When should you call the police?

Teachers call POLICE on enterprising primary schoolboy, nine, selling air fresheners to boost his pocket money

The mother of a nine-year-old boy who sold air fresheners to boost his pocket money has revealed his teachers called the police on him. Alicia McHale, from Gorton, east Manchester, said she was shocked when two officers were sent round looking for Donnan. She blasted Sacred Heart Primary School for leaving her upset and embarrassed and said the authorities did not need to have been involved.’

Source: Daily Mail 18 January 2021

‘Teachers ‘struggle to deal with classroom sexual abuse’

‘It was during the summertime and we were practising for PE, and then I’m sitting there with my friends and then there’s this group of boys next to us. And then I just feel a hand on my back, forcing me onto the floor and then this boy starts grinding on me, and I think during that moment – I just completely froze. And then I look up at my teacher and then he looks at me and then he looks away. I just felt so alone in that moment. Part of me felt like it was my fault because of other people’s responses. I remember telling myself just to stay strong and just wait until I got home to cry.’

Source: BBC Published 25 May 2021

Many of the professionals I work with have asked me about their responsibilities regarding contacting the police in regard to safeguarding children. I have also encountered research that makes clear that schools respond very differently when deciding to contact the police in response to serious incidents (in this case, the focus was knife crime):

’…School leaders have very different approaches to involving the police in incidents of knife-carrying. The approach varied widely… Some school leaders had a strong ethos against criminalising children, or calling the police, in response to a child bringing a bladed article into school. Others were firmly of the opinion that it is an offence and should be treated as such. But within these two approaches was a vast grey area in which school leaders made decisions, knew other leaders made decisions or said that they would potentially make decisions about contacting the police based on a variety of factors.’

Safeguarding children and young people in education from knife crime Lessons from London, Ofsted 2019

But of course, it isn’t just about knife crime or solely about schools where the questions of consistency arise. A whole range of settings that work with children encounter similar dilemmas. When an incident takes place, on the one hand, there is a fear of criminalising children and/or escalating a situation that could well be managed by the organisation (such as nine-year-olds selling air fresheners). On the other, there is a desire to treat a crime as a crime, to protect victims and to teach perpetrators the real implications of their action. Many of the mistakes highlighted last year made in regard to peer abuse relates to professionals diminishing the harm from serious sexual violence and sexual harassment as the testimony from the survivor describes above.

So, when exactly do should we contact the police?

Statutory guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) 2021 says:

‘342. Where the school or college identify a child has been harmed, that there may be an immediate risk of harm to a child or if the situation is an emergency, they should contact children’s social care and as appropriate the police immediately.’

What exactly does ‘as appropriate’ mean?

You should always contact the police in an emergency if: there is a danger to life or risk of serious injury, or a serious crime is in progress or about to happen. Any member of staff witnessing such an incident should be empowered to dial 999 as they will be able to give the most accurate account of the incident. There is also a specific legal duty on teachers to report Female Genital Mutilation to the police. But other serious matters are very much left to professional judgement.

To clarify, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) have created non-statutory guidance – ‘When to call the police’ – that has been embedded in KCSIE and is written for all school and college staff (and serves as a guide to other members of the children’s workforce). Both documents state clearly that concerns about a child’s welfare, where a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer from harm, should be made to children’s social care with reference to the local threshold document. A call to police should never replace a child protection referral or indeed a request for Early Help. Social care referrals may result in the police being informed anyway. Effective policies on behaviour and children’s conduct are also key in every setting, and there may well be no need to call on the intervention of any external agency at all. Yet there are still occasions when police involvement is absolutely vital and they are a key service we are called to work in partnership with to protect children from harm.

The NPCC document sets out a number typical situations that schools and colleges may encounter where students may have potentially committed a crime and provides guidance on what they should bear in mind when considering contacting the police. If settings take this advice, their decision may be regarded as ‘defensible’ and not arbitrary or vulnerable to criticism. It includes detailed advice on management of these type of incidents:

• Assault

• Criminal damage

• Cyber crime

• Drugs

• Harassment

• Sexual offences

• Theft

• Weapons

Rather than dissect each type of issue, it is useful to think about underlying themes that they all have in common.

Things to remember when considering calling the police:

Leadership: The Designated Safeguarding Lead leads the response, with the Headteacher being informed of any possible arrests.

Deciding early: Ideally the decision as to whether to deal with an incident internally or pass it over to the police needs to be made at the initial stage, by gathering only enough information to establish the facts of the case. The police are better placed to gather more detail, interview victims, and to allow more informed decisions to be made.

Making the judgement to contact the police: A judgement must be made about the seriousness of the seriousness of the incident by assessing the following:

  • the level of harm or risk of harm
  • the circumstances leading to the incident
  • the wider context
  • the pattern of behaviour also occurring in the community
  • any aggravating factors that increase the level of risk or the need for a wider investigation or the need for other agencies as well as the police to be involved. Typical aggravating factors include: power imbalances, previous incidents of a similar nature, escalating behaviour, impact on the victim, hate elements*, gang-related, weapons used, damaging or stealing goods of high value, threats or violence, victims vulnerabilities**, victims wishes, level of disruption, ideological motivation, age of students*** and online elements.
  •  the needs of the students involved balanced with the needs of other students
  • Support for children: Both the victim and the perpetrator will have to be supported – indeed, it may be difficult to discern which is which initially. Support should include consideration for what is happening in children’s lives that may be contributing to their behaviour.
  • Recording: All concerns, discussions and decisions made, and the reasons for those decisions, should be recorded in writing – this includes the rationale for involving the police.
  • Police procedure: Where a crime is reported to the police, it will be recorded as a crime and an investigation will commence. Any arrests should be made as discretely as possible and not carried out on school grounds unless absolutely necessary.


*Hate elements include: hate incidents and hate crime. Note: an incident is considered a hate incident when the victim or anyone else believes that the incident was motivated by hostility or prejudice based on someone’s protected characteristics. A hate incident becomes a hate crime when it is regarded as a criminal offence by police. Protected characteristics are: disability, race, religion, transgender identity, sexual orientation.

**Victims vulnerabilities include: Neurodiversity including Autistic Spectrum Disorder, mental health concerns, living in a chaotic or dysfunctional household or one in which their skills are not likely to be fostered at home, In a household with inappropriate ideological influences, gang or organised crime group associations, socially isolated

***Age: Whilst the age of criminal responsibility is ten, if the alleged perpetrator of a crime is under ten, it may still be necessary to involve the police, but they will take a welfare approach in these cases rather than a criminal justice approach.