They have arrested the alleged ringleader amid fears a network of up to 40 pupils, some as young as 14, were selling drugs to classmates. Two 16-year-old boys are said to have supplied cocaine and cannabis to the other children in the network operating in the 1,200-pupil secondary – creating the equivalent of a dealer in every class. Children at Kingsdown School in Swindon were even given scales and bags to measure out and sell the narcotics.
Officers fear girls as young as 14 were pestered for sex in exchange for cocaine, while others were threatened with violence if they went for help.
Wiltshire Police launched a dawn raid on Wednesday and held a 27-year-old man on suspicion of being concerned in the supply of class B drugs. He was also arrested on suspicion of inciting a child to engage in sexual activity.
He has since been released but is still under investigation and officers raiding the property where he was found are said to have discovered Class B drugs.
Sergeant Nathan Perry, of Wiltshire Police, said: “We all know about County Lines and the risks associated with that. The difficulty with this type of drugs operation is that it’s specifically targeting very young children in order to get them to deal drugs.
“Some of the information we’ve been passed is that children are not only being coerced into this activity, but they’re also being physically threatened. If they go to police or teachers they’ll be harmed.” Police are increasingly using modern slavery laws to target drug dealers so they are seen as “child abusers, not gangsters” in prison.
Sgt Perry said drug dealers who force children to sell deadly substances could face 15 years behind bars.
“You’ve got children being exploited and young kids being forced to run the drugs. The sheer nature of the exploitation of these young people is unacceptable. If we don’t do something to stop that, they’re potentially going to be at risk for the rest of their lives.
“Unfortunately, those children that are at risk now become the suspects of tomorrow and we lose them completely.
“They need that positive engagement and we’re not going to be able to do that until we remove their handlers, for want of a better word.”
Police chiefs say children being exploited by gangs could be spotted because they become more withdrawn, secretive about their possessions, and acquire cash and clothes quickly.
Emma Leigh-Bennett, head teacher of Kingsdown, said: “Safeguarding children is our number one priority and as a school we have invested and continue to invest an incredible amount of time and resources, in particular training and software, to ensure that our safeguarding processes, procedures and systems keep our children, our staff and our families safe.”
A report by the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield in February warned that nationwide as many as 27,000 children identify themselves as gang members.
Gang leaders recruit them because they are far less likely to attract attention from police or to be sentenced to jail if they are caught.
Ms Longfield said: “The criminal gangs operating in England are complex and ruthless organisations, using sophisticated techniques to groom children, and chilling levels of violence to keep them compliant.
“It is too easy for them to succeed. Thousands of children in towns and cities across England are at risk and the same attention must be paid to protecting them as to other major threats to children.”