The impact organised drugs gangs have on their young and vulnerable victims has been captured in a series of powerful short films created by University of Sunderland students who are shining a spotlight on county lines crime.

Northumbria Police and SARC (Sexual Assault Referral Centre) were looking at ways to raise awareness and support victims of county lines, a term used to describe criminal gangs who recruit children and vulnerable adults to move drugs, money and weapons for them from cities to more rural locations, which has increased dramatically in recent years.

The National Crime Agency says county lines has fuelled an 807% increase in the number of child victims of modern slavery since 2014. Meanwhile, the Children’s Commissioner estimated that “27,000 children in England identify as a gang member, only a fraction of whom are known to children’s services”.

This is the seventh year Sunderland students have been part-funded by the Police Crime Commissioner’s community fund, to collaborate with Northumbria Police in raising awareness about an issue impacting on society. Other successful projects have addressed issues such as male rape, modern-day slavery, the capacity to consent, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, and cyber-crime.

This year’s theme has proved a timely assignment for final-year students from the Performing Arts , Media Production and Screen Performance degree courses, with the Prime Minister pledging last week that county lines gangs will be “totally wound up”.

The students researched, scripted, devised, filmed and edited all five films themselves. Their work was showcased during an awards ceremony at the David Puttnam Media Centre, Sir Tom Cowie Campus, at St Peter’s last night (January 23). The winning entry – ‘The Lines’, follows the journey of a young girl who has been working in county lines for some time, and the scenarios she must face in navigating this dark world.

Adelle Hulsmeier, Lecturer in Drama and Performing Arts at the University of Sunderland, said: “It is amazing that this project has been running for seven successful years, and testimony to this success is the fact that in 2019 we won a national Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE Award). The topic again has not been easy and the students have tackled it incredibly well, we are so proud.”

The brief was to capture the impact of county lines crime, alongside serious youth violence and sexually driven related offences. The students then devised a piece of drama suitable for use as an awareness DVD in order to be used as an educational or training tool for the police and specialists, and to promote awareness of this issue further afield.

Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuinness, whose Community Fund has helped fund the project.

Kim said: “County lines is a growing problem across the country and in Northumbria we want to get ahead of it – reaching the right young people, who are perhaps showing signs of vulnerability, and stopping them getting swept up into a world of criminality. For me, education is key to prevention, and these films do a fantastic job at showcasing the warning signs and highlighting the deception, intimidation and violence involved. The students have produced some brilliant films for raising awareness and highlighting the help and support available.”

There was input into the films from Michelle Sheridan, manager at SARC and Collette Devlin-Smith at Edge North East, which tackles serious youth violence and child criminal exploitation, training and mentoring. This meant the students have had lots of different voices to inform their work and highlight the issues.

Adelle said “The issue of county lines appears to be at the forefront of new crime, that everyone is trying to gain a better understanding of, in terms of its scale and impact. Hopefully we are offering a great resource for training and educational purposes for Northumbria Police, SARC, Edge North East and their partners.

“This year it has also been interesting to see that it is not always clear who the victim and who the criminal is in situations of this nature, and that has been important to tackle in the films. We are so grateful to have Michelle Sheridan and Collette Devlin-Smith helping the students with their projects, and are incredibly happy, yet again, with the outcomes of this year’s work.

“It has been great to work with Northumbria Police for the seventh year. The Commissioner’s funding has meant the students have been able to deliver high-quality films.”

SARC manager Michelle Sheridan said: “The underpinning ethos to all of this work from the outset and continues to be that of: educate people in order to prevent such crimes.

“This work came about as an innovative piece of work that Adelle and myself have developed over the years. We looked for a way to bring awareness to students around the first year’s theme of rape and capacity to consent. We also wanted to educate students and this work brings about a unique and exceptional opportunity to do everything we initially wanted and led onto many more positive outcomes.

“The partnership and working relationships we have developed are now very strong and we all work exceptionally well together. This can be seen so clearly in the amazing productions that are created year on year.”

Collette Devlin-Smith said: “We are extremely passionate about the work we do and the students have provided us with a resource we can use not only with the young people we are working with, but also for ourselves and our partners to use to educate and raise awareness of this very emerging dangerous threat to young people.

“We would like to wish these students all the best for their future careers after university.”

All five entries were judged by a panel from Northumbria Police and the winner was unveiled during a ceremony attended by the Vice Chancellor, Sir David Bell and Assistant Chief Constable, Rachel Bacon. There was also a guest appearance by North East Hip-hop rapper, Kay Greyson.