How drug gangs exploited Covid to snare new recruits

How drug gangs exploited Covid to snare new recruits: Lockdown saw 100,000 pupils vanish from the school system. Here we reveal how many, groomed on social media, fell prey to violent criminality… with devastating consequences

Alisha is terrified. Terrified that one day soon she’ll open her front door to a policeman who’ll break the news that ‘my 15-year-old son has been murdered … or that he’s responsible for the death of another kid’.

This wasn’t a fear she ever used to have. Until Covid, Jayden was ‘jogging along OK. Busy, busy, busy with his boxing and the youth club’. But with lockdown he had no outlet for his energy.

‘He was crashing round our tiny flat like a tiger in a cage,’ she recalls. Online learning only exacerbated his frustration and sense of failure. He just couldn’t get the hang of it. He felt stupid and worthless. School just added more stress onto stress.’

Jayden grew depressed and barely emerged from his room.

At school and immersed in his clubs, her son had been safe from the gangs in their part of South London. 

But stuck indoors, glued to his screen, he now scrolled endlessly through social media posts: cash stacked up on coffee tables, heavy gold chains with diamonds set between the links, teenagers posing with bags of weed and Rambo knives ‘the length of some children’s arms’.

A hard-hitting report into the issue from the Centre for Social Justice think tank revealed the numbers had risen from 60,000 in 2019 to 94,000 in 2020. Additionally, it pointed out that more than 700 schools were now missing an entire class-worth of children [File photo] 

Posted by gang members to glorify themselves and lure in new members, the single mother tells me: ‘This is his reality now — there was no school or youth worker to tell him different. And he’s not listening to his mum.’

Now, she admitted, he stays away for days at a time. Her local authority was threatening to prosecute her for his non-attendance at school. How does he spend his days? Alisha fell silent but I could not help noticing a brand new and very expensive TV in the sitting room.

Alisha’s son is one of the army of children who have disappeared from Britain’s schools since the pandemic, one of the nation’s ‘ghost children’.

This term was first used at the end of last year, when it emerged that 100,000 youngsters who had good attendance records before the pandemic were now missing from school more often than they turned up, with many having dropped out of sight of the authorities altogether.

A hard-hitting report into the issue from the Centre for Social Justice think tank revealed the numbers had risen from 60,000 in 2019 to 94,000 in 2020.

Additionally, it pointed out that more than 700 schools were now missing an entire class-worth of children.

On Saturday, I explored the role that school — or a lack of it — played in children becoming disenfranchised over lockdown.

Sometimes it happened despite the best efforts of teachers and staff. But too often home learning and the consequent lack of oversight, not to mention inadequate schools and lazy teachers, meant kids slipped out of the system into often toxic situations.

Today, I will explore some of the consequences for ghost children — from those whose mental health has deteriorated catastrophically to others drawn into a world of drugs and violence.

Because in the vacuum left by schools and youth clubs, gangs surged in.

As Sir Iain Duncan Smith, founder of the Centre for Social Justice, observed: ‘Gangs have used lockdowns for recruitment drives.’

Jayden’s experience sadly illustrates how young people were easy prey. Schools and youth clubs had offered teenagers like him companionship, competition, validation and adventure.

At school and immersed in his clubs, her son had been safe from the gangs in their part of South London. But stuck indoors, glued to his screen, he now scrolled endlessly through social media posts: cash stacked up on coffee tables, heavy gold chains with diamonds set between the links, teenagers posing with bags of weed and Rambo knives ‘the length of some children’s arms’. A stock image is used above [File photo]

In particular, for boys like Jayden raised in one of this country’s one million fatherless families, these organisations also provided a male role model.

As Cristina Odone, head of the CSJ Family Policy Unit, points out: ‘These young boys long for a father figure to offer guidance and boundaries.’

Over lockdown their only source of excitement was gang culture and their only role models, gang leaders. Unlike schools and clubs, gangs did not shut down during lockdown.

Sadly, I know where this all leads. I’ve seen first-hand how lives are wasted, having befriended four members of a South London gang 15 years ago — three of whom have been in and out of prison ever since.

Is this the future for today’s army of ghost children — but now on an unprecedented scale and at an unimaginable cost?

The impact of lockdown on teenage boys has been profound. Even a hardened drug dealer in his 20s told me he had noticed the difference.

It is not just the dramatic escalation of boys clamouring to carry his product from London to coastal towns — known as county lines crime. It is their reckless behaviour. Left to their own devices they’ve become — in the dealer’s own words — ‘crazies and little nutcases’.

He admitted there was no need for him ‘to go out on the roads’ any longer as ambitious and desperate potential new recruits are everywhere.

One young boy described to me how he had been drawn into gang culture during the pandemic. He is only 13 and had previously attended school.

Over lockdown, in order to escape his tiny, claustrophobic flat, he’d go outside and join older boys enjoying a smoke on the block.

He had known them by sight before but now they grew friendly. When they asked him to hold some drugs for them, he was excited and flattered. As he said: ‘There wasn’t much else going on in my life.’

But then he lost the parcel — he refused to tell me how. In retaliation, his new ‘friends’ robbed his mother as she walked home with the shopping.

‘That was the week’s shop and her pay,’ said her son. ‘We had to go hungry for a few days. She doesn’t know it was down to me. And I’m not planning to tell her.’

But he said it was a wake-up call. He spent the rest of lockdown helping his mum, cooking and caring for his two younger siblings.

He tried going back to school, but his attendance is sporadic.

After everything he had experienced over the pandemic, he doesn’t feel like a schoolboy any more: ‘They treat me like a naughty child when I am an adult with adult responsibilities now.’

His story is typical. Over lockdown the lure and glamour of gang culture spread far beyond its normal constituency.

Young people who would never normally get involved were made vulnerable by the isolation.

Before, parents had rationed how much time their kids spent online. But online learning turned all that around. Now, as one boy complained, they were on him to sit at his computer ‘every moment of the day’.

Here, there is a whole wealth of temptation, literally at their fingertips, 24-hours-a-day, a major one being drill music.

This is a hyper-violent genre of rap and young people are drawn in as they start to follow the feuds between its teen rappers — 14 and 15-year-olds who appear in videos masked up and snarling out lyrics like, ‘Bang, bang, I made the street messy. Bang, bang and I don’t feel sorry for his mum.’

The music also leads young viewers to the world of gangs on Snapchat, where they can connect and follow each other in their neighbourhood.

They can see what the local gangs are up to, buy drugs and zombie knives (it can be used as a criminal network) and comment on the latest ‘beefs’ [feuds], ‘violations’ [humiliations]’ and street battles.

Rival gangs taunt each other here and document their fights and crimes. They are discussed and awarded points as in a football game — only these points are earned through injury and death.

Murders often start with a row on Snapchat — something as trivial as a ‘like’ or a comment on a girl taken the wrong way. Juries are now routinely shown the lead-up to a murder all recorded on Snapchat.

Boys call each other out then meet up in the street or a park — often armed with knives — and fight it out like old-fashioned duellists with the same stringent code of honour. They know if they turn and run, their humiliation will light up social media and inspire a deluge of negative comments.

They would rather die than risk that kind of notoriety. Bereft of good, adult male role models, they are pathetically vulnerable to the scorn of their contemporaries.

The figures speak for themselves. Young people are dying in unprecedented rates around the country. A total of 30 teenagers were murdered in London alone last year, the highest since records began in 2003. Murders involving victims aged 16-24 have risen by a dramatic 60 per cent in the past five years.

The culture is not confined to the inner cities. It is spreading like wildfire throughout the country. Nowhere is immune.

When Reece Tansey, 15, got into an online dispute with two boys, James White, 16, and Mark Nuttall, 15, they arranged on Snapchat a confrontation in a park in Bolton, Lancashire, in May 2021.

Reece turned up at the meeting spot unarmed and alone. But the other two ‘pretended they were gangsters’ according to the prosecution in their trial and came armed with a knife.

They ran Reece down and stabbed him to death. That was not the end of it. The main purpose of the confrontation, pointed out the judge in his summing up, was for White and Nuttall to boast to their followers on social media.

But you don’t need to be involved in drugs or pseudo gang violence to have become a ghost child.

For others, especially girls, the pandemic was a path into cripplingly poor mental health.

Chloe teaches in a large, all girls comprehensive in a leafy, outer London suburb. Rated outstanding by Ofsted, the school is in high demand with parents. Even so, an eye-watering 30 per cent of pupils are either absent or only intermittently turning up to school: they turn up for a day or a week, or come in for one lesson before going to student services saying they can’t cope and wait for their parents to pick them up.

‘The mental health issues among my girls is a pandemic in itself,’ Chloe says. ‘And it is not necessarily the obvious children that go missing.’

Ghost children come from comfortable, middle-class homes, too, it seems.

Often locked down with two parents, both working hard from home in a spacious house, Chloe says these parents ‘had little time to supervise their children, who just sat isolated in their bedrooms on social media and not engaging’.

Chloe explained that these students — many of whom had been near the top of the class pre-pandemic — had missed so much learning that they fell behind and ‘then it all becomes overwhelming’.

Reality hit when these girls returned to school. ‘They’re humiliated. The closer to their exam year, the more they panic at the sheer amount of work they have to make up.’

Before Covid, these girls were predicted to go to university and enjoy a career. But many got much lower grades than they expected.

There was a lot in the Press about grade inflation, explains Chloe, but almost nothing about students who had done next to no work.

She said: ‘Obviously, teachers couldn’t grade work that had not been done. And it’s totally derailed the plans of these girls.

‘Their parents would say their characters have changed. They are a different person now. The pandemic has diminished their life chances.’

Chloe recalled one despairing mother who begged her for help with her ‘essentially agoraphobic’ daughter. ‘They have lost their bright, engaging child,’ says Chloe. ‘And she is from a cohesive, happy family,’ Chloe sighs.

‘And so another mother has given up her job — she is the breadwinner so it means real financial hardship — to concentrate full time on coaxing her daughter back into school.’

It is only now that we are understanding the scale of the damage done to young people during the pandemic.

While we concentrated on the elderly, the opposite age group were all but abandoned and very little thought was given to their future.

Without doubt, the isolation many young people experienced during lockdown had a seismic impact. You don’t need to have become a ghost child to have experienced it either.

As two boys from opposite ends of the social spectrum said to me, using almost identical words: ‘Lockdown diminished me as a human being.’

That is what we have done to children. And make no mistake about it, we will all be paying for that neglect for many years to come.

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