Tackling Sexual Abuse and Harassment in Schools - Creating a Safer Culture

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the issue of Peer-on-Peer Abuse in schools and colleges is more prevalent than ever.

A wave of disclosures and testimonies on the anonymous website Everyone’s Invited has revealed a culture of secrecy within some schools, which directly contrasts the safeguarding best practice education organisations should be following to protect their students. In light of the media coverage and disclosures of Peer-on-Peer Abuse, it is clear that now more than ever school staff are in need of support and guidance to not only handle but effectively intervene and prevent incidents like this from happening in the future. There is also a strong call to action that schools need to do more to ensure that all students have a thorough understanding of consent, online bullying and peer-on-peer abuse.

At the recent Keeping Children and Young People Safe Online: Preventing Threats, Ensuring Protection event, Mike Glanville, Chief Safeguarding Officer of safeguarding software solution MyConcern, spoke in conversation with Luke Ramsden, Senior Safeguarding Lead at St Benedict’s School in Ealing.

St Benedict’s, an independent school with 1080 pupils aged between 3-18, have been using MyConcern safeguarding software for five years to record safeguarding concerns and support student wellbeing.

Luke and Mike discussed Peer-on-Peer Abuse and the influences and consequences of social media and online behaviour, as well as how schools can best support their students. Here we look at some of the key points of their discussion.

What do schools need to be doing right now given the Ofsted review? Many schools may be concerned that they will be getting a visit, so they need to be inspection ready.

Recent events and media coverage have brought to light the issue and scale of peer-on-peer abuse in schools and colleges. There may be confusion at the sudden outpour of disclosures of sexual abuse and harassment and shock at the testimonies that we are seeing; however, this is a subject that people in the safeguarding world have been saying is a problem for years now. In 2016 there was the Women and Equalities Committee review, which raised these same issues regarding peer-on-peer abuse in schools and education.

Legislations for schools state that it is of vital importance that we understand the significant dangers for children, not just the dangers of sexual abuse from adults, but peer-on-peer sexual abuse and harassment as well. It is important that schools ensure that every member of staff understands that safeguarding is everybody’s responsibility. The key thing schools need to do is not review their policies, but their practice, ensuring all members of staff understand their safeguarding responsibilities.

Sexual Violence and Sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges have 2 points that schools should examine and ensure that every member of staff understands.

  1. Harmful sexual behaviour including harassment should be considered in a child protection context and responses should be like any other safeguarding case.
  2. The basic safeguarding principle is if a child is at risk of harm, is in immediate danger or has been harmed a referral should be made.

Schools are not operating in a vacuum; we are operating in a whole safeguarding framework. Safeguarding leads should also reach out to organisations that offer safeguarding advice if they need support for a concern or discloser.

Some schools may be thinking of doing their own internal review. What practical advice do you have for schools that are thinking of doing so, or have already started that process?

It is all about transparency and honesty. Whenever schools are approaching an inspection or a review, it is important to understand where the problems have been. It is not a witch hunt or an opportunity to apportion blame. It is vital to discuss occasions when an incident has occurred and the benefits of having good procedures in place for any safeguarding issues.

It is also vital that schools have a recording system and can look back over their records to examine how they dealt with previous issues: what worked and did not work, what procedures were altered, or policies changed. If schools are unsure how a concern was dealt with in the past, then it might be time to investigate a safeguarding solution, such as MyConcern®, to ensure they are able to track future concerns, have paper trails and the ability to clearly report what has happened, the processes that they have gone through and the method of how they look after their students.

There is a lot of guidance out there already for peer-on-peer abuse, so how do we explain why children and still unwilling to report their concerns?

This is where the difference between the safeguarding policy and the safeguarding practice comes into play. Children and young people may not want to report incidents for several reasons. Often when a young person is been sent an image of a sexual nature or images of themselves are being shared online there is difficulty in disclosing because they might be embarrassed, or they might know the person sharing images of them. It could be someone with who they are in a romantic relationship with, and while they are not happy with the images being shared, they do not want that person to get into trouble.

Schools have to offer as many avenues as possible to help children and young people feel comfortable to disclose, some schools have social workers or counsellors on-site for a set number of hours per week so students can approach adults who are not teaching staff. There is also the opportunity to use technology to aid students, as most students live in a digital world and may feel more comfortable disclosing an issue anonymously online, as we have seen with the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited.

Educating students on issues of bullying and consent is also an important step that schools can take to tackle peer-on-peer abuse. While many students can recall an occurrence when they have been bullied online or someone has left a comment that has hurt their feelings, many are not as quick to recognize when they themselves have done this to one of their peers. Schools have the opportunity to make big changes by having conversations around consent, bullying, online bullying and peer-on-peer abuse with their students.

When an allegation is made it can be complex and challenging for staff to respond. In your experience, what do safeguarding leads need to consider when faced with a serious allegation?

A good, if rather stark, analogy to use here is a famous quote about boxing - everybody has a plan until someone gets punched in the face. For safeguarding leads, you have the training and resources to handle any situation, yet you could still be blindsided by a serious concern. This is why the conversation around policy vs practice is so important. Schools need to recognise that they are a part of a broader safeguarding framework. The first thing a safeguarding lead should do when faced with a difficult allegation is to pick up a phone and contact social services or the LADO for assistance and guidance. You have to be able to discuss the problem, get an external view and look at solutions.

From these peer-on-peer abuse allegations, it is obvious there is a culture of secrecy within some schools. The need to protect a reputation and make sure knowledge of concerns such as these do not get out as it could damage the school’s reputation. If this culture ended, then the safeguarding in schools would be vastly better. There needs to be a change in direction and a whole-school approach to safeguarding and building trust and confidence within the school.

How do schools create a safer culture for their students?

It goes back to training. The first thing any new members of staff should be doing is safeguarding training. It is critical that they do not leave the room without understanding that safeguarding is a responsibility shared by every single member of the organisation. Once everyone is on the same page, then you are a step closer to creating a safer environment for students. Mentor offers a range of CPD accredited safeguarding training courses that will provide you with the practical knowledge and skills to confidently carry out your role whether that is as a safeguarding lead, a member of teaching staff, a support member of staff or someone in a leadership role including school governance.

What do you think the future holds?

There is an increase of people calling for mandatory reporting so that when safeguarding issues arise, is it a legal requirement to pass it on and review the concerns. It would be beneficial if all schools took the approach that reporting concerns is not just part of a policy that is good to do, but necessary when there are online or in-person safeguarding issues. Mandatory reporting could give schools the push to create a safer culture and environment for their students.

KCSIE 2021 Guidance: Updates to Peer-on-Peer Abuse

On September 1st 2021 Keeping Children Safe in Education released a new version of the statutory guidance.  The guidance sets out the legal duties an establishment must follow to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people under the age of 18 in schools and colleges. It includes several mentions of Peer-on-Peer Abuse including the following:

Part 2: The Management of Safeguarding

Peer-on-Peer Abuse

Schools and colleges child protection policies need to have:

  • a statement which makes clear there should be a zero-tolerance approach to abuse, and it should never be passed off as “banter”, “just having a laugh”, “part of growing up” or “boys being boys” as this can lead to a culture of unacceptable behaviours and an unsafe environment for children
  • a system that allows children to report concerns
  • a recognition that even if there are no reported cases of peer on peer abuse, such abuse may still be taking place and is simply not being reported

Part 5: Child on Child Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment 

Responding to a Report

An additional paragraph has been added about how hard children find it to verbalise their abuse so staff must be able to know and notice signs and behaviours that might indicate abuse.

Managing a Report

Importance of regular reviews to identify patterns of inappropriate behaviour. An additional paragraph highlighting the importance of looking for patterns of concerns regularly.

Unsubstantiated, Unfounded, False or Malicious Reports

Investigate why a malicious allegation has been made and see if that child/family are in need of additional support.

Safeguarding and Supporting the Victim

The needs and wishes of the victim are paramount and it is important to understand that the victim will likely need more support after a sexual assault, such as; physical, mental, sexual problems and unwanted pregnancy. Staff need to be aware of this.

Safeguarding and Supporting Children and Young People who have Displayed Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Additional links have been made for more resources to support school staff deal with and manage harmful sexual behaviour.

Read More about the KCSIE 2021 updates HERE

Posted Date

27th April 2021

Mike Glanville
Luke Ramsden
Safeguarding Lead and Deputy Headteacher

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