vulnerabilities and circumstances, particularly targeting young people who may be more susceptible to manipulation and coercion. The criminals take advantage of an individual for criminal purposes and personal gain.

When criminals coerce someone under the age of 18 to commit crimes for them, this is referred to as child criminal exploitation (CCE). Even if the child or young person looks like they are a willing participant in the criminal behaviour, they may still be being exploited – even if they do not see themselves as being a victim. 

One of the most common types of criminal exploitation is county lines drug trafficking. This involves the exploitation of young people to transport and distribute drugs from urban to rural areas, often using dedicated phone lines (known as county lines) to make the trade. Vulnerable individuals, including children and teenagers, are recruited and exploited to carry drugs, money or weapons, exposing them to significant risks and harm.

Another common type of exploitation is grooming for criminal activities. Criminals may groom young individuals to carry out criminal activities, including: 

Through manipulation and coercion, perpetrators exploit vulnerabilities to coerce victims into illegal behaviours, often under the pretence of friendship or support.

These forms of exploitation not only jeopardise the safety and well-being of young people but also contribute to the perpetuation of criminal activities and the strength of criminal networks. Understanding how criminal exploitation works is essential for developing effective prevention strategies and safeguarding vulnerable individuals from exploitation.

Although any young person could become a victim of criminal exploitation, certain risk factors increase the likelihood and can make them a target to criminals. Risk factors can include:

  • Being in foster care.
  • Social isolation (e.g. not having any friends).
  • Being a victim of neglect or abuse.
  • Having a disability.
  • Having mental health difficulties.
  • Not having a safe or stable home.
  • Being excluded from mainstream education.
  • Living in poverty.
  • Being connected to other people involved in a gang or criminal activity.
  • Going through a traumatic event, such as the death of a parent.
  • Being a victim of sexual violence.

Young people are often targeted and manipulated through various means, including:

  • Grooming: Criminals may use grooming tactics to build relationships of trust and dependency with young people. This can involve offering gifts, attention or emotional support to establish control over their victims.
  • Deceptive recruitment: Criminal organisations may lure young people into illegal activities by offering false promises of money, status or belonging. They exploit vulnerabilities such as poverty, lack of opportunities or social isolation to recruit individuals into criminal networks.
  • Threats and intimidation: Some young people may be coerced into criminal activities through threats, violence or intimidation. Criminals may exploit fear or vulnerability to ensure compliance.
Schools and communities preventing criminal exploitation

The Role of Schools

Schools play a pivotal role in educating students about the risks of criminal exploitation and equipping them with the knowledge and skills to protect themselves. By improving awareness, providing resources and facilitating open discussions, schools can empower students to make informed decisions and avoid criminal exploitation.

Schools have a responsibility to integrate education on the risks of criminal exploitation into their curriculum. This includes incorporating age-appropriate lessons on topics such as personal safety, online safety, understanding coercion and recognising grooming tactics. Schools should encourage critical thinking skills that teach students how to assess and question information, particularly when faced with potential recruitment or manipulation by criminals. Teaching students to recognise and challenge deceptive tactics can help prevent exploitation. 

Staff training, for example, on how to spot the signs of exploitation and how to report any concerns, is necessary to help reduce the likelihood of exploitation. Additionally, monitoring attendance and reporting any concerns (such as repeated unexplained absences) are other potential ways that schools can help prevent exploitation. 

Schools must also prioritise creating safe and supportive environments where students feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics related to exploitation. Building trusting relationships between students and school staff encourages open communication and a relationship built on trust. This can help schools to intervene quickly if concerns arise.

Some ways that schools can help to educate students about the risks of criminal exploitation include:

  • Awareness programmes
    Schools can organise awareness programmes and presentations to educate students about the dangers of criminal exploitation, including the tactics used by perpetrators and the potential consequences of involvement in illegal activities. These programmes raise awareness and empower students to recognise and report exploitation.
  • Workshops
    Interactive workshops provide opportunities for students to engage directly with the learning, ask questions and explore real-life scenarios related to criminal exploitation. Workshops may cover topics such as online safety, peer pressure and strategies for resisting coercion.
  • Peer discussions
    Peer discussions create spaces for students to share their experiences, concerns and perspectives on issues related to exploitation. Peer-led initiatives, support groups or mentoring programmes allow students to support one another and develop strategies for staying safe.
  • Guest speakers and role models
    Inviting guest speakers, including law enforcement officers, survivors of exploitation or community advocates, can provide valuable insights and personal stories that resonate with students. Hearing first-hand accounts helps students understand the realities of exploitation and reinforces the importance of vigilance and resilience.

By actively engaging students in discussions, workshops and awareness programmes, schools can empower them to recognise the signs of exploitation, protect themselves and their peers and seek help when needed. Collaboration with parents, community organisations and law enforcement agencies strengthens these efforts and creates a comprehensive approach to preventing criminal exploitation within the school environment.

Community Engagement

Local communities play an important role in preventing criminal exploitation by creating supportive environments, providing resources and collaborating with schools, families and the local police and social services to support at-risk young people and address any vulnerabilities in the community. By being proactive and working together, communities can empower individuals, support at-risk youth and make young people more resistant to exploitation.

Some ways the local community can contribute to the prevention of criminal exploitation include: 

  • Building awareness
    Community-wide awareness campaigns raise awareness about the tactics used by criminal exploiters and the risks associated with criminal exploitation. By educating the community through various channels, including social media, local events and community forums, communities can educate residents and empower them to recognise and respond to exploitation.
  • Creating safe spaces
    Communities can establish safe spaces, such as youth centres, community centres and after-school programmes, where children can access support, guidance and positive role models. These spaces provide opportunities for youths to engage in positive activities and create a sense of belonging, which can reduce the likelihood of children and young people becoming involved in criminal exploitation.
  • Engaging parents and guardians
    Community outreach efforts should involve parents, guardians and caregivers in discussions about child safety and exploitation. Providing resources, workshops and parenting classes equips adults with the knowledge and skills to protect their children from exploitation and effectively communicate with them about potential risks.
  • Collaborating with schools and law enforcement
    Collaborative efforts between local schools, law enforcement agencies and community organisations improve prevention strategies and allow for earlier intervention. By sharing information, coordinating responses and implementing joint initiatives, communities create a united front against child exploitation.
  • Establishing support networks
    Community support networks provide vital resources and assistance to individuals at risk of exploitation or those affected by it. These networks may include shelters, counselling services, substance abuse programmes and other support services tailored to the needs of vulnerable populations. By offering a safety net and access to resources, communities can help families and individuals navigate challenges and build resilience.
  • Creating mentorship programmes
    Mentorship programmes pair vulnerable individuals, particularly youths, with positive role models and mentors who provide guidance, support and encouragement. Mentors can offer valuable insights, share life experiences and empower their mentees to make positive choices. This can reduce their susceptibility to exploitation and provide alternative pathways to success.
  • Promoting positive activities
    Communities can provide opportunities for young people to engage in constructive activities that they enjoy and choose to engage in, such as sports, arts, volunteer work and leadership programmes. By offering alternatives to negative influences and creating spaces for personal growth and development, communities help reduce the risks of exploitation.
  • Implement reporting mechanisms
    Implementing accessible and confidential reporting mechanisms enables community members to report concerns or incidents of criminal exploitation quickly. Hotlines, online reporting platforms and partnerships with law enforcement agencies encourage people to use the reporting process, which can help to ensure quick intervention. By encouraging reporting and taking action on reported cases, communities can hold criminals accountable and prevent further harm to children.
Preventing criminal exploitation

Early Intervention

There are many signs that could indicate a young person is a victim of criminal exploitation. For example: 

  • Sudden changes in behaviour, for example, being unusually aggressive or violent.
  • Becoming secretive.
  • Unexplained cash or possessions, such as mobile phones, electronics, jewellery and designer clothing.
  • Associating with known criminals or known exploiters.
  • Unexplained absences from school.
  • Going missing from home or staying out late at night.
  • Visible signs of physical harm, such as bruises or cuts.
  • Being found in areas away from their normal location.
  • Having more than one mobile phone.
  • Using or possessing drugs or alcohol.
  • Having friendships, relationships and associations with people who are older than they are.
  • Carrying a weapon.
  • Receiving excessive texts and phone calls.
  • Not spending time with their usual friends.
  • A decline in academic performance.
  • Significant emotional changes, such as becoming withdrawn, scared or angry.
  • A loss of interest in usual activities and hobbies.
  • Sudden and unexplained changes in lifestyle.
  • Overall changes in well-being.
  • Being in possession of hotel cards or keys to unknown places.
  • Looking dishevelled when returning home.
  • Engaging in self-harm.

Early intervention is essential to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable individuals by criminals. By identifying signs of vulnerability and early indicators of potential exploitation, educators, parents and community members can be proactive, look out for the signs of exploitation and intervene when necessary to safeguard young people from harm and exploitation.

Early identification allows for timely intervention before individuals become too deep in criminal activities. By addressing vulnerabilities and providing support at an early stage, the likelihood of exploitation can be significantly reduced. Prevention is key when it comes to criminal exploitation. Early intervention not only protects individuals from immediate harm but also promotes their long-term well-being by preventing the negative impacts associated with exploitation, such as trauma, criminalisation and a criminal record, the educational implications and social exclusion.

Collaboration and Support

Collaboration between various stakeholders is an important factor in preventing child criminal exploitation. By working together, schools, law enforcement agencies, social services and community organisations can share information, resources and expertise to develop comprehensive prevention strategies and provide effective support to vulnerable children.

Collaboration allows for the sharing of information and intelligence between different agencies and organisations, enabling early identification of potential risks and intervention before exploitation occurs. By working together, stakeholders can develop coordinated responses to cases of suspected or confirmed criminal exploitation, ensuring that victims receive the necessary support and perpetrators are held accountable.

Collaboration allows for the pooling of resources, including funding, personnel and specialised services, to address the complex needs of vulnerable children and families more effectively. Each party brings unique perspectives and capabilities to the table, allowing for a more holistic approach to prevention that addresses the various factors contributing to child exploitation, such as poverty, substance abuse and family dysfunction.

There are multiple previous examples showing successful collaboration initiatives between multiple stakeholders in preventing criminal exploitation, such as:

  • Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hubs (MASH)
    MASH brings together professionals from social services, the police, healthcare, education and other agencies to assess and respond to concerns about child welfare, including cases of exploitation. MASH facilitates information sharing, joint decision-making and coordinated interventions to safeguard vulnerable children.
  • Community task forces
    Community task forces consist of representatives from schools, law enforcement agencies, community organisations and local government working together to address specific issues, such as youth gang involvement or online grooming. Task forces develop prevention strategies, conduct outreach and education campaigns and implement targeted interventions to reduce the risk of exploitation.
  • School-based support services
    Schools collaborate with social services, mental health professionals and community organisations to provide comprehensive support services to students at risk of exploitation. This may include counselling, mentoring programmes, academic support and referrals to external agencies for specialised assistance.
  • Joint training programmes
    Stakeholders participate in joint training programmes and workshops to enhance their understanding of child exploitation, improve their response capabilities and strengthen inter-agency collaboration. Training initiatives promote information sharing, communication and coordination among professionals working with vulnerable children.

Preventative Measures

Preventing child criminal exploitation requires a multifaceted approach. By implementing preventative measures, young people can be empowered to resist manipulation, make informed decisions and avoid criminal activity. 

Some measures that can be effective in preventing criminal exploitation include:

Awareness campaigns

  • Educating about the risks: Awareness campaigns educate young people about the tactics used by exploiters, the potential consequences of involvement in criminal activities and the available support services. By raising awareness, young people are better equipped to recognise criminal exploitation and are less likely to be manipulated or coerced.
  • Promoting safety: Campaigns emphasise the importance of personal safety, online safety and healthy relationships and can empower young people to protect themselves from exploitation and seek help when needed. Through interactive workshops, presentations and digital resources, awareness campaigns engage young people in discussions about exploitation and equip them with the knowledge and skills to stay safe.

Counselling services

  • Emotional support: Counselling services provide young people with a safe space to discuss their concerns, experiences and emotions related to exploitation. Trained counsellors offer emotional support, validation and coping strategies, helping young people navigate trauma, stress and other challenges associated with exploitation.
  • Trauma-informed care: Counselling services utilise trauma-informed approaches to address the complex needs of young people affected by exploitation. By understanding the impact of trauma on behaviour and well-being, counsellors can tailor interventions to promote healing, resilience and recovery.

Diversion programmes

  • Alternative pathways: Diversion programmes offer young people alternative pathways away from involvement in criminal activities. These programmes provide opportunities for education, skill development, employment and positive engagement, diverting young people away from the cycle of exploitation and criminality.
  • Supportive interventions: Diversion programmes incorporate supportive interventions, such as mentoring, case management and wraparound services, to address the underlying factors contributing to vulnerability, such as poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and family dysfunction.

These preventative measures can empower young people to make informed decisions, recognise potential risks and assert their boundaries. By enhancing their knowledge, skills and self-confidence, young people are better equipped to resist manipulation and coercion. Preventative measures focus on prevention and early intervention, addressing vulnerabilities and risk factors before exploitation occurs. By intervening proactively, schools, communities, families and professionals can disrupt the cycle of exploitation and provide young people with the support they need to thrive.

Preventative measures, such as counselling services, also provide young people with access to emotional support, guidance and resources to address trauma and other challenges associated with exploitation. Diversion programmes offer opportunities for positive engagement, skill development and access to supportive networks, reducing the likelihood of involvement in criminal activities.

The role of schools and communities


In conclusion, the fight against criminal exploitation requires collective action from schools, communities and various stakeholders, including the police and social services. By improving awareness, implementing early intervention, collaboration and support, stakeholders can help to protect children and young people from criminal exploitation and create safer communities for young people. Through collective action and community engagement, schools and communities can work towards ensuring that every young person has the opportunity to thrive away from the threat of criminal exploitation.

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About the author

Nicole Murphy

Nicole Murphy

Nicole graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Psychology in 2013. She works as a writer and editor and tries to combine all her passions - writing, education, and psychology. Outside of work, Nicole loves to travel, go to the beach, and drink a lot of coffee! She is currently training to climb Machu Picchu in Peru.

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