Excluded, exploited, forgotten
Many children in the youth justice system have been excluded from school at some point with data from the prisons inspectorate showing that more than 8 out of 10 children in custody have been excluded. Evidence from casework at Just for Kids Law shows that a significant proportion of these have been excluded because they have been the victims of child criminal exploitation (CCE) and groomed into criminal activity, often into “county-lines” drug trafficking, which involves children and young people being used to transport drugs into different parts of the country.
Unscrupulous gang leaders deliberately target children who have been excluded from school and are on the streets. Without the protections mainstream school affords, these children are inevitability more vulnerable. In some cases, Just for Kids Law has found that criminal exploiters purposefully engineer a young person’s exclusion, making them easier to control.
The report from the charity, based on its casework with vulnerable children over many years, includes the stories of young people for whom exclusion was a tipping point into exploitation at a moment when they could have been protected from harm.
It highlights the fact that there is currently no legal safeguard for young people from school exclusion linked to criminal exploitation which means they can be forced to leave school for behaviour that directly resulted from their exploitation. In the criminal courts a child or young person may have a defense in law to forced criminal behaviour if it resulted from exploitation. This worrying gap in protection leaves excluded children at risk of falling into the control of criminals seeking to exploit them and puts their future, welfare and safety in danger.
Just for Kids Law is calling for schools to urgently change their approach to child criminal exploitation so that it always focuses on doing everything possible to safeguard and protect a child. It is urging the government to change statutory guidance to reduce the risk that victims of criminal exploitation will be excluded and protect the children most vulnerable to exploitation.
The report comes after children have been out of school for six months due to the Covid-19 pandemic and warns that some may have been targeted and exploited during this time. There is also widespread concern of a spike in exclusions in September as schools struggle to reintegrate children who have experienced trauma or a lack of support for additional needs back into education when they reopen. This would result in more children out of mainstream school and at risk of criminal exploitation.
The report is illustrated with a series of case studies, two of which I have reproduced below.
Jake – 16 years old
Jake lived most of his life in London. When his mother moved from London to the Midlands Jake joined a local secondary school to take his GCSEs. Jake did not enjoy the school. He comes from a Black Caribbean background and had been in a school with lots of children who share this ethnicity. In the new school, he felt like an outsider and grew concerned that his classmates were judging him for the colour of his skin. Indeed, he was the victim of a number of instances of racial abuse by classmates and he became disheartened.
Only a few months after joining the school, Jake began to go missing at the weekends. He would not
tell anyone where he had been. After the second episode he attacked a student at school which
appeared unprovoked. He offered no explanation for his behaviour despite the fact he had never been in
serious trouble throughout his school career and had never been violent with anyone before.
He was permanently excluded. Shortly after his exclusion he went missing again, this time during the
week. He was found by police in London who ca m to suspect that he had fallen victim of trafficking and
Jake is now out of education. He has no educators keeping him occupied and supervised during the day. It has become much more difficult to keep him out of the hands of his exploiters. The family suspect that he was coaxed into attacking another student, given that this incident was unprovoked, out of character and came at a time when he was in the control of people using him to transport drugs. Whether that is proved or not, his exclusion was a gift to those people, and put Jake at much greater risk.
Javon – 14 years old
Javon has a diagnosis of autism. He lives with his mum and attends a mainstream secondary school.
He generally enjoyed school although was, at times, bullied by his peers. He developed a keen intent to
avoid conflict at all costs. On one day he was filmed by CCTV placing a small plastic bag in a bin on the
school grounds. A staff member found it to contain marijuana. He was excluded that day. The police
Javon spoke with the police and they took no action against him, writing that they were satisfied he was
coerced into carrying the substance onto the school. Javon disclosed that an older boy had hassled him to take the drugs from him. This had gone on for some time and Javon just wanted it to stop. His exclusion puts him in limbo, without specialist support for his disability. His parents fear him being placed at the pupil referral unit because children known to deal in drugs attend and his family are concerned he will become more involved.
Thanks to Matt Seymour for kind permission to use his header image, originally published on Unsplash.