Thousands of school children across Bedfordshire are getting a dramatic reminder about the dangers of exploitation by criminal gangs thanks to a new theatre production in schools.
Alter Ego Creative Solutions is performing the play at schools across the county thanks to funding from Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner Kathryn Holloway.
Titled 'County Lines', the production charts the risks children and young people face from criminal gangs, such as county lines drug dealing and other forms of criminal exploitation.
Performances started last month and have so far reached between 1,500 and 2,000 school children every week. Around 15,000 children are expected to see the play by the time the run finishes in May.
Each 40 minute show is followed by a workshop helping the students understand what a healthy relationship looks like, how the grooming process works and who to speak to for support.
Commissioner Holloway said: “We made sure that the theatre company worked with young people from Bedfordshire who’ve been caught up in knife carrying and gang membership themselves to make sure that it sounds as authentic as possible.
"There's no point whatever in softening the reality or the message will be lost and I’m perfectly prepared for complaints if those watching the production never forget it. This isn’t some sort of poor Theatre in Education production. It’s the closest we can get to the dangers presented by those running county lines and recruiting children to do their dirty work for them.
“Drugs are the driving force behind so much crime. From rival drugs gangs violently clashing over territory, burglars stealing to fund their addictions, or organised crime groups funding their criminal enterprises and exploitation – drugs underpin this criminality, which will not be tolerated in Bedfordshire.
“The fact that county lines drugs gangs are targeting children who aren’t even in their teens makes it all the more hideous. Hopefully by speaking directly to these children, Alter Ego can educate them about the reality of gang life and help them recognise how they might be subject to exploitation.”
Last week more than 100 people attended an information evening organised by Bedfordshire Police, The Seeds of Change and CYP First around the issue of county lines and the criminal exploitation of children.
Richard Denton, children and young people development officer at Bedfordshire Police, said: “We are very pleased to be working with Alter Ego, as theatre is such a powerful way to raise awareness around child criminal exploitation (CCE).
“We want to get the message across and warn young people of the dangers of how they can be targeted by organised groups and gangs to groom, trick, trap and manipulate them into trafficking drugs and sometimes weapons. We will have an officer at each production to answer any questions, as well as deal with any concerns pupils, parents or teachers may have.
“We know that county lines drug dealing is intertwined with other criminal activity such as serious violence, child sexual exploitation and modern slavery. That’s why it is so important we continue to raise awareness and educate people about these dangers.”
As well as performances for young students, Alter Ego also offers plays suitable for parents and professionals who work with children.
Lynne Goodwin, from Alter Ego Creative Solutions, added: “We have worked with other forces and are delighted to come to Bedfordshire to show our educational play, which is based around how these gang members are master manipulators.
“They start by offering young people money, drugs and making them feel important and part of something in a world where they’re feeling disenfranchised. They will make it appear their life is exciting and do whatever it takes to get young people to work for them, before they turn their lives upside down saying they owe them money and threaten violence and blackmail to make them deal drugs and move packages.
“They’ll do whatever it takes to keep them working for them. The youngsters are terrified, but trapped in a world they feel unable to get out of. For adult audiences, the play raises awareness of the warning signs of CCE and the coercive process young people may have been through that has resulted in them being criminally exploited – a process that can all too easily make it seem as though they have ‘made their own choices.’”