Safeguarding against child on child sexual violence

“I want to die.” Rob and Claire Johnson’s daughter was screaming, hysterical and inconsolable. Ten-year-old Emily told them a boy at school had slapped her, hard, across the face: “I want to die. Nobody believes me. He’s hitting me and nobody believes me.”  

“We didn’t know what to do,” Rob tells me, his voice echoing the helplessness and frustration he felt. “Hearing her say those words – what parent wants to hear that from their 10-year-old daughter?” 

When Claire tried to speak to the school about the incident, they quickly dismissed it as “a misunderstanding”, telling her: “Everyone’s happy now.”  

But Emily was far from happy. Over the subsequent two weeks, she gradually opened up to her parents with the help of her GP. Slowly, she described how the boy in question had sexually harassed and assaulted her over the past 10 months. It emerged that another child had made a detailed report to the school after witnessing the boy intimidating and assaulting Emily. The classmate had told staff it happened in a corner of the playground known as the “sex corner”, where the boy had forced Emily against a wall, pinning her hands on either side of her as he gyrated and rubbed his body against hers. Emily closed her eyes and started crying

‘Are we ignoring an epidemic of sexual violence in schools?’ – The Guardian, Tue 12 Dec 2017 .  

In recent years, safeguarding children has recognised the increasing incidence of sexual violence of children towards their peers. According to BBC research published a few years ago, 5,500 sexual offences were reported to police as having taken place in UK schools over a three-year period to July 2015, including 600 rapes. The research also found that too often staff seem ill-equipped or unwilling to deal with the problem. 

Sexual violence and sexual harassment can occur between two children of any age and sex. It can also occur through a group of children sexually assaulting or sexually harassing a single child or group of children. Children who are victims of sexual violence and sexual harassment will likely find the experience stressful and distressing. Sexual violence and sexual harassment exist on a continuum and may overlap, they can occur online and offline (both physically and verbally) and are never acceptable. It is important that all victims are taken seriously and offered appropriate support.

Reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment are extremely complex to manage. It is essential that victims are protected, offered appropriate support and every effort is made to ensure their education is not disrupted. It is also important that other children, adult students and school and college staff are supported and protected as appropriate. Whilst any report of sexual violence or sexual harassment should be taken seriously, staff should be aware it is more likely that girls will be the victims of sexual violence and sexual harassment, and more likely it will be perpetrated by boys. In law, a child under the age of 13 can never consent to any sexual activity.  

In the light of increasing concerns about sexual violence committed by children, the statutory guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education (2019), Section 5, now contains detailed information on how settings should manage Child on Child Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. Essential advice for every member of the children’s workforce on managing child on child sexual violence set out in the guidance says that: 

  • the starting point regarding any report should always be that sexual violence and sexual harassment is not acceptable and will not be tolerated – it’s especially important to not pass off any sexual violence or sexual harassment as ‘banter’, ‘part of growing up’ or ‘having a laugh’. 
  • all victims should be reassured that they are being taken seriously and that they will be supported and kept safe – victims should never be given the impression that they are creating a problem by reporting, nor should a victim ever be made to feel ashamed for making a report.  
  • all staff should be trained to manage a disclosure of child on child sexual violence, including making accurate reports.
  • where the report includes an online element, being aware of searching, screening and confiscation advice (for schools) and advice on sexting – the key consideration is for staff not to view or forward illegal images of a child.
  • the designated safeguarding lead should make an immediate risk and needs assessment on a case-by-case basis, considering: the victim, especially their protection and support; the alleged perpetrator; and all the other children (and, if appropriate, adult students and staff).  
  • the designated safeguarding lead should then ensure they are engaging with children’s social care and specialist services as required.  

The supporting guidance, Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Between Children in Schools and Colleges was first published in 2017 (most recent version 2018). This important contains information what sexual violence and sexual harassment look like; important context to be aware of; related legal responsibilities for schools and colleges; and advice on a whole school or college approach to preventing child on child sexual violence and sexual harassment. 

New guidance

Most recently the Metropolitan Police have produced new guidance for schools and colleges to help them safeguard children from sexual violence, child sexual exploitation and other harmful practices. Entitled Safeguarding children from sexual violence, child sexual exploitation and harmful practices’, the aim of this document is to assist safeguarding leaders to understand the range of harms, including the reporting of criminal offences.

The guidance aims to improve the identification of vulnerability and enhance information sharing to improve the safeguarding response children receive. The guidance contains useful information on a variety of concerns and, in particular, a schools charter to encourage the delivery of high quality, safeguarding focused inputs on harmful practices across all schools and colleges. The charter outlines the key principles that all schools and colleges should follow when delivering lessons or awareness sessions to their pupils, and the procedures which should be followed if a disclosure is made. You can download the schools’ Charter on Ending Harmful Practices here.

As Matt Miller MBE, former police officer and National Leader of Governance Advocate, says in the foreword‘Safeguarding is never far from our thoughts whether we are paid professionals working in schools and colleges, or serving there as volunteers, like governors. It is not simply enough to provide a safe learning environment; we must also consider the risks that extend beyond the school gate and after the school bell. We must be vigilant to the signs and indicators which suggest a pupil might be at risk of radicalisation, or child sexual exploitation, or modern-day slavery, or female genital mutilation, or forced marriage or witchcraft. The list seems endless, but above all, we must never take our eye off the ball.’

Other useful news and information this issue:  

  • This month Childline has launched Report Remove, a service that allows children and young people under 18 to report and get removed from the internet a nude image or video of themselves that might have been shared online. The webpage includes links to services and information offering emotional and safeguarding support. Visit the Childline website: Report a nude image online
  • In February NSPCC Learning published a series of podcasts on harmful sexual behaviour (HSB). This podcast focuses on prevention as well as how schools manage and respond to incidents of HSB once they’ve happened. Listen to the podcasts: Harmful sexual behaviour in schools , Assessing sexualised behaviour , Preventing harmful sexual behaviour 
  • In February the Department for Education (DfElaunched their consultation on proposed revisions to the Keeping children safe in education which will includes the Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges advice, which sets out what governing bodies and proprietors should be doing to ensure reports of child-on-child sexual violence and sexual harassment are managed appropriately. The consultation closes on 21 April 2020: Keeping children safe in education: proposed revisions 2020.