As long as I can remember, I have worked on sexual harassment and assault cases across the child protection teams, since qualifying as a social worker in 1996. Cases involved siblings, family friends, relatives and their peer groups.
Dr Carlene Firmin stated in her research in Contextual Safeguarding and peer-on-peer abuse in 2017 that “secondary schools were a recruitment ground for child sexual exploitation”. The NSPCC has been telling us since 2013 that child on child abuse is happening and is on the increase.
These issues have been cast firmly into the spotlight in recent weeks as young women have told their stories of sexual harassment and abuse by peers on the Everyone’s Invited website – with many schools implicated. It is therefore a good time to touch upon what the law says and how schools might help prevent abuse from happening, or detect it taking place.
It can happen at home, online, in the community, on public transport, after school activities, sports clubs, arts, faith groups and any other setting. The person causing harm is usually known to the child in the role as a relative, family friend, peer, online friend etc. They do not necessarily have to be the opposite sex to the child or even the same age. This person can be a child, young or mature adult.
“We are living in an era where harmful sexual behaviour can sometimes be mistaken as ‘banter’.”
So, is this a new dilemma? Clearly not but one could argue we are living in an era where harmful sexual behaviour can sometimes be mistaken as “banter”. It could be a child exploring their sexuality, curiosity, a behaviour shown when you are attracted to another, or intentional sexual assault.
In this context, a definition of sexual assault is when a person is coerced physically to engage against their will, or when a person, male or female, touches another person sexually without their consent. The Crown Prosecution Service defines touching as done with any part of the body or with an object.
What does this mean for schools?
We need to accept that there are children and young adults in our setting who, given the opportunity, will display harmful sexual behaviours to another child. Unfortunately, some may know exactly how to manipulate the people around them and the person they intend to harm. They often befriend the person and slowly encroach on their personal space, eventually getting closer.
The behaviour or assault can be disguised as a good gesture. A power imbalance presents between them, hence the harmed child remains silent and often left feeling awkward. The urge to tell someone battles with the thought: “But I know them and don’t want them to get into trouble with school or the police.”
“Parents, pupils, teachers, and governance all need to work in partnership to create a culture of reporting and transparency.”
There are some pupils who will be easy targets because they find it difficult to express themselves or may have low self-esteem. Some will confuse inappropriate behaviour as a sign that a person finds them attractive and wants a relationship with them.
Educating children about these behaviours and creating discreet opportunities in reporting is key. Staff need training to spot the signs and also pick up in-class and in-school behaviours which may indicate a child has been subject to harm.
Parents, pupils, teachers, and governance all need to work in partnership to create a culture of reporting and transparency. Research suggests that children don’t like to “snitch” so we must start to educate them from as young as three about consent, boundaries and respect.
“We need to be able to ‘think the unthinkable’ and take a ‘it could happen here’ approach.”
I strongly recommend the e2e publishing website, provided by Jayneen Saunders, an Australian author who has written fantastic books helping to educate children on this important topic. Her website has several free resources and great books which teach about safeguarding.
We need to use resources and create a bystander approach. I was in a school setting recently where they had a whole school approach to this. They called it the “TAG” model.
- Tell the person they are upsetting you, doing something you don’t like or want done
- Ask them to stop
- Get help from a trusted adult or person
I extended this to the RAG model:
- Recognise someone else is the subject of harm
- Ask them if they are OK and ask the person to stop it
- Get help from a trusted adult or person
We need to be able to “think the unthinkable” and take a “it could happen here” approach. The DfE, in Keeping Children Safe in Education, has been telling us for a few years that schools need to think like this.
We must remember boys too. Boys are also harmed by boys and girls. Society gives them mixed messages about them having sexual activities with boys. They may question their sexuality and for some this may be challenging as instead of asking whether they have experienced child abuse, they query the same sex aspect.
Society is anti-gay and we must understand the additional challenges some children may face if they have been subject to sexual harm. They may be subject to homophobia, come from religious families where talk of sexual activity can be taboo or have special needs. Those with English as additional language may not have an understanding of peer expectations and not realise these behaviours are not acceptable and harmful.
Some notes on good practice:
- Involve the children in an anonymous consultation about harmful behaviours and their safety in the school
- Involve the governing body in a strategic approach in supporting senior leadership
- Revise all safeguarding policies in line with current government guidance 2021 here and here
- Nominate a designated safeguarding lead to ensure all staff have had relevant training to spot the signs of peer on peer harmful sexual behaviour
- Teach empathy through the curriculum